Regeneration: "Not a rebirth, just a little death"

Owen Hatherley and Benedict Seymour talk urban renewal.

That Britain’s unequal and restive cities are in trouble was hardly news to the panel debating urban regeneration at Nottingham Contemporary, but, hey, some of us are still playing catch-up. Participants included one Owen Hatherley, a man whose celebrated architectural tour of the regions "A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain" offered both a scathing journalistic critique of New Labour’s sometimes tragicomic efforts at "Urban Renaissance", and a vindication of the idea that you can learn a lot about the state of a country through its buildings. 

Likewise, a second volume released earlier this year, "A New Kind of Bleak", laid into the coalition’s failure to come up with any viable alternative to cramming former industrial heartlands with unaffordable "luxury flats" and public-private white elephants, and portrayed a "Tory-Whig" government unwilling or unable to move on from a vague neo-liberal hope that the empty aspirational monuments of the "creative industries" might somehow lead the proles to a better life.

Joining him on the panel was Benedict Seymour, a man who, in the early part of the last decade used provocative films and unflinching essays to warn of the "imminent collapse" of the UK’s housing bubble and predicted where "creative" areas like Shoreditch in East London might be headed. In his view, gentrified creative zones represented "not so much the rebirth of the dormant industrial city but its undeath", a hipster contingent lending areas an artsy credibility that, rather than Britain’s cities and dragging them into the "ideas economy", would end up increasing rents and pushing working class locals to the margins. Given the recent arrival of the totally straight-faced, "Avant Garde Tower" just off Brick Lane  he may well have had a point.

Even after a financial crisis that revealed the fragility of regeneration projects built on property speculation, Hatherley argued that town planners remain hellbent on "accelerating a process that in somewhere like Hackney had taken fifteen years". He singled out London’s much-mythologised Heygate Estate, a place currently seeing its 3,000 run-down council homes replaced (a process backed by the strong-arm of Compulsory Purchase Orders) with 2,500 questionably "affordable" homes, as an example of the many councils’ continued regenerate-or-die intransigence. 

"The best thing [Southwark Council] could do," he argued, "is clean the thing up, refurbish the building to level out some of the five million people on the bloody council waiting list. The idea that they would do that is completely implausible, because they would lose so much face for one thing. I think that’s the thing for these [Labour] councils – once you’ve sold your soul you can’t really ask for it back. Most of these people used to be socialists, used to believe in stuff, and that’s still somewhere in the back of their minds but I don’t think they can get back to it."

The coalition government, meanwhile, rests much of its hope for urban renewal on the return of Enterprise Zones, though extensive research suggests their effectiveness has been overstated, with even the supposed success of Canary Wharf more the  result of infrastructural spending and the rehabilitation of unusable land than freedom from onerous regulation. "Everything you thought was dead is resurrected," Seymour warned of the return of Enterprise Zones. "But that doesn’t mean the dynamism supplied by the real estate bubble will be there again."

While the government tries to revive dying cities through a culling of regulations, Seymour argued that this hands-off alternative to New Labour’s clumsy Urban Renaissance itself risks exacerbating their problems, setting a precedent for "hyper-exploitation, lowering of wages and the relaxing any protection of workers’ conditions". "If that is the formula for renewal of the economy for regeneration," he warned, "then you might want to consider whether it is too nihilistic and unpleasant to endorse".

Blueprint Regeneration planner Nick Ebbs, on the panel to prevent it descending into violent left-wing agreement, accepted that the UK is littered with regeneration done badly, but contends that it doesn’t always have to be like this. "I was in Liverpool very recently looking at some of the Pathfinder schemes and these are examples of how absolutely not to do it, perfectly good Victorian streets being compulsorily acquired and then demolished and actually left as wasteland. That’s bonkers." He claims that Blueprint’s plans for redevelopment around Nottingham’s Waterside, though, "will be done incrementally, will involve adaptation and re-use of existing buildings. You know, there are alternative models out there."

Local town planner Adrian Jones, meanwhile, called on local authorities, now able to borrow cheaply and acquire land at knock-down prices, to seize the chance to be bold. "You can see it in Nottingham, all of its schemes have stalled, except for, ironically, the publicly funded schemes which are the transport schemes like the tram and the station, funded by the taxpayer," he said. "There’s only really dogma standing in the way. At the end of the day, the current model for capitalism is basically milking the welfare state. The privatisation model is making money out of the public sector. So why don’t we cut out the middle man?"

Hatherley, romantic old social democrat, agrees, and clearly believes that basic post-war alternatives hastily hurled on the Thatcherite bonfire can still provide a route out of the morass. "No one has tried over the last few years to take a former regeneration site and build public housing on it," he said. "These all sound like relatively small things given the scale of the crisis, but... people aren’t able to think about utopia when even a public housing estate with 200 houses is considered implausible. Of course no one can think about utopia."

"Regenerate Art" was part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Public Programme.

The Silicon Roundabout at Old Street in Shoreditch. Photograph: Getty Images

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.

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From Loving to Gold, the films gripped by homebuilding in America

In all three films, capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last couple of weeks, you might have seen a film set in a Southern US state. In it, a man drives out into the countryside, and finds a square of untouched land. Maybe he brings his wife with him. He stands on the land and imagines a future in which he has built his own tiny empire on this patch of earth.

Gold, Loving and The Founder, all released in the UK in the last fortnight, are all twentieth century-set films that touch on ideas of the American Dream, and all contain variations of this scene.

Loving would be the story of a typical all-American couple living out their white picket fence dreams, if it weren’t for the regressive laws that invalidate their interracial marriage and see them banned from their home state.

We first catch a glimpse of the domestic life they long for when Richard Loving drives his girlfriend, Mildred, out into a field near where she grew up. “Whatcha think?” he asks her. “Do you like it?”

“You mean this field?” she replies. “This field not a mile from my house that I’ve been knowin’ all my life?”

“I want to put the kitchen right back here,” he says, before beginning to explain. “I bought it. This whole acre. I’m gonna build you a house right here. Our house.” The violins swell suggestively, and Richard proposes.

The scene functions as a way to both paint a picture of the idyllic life that Mildred and Richard were well on track to attain: only a few scenes later we’re abruptly reminded that the deception of the American Dream, perhaps particularly in this period, is that it’s open to all, “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

In Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) begins to make his fortune when he builds a successful gold mine in Indonesia. Shortly after his discovery, he drives his girlfriend Kay into a field at Maggie’s Creek.

She steps out of the car with her hands over her eyes. When she opens them, Kenny announces, “It’s gonna be our place, away from it all, above it all, just like we always wanted. You like it?”

When she breathlessly says she does, he begins planning: “Ok, look. The house, right here, alright? The kitchen, facing there, the great room over here, two fireplaces…”

“Can we afford this?” Kay asks.

“Almost, baby, almost,” Kenny says. “We’re almost there. Now look at this, a couple of bedrooms on this end, couple on that end. Look at this playground for the kids! How many kids do you wanna have?”

Kenny’s financial success working the land in Indonesia and the domestic bliss he could achieve building his own home back in the States are intrinsinctly linked in one upward movement, dreams achieved through persistance, self-belief and the ability to visualise a perfect future.

In The Founder, we veer slightly from these familial images. We see the McDonald brothers lovingly sketch out the floor plans for their fast food restaurants over and over again with chalk on tennis courts.

“What if the fryer goes here?” they mutter, trying to find the perfect organisation of stations to maximise productivity and efficiency. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose vision will ultimately eclipse theirs, drives out to a patch of land and grasps the earth in his hand, whispering to it.

We’ve seen tropes like this before: take the abandoned home trope, for example. In films like It’s A Wonderful LifeThe Notebook and Up, male protagonists adopt abandoned buildings their wives and girlfriends have romanticised in some way, and with physical, rather than financial, effort, transform these crumbling structures into a family house. There’s an idealistic quality to these scenes that suggest any American can stumble across the perfect home and move in, and present a communal attitude to landowning like something out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

But the scenes in these recent three films suggest something rather different - capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked. The success of Richard’s construction business and mechanic work allows him to buy the land where he can build Mildred’s home, while Kenny’s goldmine enables him to purchase a shiny new estate for Kay. Ray’s emotional connection with the ground comes after he realises that he’s “not in the fast food business,” he’s “in the real estate business”. The McDonald brothers put the love, care and attention into the floorplans of their restaurants usually reserved for domestic homebuilding. There are tonal and contextual differences in these scenes, but they all see familial and commercial spheres merge over floorplans. 

But these movies also suggest that there is a lie inherent in the idea that rampant capitalism can lead to domestic bliss. Mildred and Richard are told that the life they have built together means nothing by a Virgina courtroom. Kay and Kenny’s relationship breaks down as his financial success becomes more and more impossible. And as for the McDonald brothers? Both they, and Kenny in Gold, must later face the gut-churning realisation that as their businesses are built on land owned by somebody else, they can be taken away from them, with little to no financial compensation.

There’s a nostalgia to these films – in the blissful life Richard and Loving begin to glimpse towards the end of Loving, after their court case has been won; in the pioneering, take-life-by-the-horns spirit of Kenny Wells and Ray Kroc that secures them their fortunes.

But the Woody Guthrie spirit of “This Land is our Land” has changed its meaning over time: written while Guthrie was paying rent to Donald Trump’s father, it’s now been adopted by protesters at anti-Trump marches. And all these films also cast a retrospectively sceptical eye over the social and economic contexts in which their stories are set.

In an America helmed by the ultimate real estate capitalist with his own regressive views, there is an eerily well-timed hint of cynicism at play. The ideals of the American Dream – that you can prosper regardless of your heritage or background if you just work hard – are fragile. And you can be locked out of your home, however hard you worked in building it. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.