Douglas Murphy’s examination of former mayor Boris Johnson’s botched projects and Iain Sinclair’s London lament chart a battle for the city’s soul
Architectural follies may be absurd but they are rarely meaningless. In famine-era Ireland, absurdist structures – for example, Conolly’s Folly (1740) – were built by those facing malnutrition so they could earn charitable assistance. Even the private stone pineapples and faux obelisks erected by the landed gentry across the UK reveal more than indulgence. Beauty and utility are of secondary concern. These were and remain articulations of power.
Arriving at a time marked by both political turbulence and inertia, architecture critic Douglas Murphy’s Nincompoopolis (Repeater, 2017) and Iain Sinclair’s The Last London (Oneworld, 2017) are timely State of the Capital addresses. In contrast to Sinclair’s multi-directional roaming, Murphy focuses in on the calamitous legacy of Boris Johnson, through the vanity projects the former mayor left throughout the city. Murphy’s study is not a straightforward demolition job. It’s grounded by engaging self-effacing descriptions of signing on to the dole as a qualified architect, choosing the end carriages on the tube after the 7/7 bombings, ‘thinking the middle carriages were a more obvious target’, and watching the 2011 England riots take place outside his front door via live news footage. Murphy’s inside knowledge of the complexities of building and planning as well as his refreshing tendency to acknowledge Johnson’s successes as well as failures lend his more acerbic judgements credibility and impact.
Nevertheless Nincompoopolis is a litany of botched projects: the unintentionally-tropical ‘Roastmaster’ buses; Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, built for the 2012 London Olympics, which is like a nervous breakdown captured in architecture; plans for the insufferably-twee, now shelved, Garden Bridge and the mountain-less Emirates Air Line cable car, in defiance of ‘transport that people might actually need’. The particularly damning aspects remain the costs, unaccountability and pointlessness of these schemes. ‘A large source of investment […] would be encouraged to put money into a project for which there was no real need […] topped up by the public purse, without any significant oversight.’
One common denominator is of course Johnson: ‘a stuttering, self-deprecating, eccentric toff, willing to sit there looking impishly bemused as everyone roared in laughter at his apparent lack of comprehension.’ It’s easy to smirk at the man, his ludicrous comparisons (Johnson once described the impromptu collaboration between Anish Kapoor and Carsten Höller involved in the Orbit as ‘like Bernini adorning the work of Michelangelo’) and the preposterous yet baleful branding of the capital as ‘Dubai on Thames’, but the joke’s evidently on us. Johnson’s buffoonery is an effective and canny armour. Hence the clown prince seems poised to lead this country.
Bumbling and ‘quintessentially half-informed’, Johnson is a slippery target. Murphy reminds us our P.G. Wodehousian chum had little problem outsourcing the flagellation of austerity onto less financially-secure citizens, while controversially continuing to write a Telegraph column worth GBP£250,000 a year – a salary he referred to as ‘chicken feed’. Yet it’s clear the problem lies with no single individual, however opportunistic. Murphy convincingly alludes to a system of institutionalized cronyism and entitlement – the prevalence of private school and Oxbridge backgrounds that extends from the House of Commons to leading professions and institutions, which the Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission in 2014 described as being akin to ‘social engineering’.
London may be a 21st century metropolis but it is still set in a country where leadership largely depends on which private school you went to and what your father did for a living. Only in such a system could the likes of Eton-educated Johnson be portrayed as a scrappy underdog. The lack of relevant ideas and moral authority within the establishment seems a compelling argument for a largely-absent meritocracy.
The sorry tale is told here in spatial terms: yuppiedromes, housing shortages and empty towers for distant oligarchs; gentrification and social cleansing; beds in sheds and poor doors; heavy-handed police tactics of public demonstrations and the covert sale of public space; the demonization of council housing and the demolition of modernist estates. It is also told in human terms. Anything or anyone not offering the chance of profit is surplus to requirements; ‘no potential view, no possible opportunity for some kind of commercial “experience” is left unexploited.’ The Grenfell fire in June casts a terrible shadow back through a book that is a powerful analysis, lament and warning.
It’s understandable yet unnerving then that London’s foremost, if slightly reluctant, psychogeographer Iain Sinclair strikes such a pessimistic view of a city he has long loved in The Last London. He bemoans a place disconnected from the rest of England but also itself. ‘London was everywhere, but it had lost its soul’.
For a long time, I skirted around the heady hyper-literate rush of Sinclair’s books. It seemed inarguable that Sinclair was the most exhaustive observer of the ground-level London of his time, from the M25-charting London Orbital (2002) to Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2008), and yet that inarguable quality stirred up arguments within me. Swept along as a teenager, I soon found I was not reading but drowning. There was something intoxicating about the momentum and almost-lysergic maximalism of Sinclair’s writing. Part of what I felt was a kind of Oedipal impulse; recognizing that the style he had mastered was infectious but also belonged to him. Returning to Sinclair’s work, I realised how wrong I’d been. Rather than becoming submerged in esoteric speedfreak-esque Beat prose, the clarity and poetry of his work came to life when read slowly. Every sentence mattered and illuminated overlooked corners. Sinclair is digressive with his formidable knowledge, pointing out many paths, but is also acutely self-aware and modest, acknowledging his ‘dubious projections’ when seeing Diogenes of Sinope or Buddha in a park-bench figure.
Throughout the book, it feels like Sinclair is writing an elegy for the city. The mood is regularly sullen with ‘vagrants sprawled in purgatorial exhaustion in tolerated hollows between station and traffic’. Yet the style remains incandescent with curiosity. He may be ‘on a quest for silence’ yet Sinclair cannot help but chart the human soundscape of the city along the way. The Last London reveals, especially in its oddly-moving final chapter, what Sinclair has been crucially doing all along. He has explored in order to experience, defend, record and expand that which always exists in peril in huge cities: creativity, empathy, the sovereignty of individuals and companionship.
Far from a monkish solitary walker, the humanity and generosity of Sinclair’s writing comes through via the people he meets and introduces us to, from the visual artist Effie Paleologou to the comic book master Alan Moore. He laments an underworld forced to exist below gaudy towers and follies, but perhaps it was ever thus. He has shown that London is not a singular entity, whether that’s a brand or a figurehead or even one period of time, but rather it consists of the lives of millions of people and that which supports or inhibits them. For this reason, London is inexhaustible, and the spirit is one not of defeat but a bruised yet vital hope. It is not a soul but perhaps a skin that has been shed. ‘Something different is surely emerging. It always does.’
Main image: The ArcelorMittal Orbit. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: alh1