London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

“Journeys through Urban Britain” at the British Library.

The British Library, London, ph. credits Wikipedia

“Journeys through Urban Britain” at the British Library.

Isabelle Koksal – 26th July 2012

“The picture they painted of British cities today … was indeed bleak”

I attended a brilliant talk at the British Library called “Journeys through Urban Britain”, chaired by Elaine Glaser, featuring Owen Hatherley, Laura Oldfield-Ford, and Owen Jones discussing the politics of our urban landscape. My terrible memory and my note taking on a scrap of paper doesn’t really do justice to the discussion – but I thought it might be worth throwing out some of the points that were made.

Hatherley and Oldfield-Ford both reflected on their wanderings, observations, and experiences of London and further afield, whilst Jones was on hand with statistics and a historical context with which to situate the changes in British cities. The picture they painted of British cities today, which are descriptive of the politics, was indeed bleak as more and more boundaries are erected, public space lost, and people forced out of their areas but there have been moments of hope, especially in the last couple of years. The speakers described the student movements, Occupy, and the ‘euphoria’ of the riots as examples of ways in which cities can be lived in and created differently.

Here are some interesting things that I learnt.

“There are too many people baking cupcakes” said Oldfield-Ford. Cupcakes are the apotheosis of neoliberalism right? They promote individualism with the emphasis on everyone having to have their own tiny, perfect little cake rather than people enjoying slices from a big cake. You just can’t share a cupcake as they are the size of one mouthful. Communal cake eating and enjoyment is destroyed by cupcakes as people become preoccupied with having the daintiest, fanciest cupcake they can get to outdo everyone else’s. They’re also slightly creepy as they seem to hark back to and celebrate women’s incarceration in the kitchen in the 1950s in the name of ‘retro’.

The opening song for the Shard was “fanfare for the common man”.

Owen Jones illustrated the inequality that is built into the Strata tower, in which there are separate lifts for social housing tenants at the bottom of the tower (so they don’t get the good views) and the rest of the tenants, reflects our unequal society.

The drift “an important strategy to see how flows of the city have been re-ordered – to see how we can re-configure the urban space”, said Laura Oldfield-Ford.

According to Owen Hatherley, walking around cities allows you to “see political processes at work…cracks are really obvious in British cities and that’s what my work brings out”. What do the Tories want? “It’s a project of destruction rather than construction”. Coin Street, a community trust housing development, is often held up (by the left?) as an example of how housing could be done, however, Hatherley points out that actually it’s not as pleasant as it seems. They have strict vetting process for who is allowed to enter their ‘community’.

Cities and work

Seeing cities as places other than places of work.

To do this – Owen Hatherley – need free time or a job that allows you to walk around the city.

The relationship between cities and work – ‘cities are giving us messages that we should work all the time, even when you’re relaxing having a coffee in Starbucks there’s a sign saying there is wi-fi’ – Elaine Glaser


Woolwich after the riots – there was a sign up saying ‘back to business’ as if to say “we won’t learn anything” said Owen Hatherley.

What does community mean? Laura Oldfield-Ford: “The broom brigade showed how nasty and vicious the word community can be”.

The future…?

Unison’s new building on the Euston Road has social housing around the back of it, Hatherley would like to see unions getting more involved in housing.

“I think when Westfield shopping centre is looted and burnt out, it would make a good social centre”, stated Laura Oldfield-Ford.


If these disjointed notes have piqued your interest – I reckon it would be well worth checking out their books (in Laura Oldfield-Ford ‘s talk, she showed us drawings from her book and they were fantastic!) from your local library before the government tries to close it!

Owen Hatherley is the author of the acclaimed ‘Militant Modernism, a defence of the modernist movement’, ‘A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’, and its follow up ‘A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain’. He writes regularly on the political aesthetics of architecture, urbanism and popular culture, including Building Design, Frieze, the Guardian and the New Statesman.

Owen Jones is a writer and columnist for the Independent, who’s first book ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ became one of the most discussed books of 2011, and has recently been updated to include the aftermath of the English riots.

Laura Oldfield Ford, artist and writer, has become well known for her politically active and poetic engagement with London. Part graphic novel, part artwork, her punk fanzine, now also in a book, ‘Savage Messiah’ records the beauty and anger at the city’s edges.

Elaine Glaser is a BBC producer and the author of Get Real: How to Tell it Like it is in a World of Illusions.

At the British Library, King’s Cross, Euston Road, London.

Journeys through Urban Britain” on Friday, 13th July 2012.


This entry was posted on July 28, 2012 by in Other Art Events, Reviews and tagged , , , , .


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