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.
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