‘I think it is important to distinguish between the traditional notion of patronage and the public relations manoeuvres parading as patronage today. What we have here is a real exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored. Most business people are quite open about this when they speak to their peers.’
– Hans Haacke and Pierre Bourdieu, Free Exchange (1995)
London is the European capital of inequality. 165,000 people, 1 in every 52 Londoners, are officially homeless; yet last year 93 billionaires were registered as resident in the capital, the highest of any city in the world, and more than in the whole of France, Russia, Germany, Switzerland or India.
One of the greatest causes of this inequality is London’s housing market: the rising cost of living on it for the majority of us, the vast profits extracted from investing in it by the anonymous few protected by offshore financial jurisdictions. In the four years we’ve been in practice, Architects for Social Housing has done its best to expose the mechanisms through which this inequality has been built into the landscape of London housing – through Government legislation, through Greater London Authority policy and through council practice. More practically, we have developed both design and policy alternatives to the estate demolition programme that is clearing London’s land of its council housing to make way for investment by global capital.
Unfortunately, the British press has as little interest in the causes of the UK housing crisis as it has in the five months of Yellow Vest protests against rising inequality in France. So we have had to turn, instead, to other forums in order to make our voice heard. The art world, for instance.
This is not, however, merely a matter of convenience. The art world is a microcosm of London’s inequality. The vast majority of artists live precarious existences of financial desperation and housing insecurity, excluded both from squatting London’s 20,000 long-term empty homes and from low-cost rents in our rapidly dwindling stock of council housing. Other artists, by contrast, live lives of rock-star fame and fortune in the Inner London neighbourhoods they helped gentrify.
But the art world is far more than its artists, and for many decades now the London art world has served as a public-relations industry for oligarchs and global corporations looking to clean up their image. The price of an environmental disaster in Ireland, the deaths of workers in a Kazakhstan coal mine, the privatisation of Romania’s steel industry, or the imposition of medieval punishments for flouting the religious laws of a former British colony, can very precisely be measured by the cost of a new museum wing or gallery extension.
An estimated £90 billion of dirty money is laundered through London every year, much of it in residential property investments. For far too long the London art world has unquestioningly accepted this patronage, and it’s about time it started asking questions in return – as Hito Steyerl did about the Sackler family at the opening of her exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
But the function of the art world doesn’t stop at exercises in corporate PR or commodity investments for Russian billionaires, but has become an instrument of the housing crisis. Or we should say the housing boom, in which the term ‘Artwash’ has come to describe the role of art in dressing up the latest estate demolition scheme with artists’ residences, property guardianships, community art projects, cultural hubs and all the other blandishments with which international property developers purchase planning permission in Inner London neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, the cost of such speculation is not limited merely to the pricing out of local artists. The names of Shoreditch, Dalston, Bermondsey, Brixton, Peckham and New Cross are sufficient shorthand for the corporate visions of that shiny, priapic, bland, consumerist, mono-cultural London that is being forced upon us by the building lobbyists masquerading as politicians in Parliament, City Hall and London’s councils.
Let us make it clear that, in this programme of social cleansing that has turned London’s housing into a deposit box for global capital, architects have played at least as servile a role as artists, and a far more instrumental one. So please don’t think we’re being discriminatory. We’re merely speaking within and to the relevant institution – the ideological function of which should be the point of departure for any exhibition about power and inequality.
Architects for Social Housing welcomes, therefore, this chance to collaborate with an artist who is placing the rising inequality that is London’s defining characteristic at the centre of this exhibition by Hito Steyerl. We hope our modest contribution will provide one answer to the question of what a politically committed art and architectural practice might look like, rather than the identity politics into which so much of the contemporary art world has retreated. In demonstration of which, on Saturday 13 April, Architects for Social Housing will be leading the first of the four Power Walks that accompany this exhibition.
We thank Hito Steyerl for giving us this opportunity to show how and why the inequality for which London is now a shining model across the globe is not a failure of our current system of economic and political governance, but the intended product of its efficient functioning. It is our belief that, if we can start to turn more faces towards this unpalatable but unavoidable truth, we can begin to come up with ways to change that system.
Architects for Social Housing has already developed practical ideas to that end. If you’re interested in hearing what they are, please get in contact.
Architects for Social Housing
Geraldine Dening, Co-Director of ASH, with artist Hito Steyerl.