From Metro-land to Battersea Power Station: the problems of selling a housing fantasy
By Kenn Taylor
London’s suburban ‘Metro-land’, celebrated in the writings of John Betjeman, was created and branded as such by the Metropolitan Railway as it built its route out of London in the first half of the 20th century. The company famously promoted Metro-land aggressively and creatively, even having songs written that extolled the virtue of the new housing estates it built along the route of the line. A private precursor to today’s Stagecoach or FirstGroup, the Metropolitan Railway didn’t build Metro-land to inspire poets though, but to make money by selling the dream of country living to those who could afford it.
It was Metro-land I thought of as I explored the very different environment of Battersea Power Station. This monolithic exercise in brick by Giles Gilbert Scott is, after years of decay and dereliction, being turned into a new residential development with both Norman Foster and Richard Rogers working on elements of it. I was privileged to see it close up before its transformation and pleased that it would find a new use other than to decay into dust. Yet what struck me most as I wandered through, were the slogans on the brightly-coloured construction hoardings around it, like those that accompany almost every major, high-density urban development these days:
A PLACE OF VISION AND MAJESTY; A THRIVING. DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY; AN ICONIC RIVERFRONT ADDRESS; A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE
Just as the songs and pamphlets advertising Metro-land once promised, the hoardings around the Battersea Power Station development promote a lifestyle keenly desired by much of the aspirational middle class. It’s marketing, of course – and whether it’s a fridge, a car or a home, they long ago realised that if they sell you an idea, a dream and a lifestyle rather than just a product, you’re more likely to spend.
In reality though, the creation of Metro-land saw fields torn up and replaced with row upon row of near identical housing. Rural ways of life were replaced by the thousands of commuters leaving every morning to their work in the city via a concrete tube station and returning later to live out an image of the country idyll. For many, this is still the dream, a dream which year on year sees ever more green space turned into housing, driven by the desire of so many of us to have our own personal version of the ‘lost Elysium’ Betjeman wrote of.
More recently though, we have seen the development of a new idea of Elysium that, just as 100 years ago, property developers are only too keen to sell to those with the means. That is the lifestyle of living in a THRIVING, DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY and a CULTURAL POWERHOUSE such as is now promised at Battersea.
This desire for a certain kind of urban living that has ‘cultural authenticity’ dates perhaps from the same 1960s when Betjeman was writing of his distaste for the demolition of Victorian and Georgian buildings for new developments influenced by Modernism – most prominently campaigning to save the former Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station, which was designed by George Gilbert Scott, father of the Battersea Power Station designer, Giles.
Many of the people who backed Betjeman’s cause were amongst the first ‘gentrifiers’, those part of the phenomenon identified by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964. The suburban dream of Metro-land began to be less desirable for some by the 1960s, while the inner-city – where, in the earlier 20th century at least, people only generally lived if they could not manage to live elsewhere – began to be seen as more attractive.
As I have discussed previously, ‘creatives’ play a key role in this process: for years artists, critics and the like left the ‘comfortable’ suburbs in search of the ‘truth’ and the ‘real’ in the inner city, most of all what they perceived as ’culture’. Or rather, they headed for the ‘outer’ inner city, away from actual centres of business, tourism and authority, but not so far out as to live in the middle-class suburbs. They moved to areas by and large populated by people who could not afford to live either in the centre or the suburbs.
It was these fringe places that were seen as the edge of capitalism, set apart from the bourgeois self-satisfaction and complacency of the suburbs as well as the glitzy centre. In these locations, artists could live cheaply, with plenty of space for their activities. Such locations became the home of a class of people who came from all over to take up what they saw as ‘authentic’ urban lifestyles.
Gentrifiers made such areas more desirable and thus eventually more expensive, leading to the displacement of poorer residents. This prevented new ‘creative pioneers’ from settling and so forced them to seek new places to occupy. Where the artists lead, the capitalists capitalise, selling the opportunity to live in A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE to those who can afford it, albeit perhaps one with security gates between the property and the DIVERSE COMMUNITY. The term ‘village’ is often bandied about in such developments, for those who wish to combine the security and order of a ‘village’ with just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel.
Yet such areas are neither villages nor urban cultural powerhouses. These new ‘suburbs’ are literally Metroland, the city as fantasy consumer product. Gradually, the ‘authenticity’ and ‘edginess’ that generated the desire for many to live in such locations declines and, more often than not, they become home to a wealthy monoculture, living in generic apartment blocks with, if you have the means to afford it, ‘heritage features’. A carefully managed version of the city, created for those who wish to embody a particular lifestyle by those with an interest in profiting from land. Much as a carefully managed and accessible version of the countryside was created for the dwellers of the Metropolitan Railway’s new housing estates.
“If the older generation looked to the suburbs for romantic middle-class communities that represented a new way of life,” Irving Allen wrote in the 1980s, “some members of the young generation may well be looking to cities for romantic middle-class communities that represent an alternative to the suburbs…it is safe to assume that many of the new settlers are seeking a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with the social diversity of city life. Their parents sought a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with small-town and ‘rural’ life.”
Metro-land cut Mock Tudor furrows through rural Middlesex and sold former city dwellers the country dream to the point that what they liked about that countryside largely disappeared. So too the developers of the late 20th century sold the urban dream to those who fled the Metro-land suburbs, to the point where these new residents ended up helping to drive away what it was they perceived to be authentic about the city. Replacing it with non other than a more high-density version of suburbia, packaged, just as Metro-land was, with slogans promising a life that has already disappeared, if it ever even existed.
Such processes have been happening since at least the 1960s. However, recently, a new gentrifier generation has emerged that embraces rather than resents Modernism. To these rebellious aesthetes, the Brutalist architectural works by the likes of Erno Goldfinger and Alison and Peter Smithson – once reviled by gentrifiers for their role in the destruction of old Georgian and Victorian neighbourhoods – are the new objects of residential desire.
As 18th and 19th century housing once occupied by working class people became home to wealthy residents, so today former concrete social housing like the Trellick Tower in west London and Sheffield’s Park Hill, the latter renovated by trendy property firm Urban Splash, become home to new ‘pioneers’ keen on a new type of ‘character’ property.
As a previous generation saw new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century city as a reaction against collapsing Modernist ideology, so this generation is filled with nostalgia for the Modernist vision of utopia as Neo-Liberalism crumbles.
Scott Greer considered the ideology which rejects the contemporary for an imagined better past, whether urban or rural, labelling it as ‘conservative utopian’: “At one time they believed the rural life to be the only one fit for man, the city evil. Today they remain fixated on the past, but it is now the dense, polyethnic, centralized city of the railroad age.” As the Romantics inadvertently brought urbanism to the country by helping to spark the desire for ‘Metro-land’ and the first gentrifiers brought the suburbs to the city, so now the Modernist urban fringe is the new frontier. Yet this generation’s dreams will likely have as similar unintended consequences as previous ones as they look back to a supposed better past without the knowledge of what was wrong with it.
The more people try to embody a particular lifestyle through property and location and escape what they perceive as contemporary corruption, the more they corrupt what it is they try and inhabit. As John Betjeman once wrote of the loss of rural idyll and Victorian wonders so today the press is littered with tomes on the loss of inner city culture and authenticity, almost inevitably penned by the same people who began such changes.
Of course, many do protest at all of this. Yet since Ruth Glass first noted gentrification, save for some successful islands of resistance and peaks and troughs caused by recession, the market forces of Britain continue to drag development in both directions to sell everyone who can afford it the country dream or the city dream, or, if you have enough capital, both, however diluted dreams both have become.
The urban life those billboards in Battersea promise is just a much a fantasy as that sold in the songs of Metro-land nearly 100 years ago and just as alluring. Meanwhile, Battersea’s new residential community is to be opened up, just as Metro-land was, by a new Tube line connecting it to The City.
The more this all turns, the more London in particular is transformed into a total fantasy, Metroland, an urban playground for those with the means. Everyone keeps on chasing, hoping that, if they try hard enough, they will get their own little residential dream, whatever happens to anyone else. And those who paint pictures of our perfect lifestyle remain only too keen to sell us the ticket to it and tell us: Elysium is still waiting.
This is an edited version of an essay which can be found on Kenn Taylor’s blog.