NEOutopia: Architecture and the Politics of ‘the New’, June 2012

First published: CITY journal, Vol 6 Issue 3, June 2012

CGI image of Tate Modern and Richard Rogers’ NEO Bankside development in London

This article forms an introduction to Part One of the Special Feature ‘NEOutopia: Architecture and the Politics of ‘the New”.  It is available to download in full via Taylor & Francis’ website and is excerpted below.

When a man is tired of London, Samuel Johnson once said, ‘he is tired of life’ (Boswell, 1859, p. 120). Speaking in 1777, he waxed lyrical about a city that never failed to stimulate: a city filled with a ‘multiplicity of human habitations’ (Boswell, 1820, p. 416), hordes of intellectuals and microcosmic constellations of ‘all that life can afford’.1 Whilst two centuries have passed since these words were first uttered, their veracity, it seems, is somewhat timeless.

Bursting with cultural and ethnic diversity, London’s true intrigue, as Johnson proclaimed, lies in the multiplicity of social relations it sustains and produces. As Michael Edwards explains, a particularity of London has, for centuries, been ‘the scope for working class, as well as richer communities, to reproduce themselves from generation to generation in most neighbourhoods’. Since the 1980s however, this unique ‘patchwork of fine-grain social (and ethnic) mixing’ has dramatically changed (Edwards, 2011, p. 55).

As explored in this feature, the dynamism of London’s existing ‘social property relations’ (Brenner, 2007, pp. 58–59) has been gradually, yet powerfully, threatened by a ‘speculative landscape’ of privatisation and capital investment.2 Continuing into the present day, the commodification of the city, once a thoroughly public collection of open spaces and ‘human habitations’ (Boswell, 1820, p. 416), finds its roots in the transformation of Docklands in the 1980s and 1990s.

Billed as a landmark ‘regeneration’ project for London, the project is, in Anna Minton’s terms, ‘where the architecture of extreme capitalism first began’.3 Sowing the seeds of a ‘new economy’ and a new focus on financial services and property development, the transformation of Docklands—from defunct shipping port to global financial centre—became ‘the standard model for the creation of every new place in towns and cities across the country’ (Minton, 2009, p. 5).

Inserting itself into the new urban lexicon of growth and competitiveness, the word ‘regeneration’ came into use in the 1980s and continues to accompany almost every redevelopment project in Britain. As a point of departure for this two-part feature, the diverse problems of regeneration—ranging from citizen displacement to the alteration or eradication of historic architecture—form a platform for deeper investigations into the super-structural problems of ‘neo-capitalism’ […]