Glass in architecture once represented transparency. In today’s hyper-gentrified London, it means the opposite

Walls of glass: the City of London. Image: Getty.

Stand on London Bridge on a sunny day and look east. You’ll see the towers of Canary Wharf glistening in the distance, the Shard looming to your right slicing into the sky, and the bloated curves of the Walkie Talkie shimmering like a newly blown glass vase. 

Walk further west along the South bank, and you’ll come across the ‘South Bank tower cluster’, with its centrepiece One Blackfriars jutting its chest out ostentatiously over the river. Further still, and you’ll reach Nine Elms, the biggest building site in the city. Scores of towers are flashing into the sky and construction has begun on the remarkably opulent ‘sky pool’, a 25m long, glass-bottomed swimming pool that hangs 10 storeys up.

These towers represent the most visible beacons of London’s continued development. They contain the moneymaking corporate machines that swell the city’s coffers but fuel the city’s rampant housing crisis, and the unaffordable luxury flats that are the symptom of the city’s hyper-gentrification.

Yet there is another aspect to their representation that often goes under-recorded in the hyperbole around London’s gentrification problem – namely, their most visible constituent material, glass.

In 1921, Ludwig Mies Van der Rhoe designed the now seminal Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper. While it was never built, it is credited as shattering architectural tradition by envisioning buildings that could support entire glass facades, based on a having a then-revolutionary supporting steel skeleton. Mies’ designs encouraged “fluid space”: the connection of the exterior and interior of buildings, bringing nature and light into the home or office.

By Mies van de Rohe 1921. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Later, in 1958, the ‘float glass’ production method meant much larger sheets of glass could be produced: that facilitating its shift from a decorative material, to one that was fundamental to a building’s construction.

Since then, glass has become one of the most used materials in building construction. In the UK, over 1m tonnes are used every year, it is 100 per cent recyclable, and it can reduce the carbon emissions of buildings by allowing for more efficient temperature regulation.

Because of its environmentally friendly qualities, many cities’ skylines are filled with acres and acres of glass. But in addition, building upon Mies’ original philosophies, it is a material most often associated with transparency, letting in light and allowing inhabitants to see and interact with the city around them. Glass is now so often the architects’ go-to material for modern, ‘homely’ construction, with its transparency and interactive materiality posited in contrast to the harsh, imposing, opaque and brutal forms of concrete.


Yet today, the glass towers of the City and the new-build luxury skyscrapers of the South Bank – and many more like them – are private citadels of the super-rich, imposing a harsh and brutal reality of evictions, displacements and estate demolition. And the concrete modernist housing blocks that they are replacing are fast becoming kitsch totems of a now-distant social housing dream that offered an ethics of commonality, social life and public space – the very characteristics that glass ‘yuppidromes’ so spectacularly fail to deliver.

The recent development of Elephant Park on the footprint of the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle is perhaps the most vivid reminder of this process. In addition, the jewel in the Nine Elms crown is the new US embassy that opened in January this year, supposedly the most secure building in the city. What material have they used to convey such heightened levels of opacity, security and ossifying national borders? Glass.

So while glass-fronted buildings offer glimpses into a private, secure and/or corporate world, these worlds are distant mirages. They are hyperreal.

Take one example: the Shard in London, itself covered in 56,000m2 of glass. It may allow the gawker to see inside and the inhabitant to gaze outside upon London’s skyline – but the glistening façade alludes to far-flung, hyper-mobile, international capitalist relations from Qatar that are opaque, and distance the building from the citizens below struggling to find housing. It’s distance so extreme, that the Qatari owners sought to defenestrate any protests as far from the building as possible.

The gaze from inside the Shard is afforded to those with enough capital and power to be able to inhabit the space permanently, or to visitors who have paid (a not insubstantial) entrance fee to obtain the picture postcard view. In both cases, the inhabitants of the building have had to decouple themselves from public space, to enter the privatised place of financialised urban spectacle.

And so, glass as a building’s surface, far from blurring the public-private spatial divide and (re)democratising urban space actually erects further divisions between the private, commercialised and financialised spaces of the contemporary city, and the public, democratic and contested places of urban citizenry. It offers a window into a private pastiche world that is visible, yet very distant from the public and agonistic commons.

The same accusation could be levelled at City Hall. According to the architects, the ‘glass egg’ “expresses the transparency and accessibility of the democratic process”. However, it is situated on private land, where protest – one of the most critical democratic process there is – is strictly forbidden.

The materials that are used in urban construction are vital in how citizens interact with them. Glass, once a material of fluidity, transparency and openness has come to symbolise the extreme inequality blighting so many of the world’s greatest cities. It was Ruth Glass who coined the term gentrification in 1964: little did she realise how aptronymic her name would be…

Oli Mould is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway. This article first appeared on his blog.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.