Capitalism by design

Modern city planning serves the interests of the rich and powerful, not us, says Richard Griffin in this article from Freedom, 6th December 2003

Capitalism touches almost every aspect of our lives. Very little is unscathed even the space we live in. Architecture, design, building techniques, property use and access are all mediated by the social, cultural and economic forces generated by capitalism. The recently redeveloped Paternoster Square, immediately to the north of St Paul’s cathedral in London is a good example of this.

In 1960 William Holford created in the words of architectural historian David Watkins “a desolate landscape of grim office blocks” around Wren’s cathedral. These temples of post war modernism and concrete brutalism were pulled down three years ago. This month the redeveloped square designed by a team of British architects was opened to the public.

Although a public space, it is clear as soon as you enter that the public are not free to use it as they might wish. Freedom is controlled and contained here. At all the entrances are posters sternly warning ‘no skating, no boarding’. It cannot be long until private security guards appear to ensure only a certain type of public appear under the shadow of St Paul’s – those willing to buy Starbucks coffee at £2.40 a cup or an overpriced sandwich from a corporate chain like Eat or Prets and then sit quietly to worship capitalism. The cathedral itself is now little more than a tourist attraction not a place a belief or meaning. The heart of society is much better symbolised by the shops and offices that will fill the buildings around the square. In the centre of the square is a Sir William Whitfield designed neo-classical monument dedicated, currently, to nothing. Perhaps they should dedicate it to McDonalds or the stock exchange.

The Financial Times observed of Patnernoster Row “this was traditionally one of London’s most vibrant quarters, inhabited consecutively by mercers, butchers, booksellers and publishers.” Not any more. This is bland, chain store, ‘could be anywhere’ territory. Under-whelming and unchallenging. Safe and compliant, just like we are meant to be.

The area the square fills like so much of central London has been redeveloped and recreated time and time again in response to fire (three have destroyed this part of London) or commercial need. From the Great Fire to the Blitz, the area was famous for publishing. Bookshops used to crowd right up to the gates of the cathedral. Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel, was published here in 1719. During December 1940 German bombing levelled the area. An estimated four million books were destroyed. This is also an area were the power of the state has long been visible. To the west of the square Newgate prison once stood. Public executions took place here. Now the Old Bailey fills the space. The cathedral itself, which still dominates the landscape is of course another symbol of power, albeit a waning one.

Commerce whether in the form of book selling or butchers’ shops has been a permanent feature of the area. Some 600 sheep a day used to be slaughtered to feed the city in cellars beneath butcher’s shops. Today money is symbolised by investment bankers Merril Lynch whose clever minimalist building straddles the north of the square.

Paternoster Square bordered on three sides by a cathedral, a court and a finance company sits at the heart of a trinity to power. Appropriately the final side is where you exit St Paul’s tube station. Currently publicly owned but in the throws of privatisation.

The design of the square itself is highly influenced by classicism. But Paternoster is a limited form of classicism. Capitalism has robbed working people of their skills. Paternoster Square exemplifies this. Watkins again. “Because of the growth of industrialised practices from the nineteenth century … we now have a largely unskilled workforce, mostly trained to assemble buildings on site, not to construct them properly.” The buildings around the square do look like they have been constructed with massive Lego bricks. Clean blocks lacking intimacy or interest and as the Financial Times observed “with the faintest echoes of Italian fascist architecture”.

As anarchists we need to be aware that we need to struggle against capitalism wherever it manifests itself in our lives. The design of buildings and the use of space is just as important as what happens on the factory floor.

(this article originally appeared in Freedom vol 64, no 23, dated 6th December 2003)

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Charlotte Dingle is an imaginative, motivated individual with an award-winning track record, looking for challenging freelance writing, editing, illustration & design projects.Charlotte is current editor-in-chief of Biscuit (www.thisisbiscuit.com). Biscuit is an online magazine for bisexual women,