Monthly Archives: February 2020

Complex Edifice

The word façade carries two key meanings, it is both the face of a building and the social appearance presented to the world. The Chambers’ English dictionary extends this latter meaning to include the sense of being ‘showy’, the sense of a social face with little of substance behind it. One of the signal changes in a landscape of distinct and distinguished facades has been the creation of a significant number of new developments that use subtle facades and architectures in restrained ways, requiring in the viewer a tacit knowledge of the function, and cost, of these developments. Much of the historical and recent architecture of London’s West End arguably fit both meanings of the term façade quite well, offering both the impression of new and expensive frontages but also their deployment as a sign of position behind which little of substance or social life takes place.

Clarges Mayfair, more or less anonymous when seen from southern aspect onto Piccadilly, the boulevard adjacent to it, seems to say very little about its function or social position. If we were not aware of the stratospheric value of real estate in this district we might think very little of its subtle frontage. But this is rather the point – one needs to be in the club, in the know, to comprehend that immense money-power and the barely present lives of its super-rich residents that go on behind it. The West’s extensive scape of mansions and stately addresses, built by the almost historically unparalleled wealth of the city’s global nouveaux riches of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, are also still here of course. Those pre-eminent positional goods are still regularly snapped-up by staggeringly wealthy individuals from around the world. Yet many of those immense homes were lost, either because the wealth of subsequent elites was insufficient to maintain them (with many lost to demolition) or sub-divided over time. Clarges is something slightly different, offering convenience, security and a chaperoned place in the city, part of what we might think of an ‘ultraland’ of new, super-prime apartment blocks scattered around the city’s most expensive central property markets.

The ultraland

Where the robber barons and patrician super-rich of the 19th and 20th century city often sought to construct their own ‘pile’ to show their arrival and profound wealth, aspirations today tend to be mediated by developers building for multiple occupancy. This fact does little to detract from the way that such developments are still used to soak-up enormous amounts of surplus capital by the world’s super-rich as they look for a safe investment and a safe city capable of accommodating the need for places of work, but, more often, one of play and investment. Clarges’ façade presents an almost humble, understated presence – an almost blank face behind which the visiting, partying world’s rich can sojourn while in London. Perhaps even more importantly this and similar residences play the role of enabling an almost anonymous presence and comfort for its residents. Its interior dwellings are better thought of, not as homes, but as resting places for the wealthy winners of the global class-war of rentier capitalism. It is a mediating and sorting nodal space, one that sifts the winners from the many losers and keeps them tucked-up and securely looked-after, as do similar blocks in other cities around the world that adopt a similar style guide and pattern book – fortress pied a terre. Clarges does not present a showy face, yet it does offer a heavily secured veneer, a thin but very tough carapace to protect those passing through behind.

Completed in 2019, Clarges Mayfair overlooks Piccadilly – the core route that runs from London’s centre to Hyde Park Corner, Buckingham Palace and onwards to Knightsbridge. The building’s unassuming nine storeys offer open views through the plane and lime tree canopy to The Green Park and beyond. This vista encompasses the Shard to the south-east, to the London ‘Eye’ ferris wheel and then glimpses of Westminster Palace to the south. Despite the lively clamour of traffic, pedestrian flows and inescapable pollution of the major boulevard below the impression of centrality and access to the jewels of London’s vibrant leisure district are here in abundance. Clarges is a short stroll from the Ritz hotel, only a block further to Fortnum and Masons for provisions, the elite clubs of St James’, to Bond street for its fashion houses and jewellers and to a huge array of discrete elite eateries and bespoke private services across Mayfair itself. As its real estate agents will say, Clarges isn’t about location, it is THE location. Yet such blustering sales pitches need to be stripped away to reveal the deeper functions and role of these kinds of new development.

Clarges offers a commodity within what we might describe as an economy of facades. Here quiet distinction is the order of the day, not brash statements built from grand porticos. We might say that its capacity to seduce prospective buyers comes through being closer attention to its constituent parts. These details can be located if we look closely at the references to nature in the subtle tessellated shapes of its brass gateways (remotely controlled from the guardhouse), to its fine craft metalwork balconies and the nod here towards flattened classic columns in white stone. But if you want to see the penthouses you will be disappointed, these are staggered back from the top layers on the 10th and 11th floors in order to avoid street-level surveillance. Such intrusion may seem unlikely at a development that appears almost entirely unremarkable at ground level. Here still empty commercial space yields blank windows, offering the feeling perhaps of an empty central city office block. It seems likely that only those who know what they are looking at would likely be interested.

Clarges has the feel of a protective shell, apartment frontages that enclose, secure and hide their occupants. Such a metaphor also works to allude to the offshore world of companies registered in beachfront offices in the Caiman or British Virgin Islands often used to purchase and conceal ownership of properties in blocks like these (an estimated 36,000 properties worth around £50bn pounds in London alone). In this sense the façade is also a discrete cover, a means by which a para-criminal and indeed illicit world of offshore finance is concealed and enabled by many residential facades like Clarges. Like much of prime real estate in central London one can be forgiven for believing that such developments have been constructed simply to absorb vast amounts of liquid surplus, often criminal, capital looking for a place to call home, to grow or to be carefully stashed away. Given its almost equilateral square frontage the impression that the building generates is of a, very large, money box. At £12m (€14m) for a 2-bedroom apartment, and £18m for a 3-bed and much more for a penthouse, the prices are, even for central London, help to reaffirm this feeling.

In many ways the West End property market is a circuit of capital flows built on ‘front’, a place for investment by the more or less immodest winners in the global economy that helps to line the pockets of other hangers on and those whose own wealth comes from that of the super-rich including estate agents, lawyers and developers. The West End is a place built on a trade in facades, addresses that can be wielded like social trophies over cocktails, dinners or business lunches as marques of social and economic prowess. Of course, the money looking to secure a place in Mayfair, one of the most expensive in one of the priciest cities in the world, does not need to shout about its presence. One of the very remarkable things about the ultraland developments, splinters of capital subtly emerging in London’s most affluent territories, is their very lack of overt ostentation.

Clarges Mayfair replaced a somewhat anonymous, now-demolished 1950s office block with arguably a similarly insignificant construction. The first impression of Clarges is its impressive inconspicuousness. If Clarges was placed in a smaller regional, central urban setting it would not look out of place. It takes location to animate the site and excite its prospective residents, to confer the sense that this is a place of quiet opulence capable of conferring lofty status. Barely recessed window casements appear without usable balconies, no doubt partly for security and because of the high pollution levels from the street below. Looking up from Piccadilly towards the ‘rump’ of Clarges one sees almost no signs of life. Its apparent ‘front’ (actually its back in terms of access for residents) the development presents only a blank face.

The real life of Clarges Mayfair is to be found in its numerous basement levels (de rigueur for developments in the capital looking to make maximum use of small footprints), driveway (which can be secured if required) and of course the luxurious interiors of its marble, chrome and silk decorated interiors. The development presents itself as a more-or-less hard and featureless eggshell. But this external wrapping conceals a softer, nurturing yolk-like space inside. The list of its services and facilities is undoubtedly impressive enough to generate the possibility of never needing to leave. These include a business suite, dining room, English spa, treatment rooms, stairs sporting detailing apparently referencing wrist watches, a 25m subterranean swimming pool, gym and 18-seater cinema, also underground. In the enormously spacious interior reception hall a large cantilevered spiral staircase features low-level underlighting, supplemented by natural light from a large glass dome in the lofty ceiling. The dome itself features a light sculpture designed to allude to the designs of aristocratic houses and utilising dynamic lighting that changes over the course of the day. The sensory embrace of the development is further heightened by its incredible quietness and the subtle hallway fragrances, changed over the weeks and seasons by the development’s commissioned perfumier.

Curiously the internal privacy of residents is also carefully designed into the building’s operation. There are two saunas and another two steam rooms, the cinema and dining rooms can be booked, and even the gym can be partitioned for personal privacy. Service and ‘help’ for the owners can be accommodated in adjacent secure units. The sense of a resting community of world travellers is not perhaps apparent – instead internal segregation seems to be an important part of the offer, not the ability to form friendships with new neighbours. The building’s ‘real’ front is the functional space of the carriageway-style drop-off point for residents, visitors and staff. Access is controlled to this semi-public space by rising bollards and mechanised, concertina gates – either to control flows of traffic or prevent unwanted access. It is also looked-over by resident security staff, ensure access only to residents to the building, challenge passers-by or curious social scientists seeking to take pictures of its frontage. A car lift allows resident’s vehicles to be disappeared from (private) street level to the cavernous parking bay below. 

Clarges is one of several notable contenders on a relatively new circuit of super-excessive, discrete buildings within central London’s super-prime property market. These are the spaces to which international capital is drawn come rain or shine – capital knows that this is a safe bet of a location, a place to give cash a holiday and watch it grow, only to be brought back into action when the time is right. Most residents will not simply live here, this will be one of a string of international addresses located in the key neighbourhoods of cities and choice leisure zones around the world to which rapid and often brief access is required on occasion. This development and many others are also intensely wasteful spaces. Not only could more, and more affordable, homes easily be accommodated within the footprint of each interior floor, the sense of disposability and crass excess is evident as soon as one connects the building to the hyper-mobile and international jet setting of its residents. The block is designed to act rather as a kind of transportation plug-in to the mobility systems of the global super-rich, a drive-through pad when access to a weekend in central London is needed. British Land, its developer, paid £130m in 2012 for the site – but the contribution to affordable housing stemming from the development was £1.85 million, less than a tenth of one of the price of a single one of its apartments. Despite, or indeed because, of such low contributions the developer, has made more than £1bn profit.


Clarges was the name given to the city featured in Jack Vance’s novel To Live Forever (1956), a kind of urban utopia in a barbaric world. Its residents have gained knowledge of the technology required to achieve immortality, but to avoid over population this is only granted to those who have made notable contributions. It seems unlikely that the super-wealthy resident’s of the real-world enclave of Clarges Mayfair have managed to defy the laws of nature in this way, and we might debate their achievements, but it is also clear that such residential space is used as a kind of spatial protective, its leisure rooms, gyms, swimming pool and treatment rooms speak of a desire to extend and secure the body through the use of fortress architectures, pampering personal services and adherence to strict, life-enhancing regimes. The façade leaves everything to the imagination, but it is nevertheless situated within a social politics that is increasingly aware of the illicit flows, gross excesses and extraordinary material waste of the super-rich. While Clarges and other developments are used to gain entry to the social and economic circuits of London’s elites the legitimacy of these lives and lifestyles is being placed under increasing scrutiny, however subtle or concealing their facades.

London’s ultralands and its super-prime fortress homes create a subtle inlay of super-affluence in an already historically affluent area that has, for more than a hundred years, offered a place for the world’s rich. The main difference from that time is the more subdued presence of wealth and its subdivision, residence in apartments rather than mansion houses. It is possible to witness Clarges up-close by accessing the sweep driveway and square to its rear, but be prepared to be challenged by its gatekeepers. This is an understated site whose luxury is only revealed to those with the staggering resources required to gain access, a private space whose mistrustful residents and staff are keen to keep it quiet.

My thanks to Stefan Fuchs for giving permission for this draft version of a chapter that will appear as part of a collection updating the themes of Walter Benjamin’s Passegenwerks in a volume focused on the rise of the facade: Fuchs, S. / Dillhof, R. (Eds.) (forthcoming) Fassadenwerks (working title), Hamburg.on my blog

Capital and ideology in the city

Thomas Piketty’s eagerly awaited Capital and Ideology opens almost poetically, with real force – ‘Every society must justify its inequalities’ (p.1). In all nations and at all times societies require some sets of ideas and beliefs capable of defending the disparities that exist within them. Over the course of time societies have achieved this in their own distinctive ways, much of this more than 1,000 page work delves into the long history of such arrangements. Piketty calls these narratives and systems of thinking inequality regimes. There is power at work in these narratives, ideas and legitimising frameworks, deployed by elites, enshrined in laws and regulations, and which are often shared more broadly within society as a whole. Yet, like the story of a leisured, narcissistic and complacent bourgeois party at the centre of Jean Renoir’s film La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939), the patrolling of legitimating codes and ideology may be subtle, but it is also a kind of violence. Hierarchies are defended without question, internalised in ways of being, outsiders or threats are deftly repelled or, worse, humiliated. Arrogant, ruling and wilfully ignorant elites often remain left untroubled by potential challengers.

As Piketty highlights, there is nothing natural or necessarily desirable about the choices we make about how to live, for choices they are. Defences of the established order can be challenged, and such challenges may become emphasised. This may occur due to the feeling that inequality has become too excessive to remain unquestioned, or because the plight of the system’s losers becomes evident and untenable. Alternatively breakdown or change may be presaged by shifts in the (inequality) regime itself, a querying of the narrative and appeals to modes of social organisation. Here we might think today of the significant redirection of corporate mandates away from shareholder primacy to a wider recognition of stakeholders that has seen around 200 CEOs signing up. Of course we might also believe such effort themselves to be efforts at shoring-up a defence of privileges! Nevertheless, as Piketty reminds us, social organisation is always made-up of choices, we have the power to put in place arrangements other than the ones we may see around us.

Today the social sciences have sharpened their tools and strengthened the measures they use to investigate the operation of our own inequality regime. Piketty refers to this as a neo-proprietarian society in which property and finance have generated profound returns to those with wealth, leaving others languishing in ways not seen since the belle epoque of the roughly 1880-1920 period. The work of Piketty’s earlier Capital in the 21st Century and those of his various ‘comrades in data’ (Saez, Zucman in the US, Shaxson, Christensen and others in Europe) offered, through painstaking analysis, a new narrative that callanged the inevitableness or desirability of where we are today. This body of work offers a challenge to the order and its elite defenders. But its targets are, to take up the question of ideology, the many others brought under the influence of the narcotic quality of the kind of inequality regime we find outself in today – ‘populist’ governments and leaders, and the many defenders of the neoliberal or hypercapital order of today’s global north and beyond (in banking and finance, business, government and elsewhere).

Once we move beyond the ‘simple’ question of the extent of inequality to the ‘whys’ of that inequality (why particular groups win and lose over time, why such inequality is defended in circulating systems of thought and discourse), things may change as a result of the sudden redirection of social science in its focus ‘upwards’, allied to the work of numerous investigative journalists, online leads and cases brought. For those on the left (crudely speaking, the ones who would seek to challenge the inevitability or desirability of the extent of inequality) shattered by recent electoral losses the chink in the edifice of the current regime is the potential for new social scientific work to challenge or expose such a grossly unfair system. Many governments, corporate leaders, parties and those in civic society have become particularly interested in how to re-organise the world around them, perhaps sparked by realisations of the long-term redundancy of a business as usual model in which environmental concerns pose an existential threat.

Piketty’s practical responses to wealth inequality (forget about income if you want to see how big this thing is) are compelling. The first is to understand how important education is to circuits of opportunities, and its closure to many others (among other things the book highlights the break between the working class and parties of the left on the back of these educational shifts). But this cannot work without a much fairer playing field and this field is, of course, profoundly shaped by capital – wealth would have to be redistributed for an education system to be properly funded and for all to ‘start’ from a similar position. The second set of proposals are focused on the need for tax, and for these efforts to be focused on annual taxes on overall wealth (getting rid of unpopular and widely avoided death duties). No longer would billionaires pay rates lower than their cleaners, all wealth (shares, property and other assets) would be taxed annually as an effective means of bringing it into wider circulation, benefitting those without a stake and challenging the place of dynastic and rentier fortunes.

City, capital, inequality

Cities lie at the hear of the ideological conditions detailed by Piketty, though they inevitably play almost no part in an account built from national data over, in some cases, centuries. Yet urban life is central to the inequality regime of today’s hypercapitalism and property-based rules. It seems particularly productive to think of how the governance, economy and society of cities might be instrumental in helping us to flesh out the concept of inequality regime, to place that regime, so to speak, and to understand how space inflects, shapes and might even deepen ideological defences and narratives.

In a financialised world property assumes a central place with the creation and trade in homes and other real estate central to such an economy.  The obvious point to make here relates to the location of those physical assets, clustered (particularly in the case of the most valuable forms of property) in cities, and in the dominant ‘world’ cities in particular. The property-based regime is, for the most part, a distinctly urban regime, an order that shapes social divisions, but also an environment in which we as bodies experience those inequalities. It is in the city that we see the system’s winners and co-ordinating elites, here we find residential landscapes circulating or built for capital investment and it is again in the urban realm that the finance systems, regulatory agencies and other key components of a capitalist property-based economy are settled. If one could pan out to see this regime at work we could also see how it is predicated on the flows of many billions of coins flowing from the pockets of the global mass, the stagnant bottom fifty percent, via their phone contracts, private rents, uber payments and so on. We could then imagine these coins sliding into the pockets of corporations, investment funds, banks and rentier capitalist superheroes and their combined use to purchase fine homes, football clubs, clothes, investments and multiple other purchases (we might also examine efforts at political influence). These purchases by the rich and by those sectors and operatives who have become immensely on the back of this system are instrumental to our understanding of how this regime dislodges the low-paid, raises the cost of living for whose who work and who lack access to the wealth and property increasingly hoarded by the relative few.

We might say that none of this new, but its intensification appears qualitatively different, and its capacity to obfuscate the sources of exploitation and marginalisation are powerful. Grappling with this is important if we are to understand the continued legitimacy of the system, and it is here that we are again back to Piketty’s challenge to understand the functions of ideas and narratives underpinning urban and national life today. One might also add that it is in many cities that that compact between capital and labour is most evidently unravelling, it is here that we see rioting and protest, and it is here that voting has produced a more variegated pattern of allegiances under populist mantras around national sovereignty in various contexts. Here again the relationship between the city and this particular kind of inequality regime seems important to consider in more detail.

A focus on wealth takes us to the city, not just because of the overwhelming concentration of the rich in their largest and most economically powerful examples, but also because the physical assets and real estate of the city is itself a critical component of wealth storage and accumulation. We can also see how investment in property has become a central method of taking value out of the city (often through offshore funds used by the wealthy) and para-criminal enterprise as billions are used to buy and later sell homes and estates to hide ill-gotten capital (here again the state’s silence, in statistical or policing terms, is notable). In Piketty’s terms the use, accumulation and storage of property are particularly important to the kind of economy that we inhabit because it is to a proprietarian inequality regime that we are now subject.

We need to understand how such unfair conditions continue to stand up, despite their evident inequalities. It seems important to again consider the role of the city in this context. It is the city that is the very theatre in which these narratives are identifiably played-out, not least in the fray of political discussions and media narratives lauding a capitalist property economy. We can also see how the city is the site in which conversations, plans, investments and markets operate and which are identified as the lifeblood of its economy. Any political or social challenges to such activities and narratives are easily dismissed, not least by the derisive snorts of those who appear to wield knowledge of how this world works (the Treasury view and so on).

In another key sense the city helps to bind adherents to its unwritten codes by galvanising into action the many who rely on or who are linked to the operations of the economy and to its wealth elites. This comes in the form of so-called dark money in politics, the more overt social networking and schmoozing between wealth, political and corporate elites, the chasing of international investment capital and buyers by developers and in the sale of public and other assets. More subtly still the physical environment of the city provides an elaborate labyrinth space constituted of private clubs, fine homes, restaurants and other sites of informal interaction. These spaces offer a particularly comfortable but also physically shielding environment that enables the economic order’s casualties and losers to be rendered more or less visible. The city in its physical form helps to hardwire the legitimation of the inequality regime at work around it. Numerous historical examples of suburbanisation, gating and other forms of elite escape support this idea.

In these various examples it seems productive to think of an inequality regime not simply in terms of economic, social and political codes and systems of thinking and justification. It would also be useful to supplement these important ideas and proposals with greater recognition of how space might shape and inflect these systems and how the institutional and spatial form of cities is at work in the modes of justification used to defend or naturalise contemporary forms of inequality.

7th February 2020

Looking towards St Paul’s catherdral and, to the right, the City of London.