Invisible Britain: The Art of Catharsis

Paul Sng, Invisible Britain (2018)

1. The Art of Catharsis

Who profits from the housing crisis? The immediate answer is obvious: property developers, housing associations, estate agents, consultants, architects, builders, the people who knock down council housing and replace it with new-build properties, half of which currently stand empty in London.

But there are other people who profit too. First in line, spotting a market in sob-stories for the middle classes, are the journalists, whose thin prose and even thinner research doesn’t stop them from bundling a few articles together and calling it a book. Behind them, ponderous as ever but champing at the bit of the next government grant, are the academics, who have responded to the burgeoning market in well-footnoted (to other academics), badly framed (‘gentrification’) and totally apolitical books about the housing crisis, which they transform into just another object in their musty archive.

But a new profiteer has emerged. As the public’s interest even in the fluff on the bookshelves wanes, enter the artist. In verbatim theatre productions, in performance poetry, in documentary films, in protest songs and in books of glossy photographs, the artist is the new self-appointed spokesperson for the masses, and their great claim to this role is – not the political and representational agency of their work – but something much more important: their sincerity.

The English have a strong claim to being the most artistically illiterate nation in Europe, and generally prefer a nice swing to anything that makes them think. But this week, thinking about the latest piece of artistic ‘activism’ to come off the shelves, full of sincerity and endorsements from every hack, academic and actor in town, I was reminded of what the German critic, Walter Benjamin, said about fascism in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction. Fascism, remember, was a kitsch, saccharine aesthetic that sugar-coated the violence it depicted for the masses in images of noble sacrifice; and it has more than a few parallels with the photographs of homeless Britains, protesting Palestinians and starving Yemenis that decorate our Sunday supplements or perch in glossy tomes atop many an Islington coffee table. Trying to understand this aestheticisation of the violence of the political, Benjamin concluded: ‘Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’

Poverty porn is nothing new, and has been the staple of reality TV for some time, preparing the way for the political assault on the working class it has served. Somewhat belatedly, the liberals who have colonised the arts in this country have now come up with their own use for the working class. Springing from the Methodism that defines the aesthetic and political sensibilities of the so-called Left in this country, this goes something along the lines of: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ In the political vacuum of liberalism, art is the opium of the middle classes, its aesthetic pleasures the last refuge from their willing embrace of the violence of capitalism.

It’s not by chance that the favoured, most sought after and most highly valued aesthetic response of the middle classes is tears. Tears stop the middle-class film-goer from seeing what’s in front of his face when he leaves the auditorium. Tears, whatever she may think when leafing through a book of moving photographs, are always shed for herself. And the feel of tears running down your cheek, the salty taste of them in your mouth, makes you feel that somehow you are sharing in the suffering you tell as many people as possible is their cause. Identification (preferably with a distant victim) is the cathartic object of the immersive art ‘experience’. ‘Heartbreaking!’ is the ultimate accolade for the liberal work of art. So what role does art play for its liberal audience in search of catharsis?
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Supply and Demand in Centre Point Residences

Last week I was commissioned by VICE to write about the news that the unsold apartments in Central Point Residences had been taken off the market by the developer until offers met their multi-million-pound sale price. VICE only wanted 800 words; but this is the longer article I got out of it, in which I look at some of the more glaring fallacies in UK housing policy. This is based on three principles that underpin the cross-party consensus on the marketisation of housing provision by local authorities: 1) attracting overseas investment as the primary source of revenue for house building; 2) increasing the supply of residential properties for market sale to reduce house prices; and 3) cross-subsidising affordable housing provision with the sale of residential properties at the highest possible market price. In this article I look at why all three of these principles are fundamentally flawed as a model for the provision of housing Londoners can afford to rent or buy, and are instead designed to produce vast profits for those who invest in and sell the commodities in this property market. In a way, this is my response to Patrik Schumacher’s article ‘Only Capitalism Can Solve the Housing Crisis’, which was published by the Adam Smith Institute in April; but unlike Schumacher, my counter arguments aren’t based on academic theories about how capitalism can and should work, but on the all-too-real evidence of what capitalism has produced – beginning with the causes and effects of London’s housing crisis.

Photograph from Centrepointresidences.co.uk

From one end of London to the other we hear the same demand, from council meeting and corporate board room, from housing association and think tank, from architect and property developer, from Labour cabinet and Tory ministry, from the Greater London Authority and the House of Commons: ‘We must build more homes!’ This cross-party consensus between political rivals, the public and the private spheres, should alert us to the fact that something else is at stake here than the mere housing of London’s citizens, which has always been far down the ladder of political priorities; something which the announcement this week that the multi-million-pound properties in Centre Point Residences have been taken off the market for lack of offers matching their asking price has drawn into focus.

The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was elected on a promise to build 50,000 new homes every year he was in office. Unsurprisingly, his electoral opponents promised the same. As do the Conservative Government, the Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats. The argument for doing so goes something like this. London has a housing crisis. If we build more homes the demand will drop, and with it the prices. This supposed ‘law’ of supply and demand is used to justify everything from the estate regeneration programme that threatens hundreds of London council estates with demolition to the hundreds of empty towers with planning permission in Inner London.

But there is a second part to this argument. Despite being the sixth largest economy in the world, the UK, apparently, is broke. There is no money for council housing as there was, for instance, after the Second World War, when the national debt was 245 per cent of GDP. To build the housing we need, London has to attract investment – from the private sector, from offshore companies, from foreign investors, from overseas buyers. This means that a lot of the housing that gets built will be for market sale, and some of it will be the sort of multi-million-pound apartments in Centre Point Residences; but with this money councils and developers can build ‘genuinely’, ‘truly’ (the adjectives increase with their prices) affordable housing for Londoners both present and future. Let’s test the truth value of this argument, which continues to define London’s housing policies, against the example of Centre Point Residences.

Photograph from the Met Archives

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London’s Most Influential: Citigroup and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

‘What makes a city influential? Some say it’s the economic opportunities or the technological capabilities or the possibilities of connecting with other cities. We say it all comes down to people. The progress-makers. The ones whose boundless drive, passion and brilliance bring a city to life like no other. They’re why we’ve made it our job to be here. Believing in their ideas. Backing their ambitions. Making them real. In London. Around the world.

– Citigroup, The Progress 1000: London’s Most Influential People (2018)

‘The Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.’

The Big Short (2015)

Citigroup Inc. is an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation with its headquarters in New York City. Citigroup owns Citicorp, the holding company for Citibank, as well as several international subsidiaries. Citigroup is ranked 3rd on the list of largest banks in the United States and, alongside JPMorgan ChaseBank of America, and Wells Fargo, is one of the Big Four banks. Citigroup is rated a systemically important financial institution and as such is on the list of systemically important banks that are regarded as too big to fail. It is also one of the nine global investment banks in the Bulge Bracket. Citigroup is ranked 32nd on the Fortune 500 list of the largest United States corporations by total revenue for their respective fiscal years. Citigroup has over 200 million customer accounts and does business in more than 160 countries. It has 209,000 employees, although it had 357,000 employees before the financial crisis of 2007-2008, when it was rescued via a massive stimulus package by the U.S. government.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Heavy exposure to troubled mortgages in the form of collateralised debt obligation (CDOs), compounded by poor risk management, led Citigroup into trouble as the subprime mortgage crisis worsened in 2008. The company had used elaborate mathematical risk models that looked at mortgages in particular geographical areas, but never included the possibility of a national housing downturn, or the prospect that millions of mortgage holders would default on their mortgages. Trading head Thomas Maheras was close friends with senior risk officer David Bushnell, which undermined risk oversight. As Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin was said to be influential in lifting the Glass–Steagall Act that allowed Travelers and Citicorp to merge in 1998. Then on the board of directors of Citigroup, Rubin and Charles Prince were said to be influential in pushing the company towards mortgage-backed security (MBS) and CDOs in the subprime mortgage market.

Starting in June 2006, Senior Vice President Richard M. Bowen III, the chief underwriter of Citigroup’s Consumer Lending Group, began warning the board of directors about the extreme risks being taken on by the mortgage operation that could potentially result in massive losses. The group bought and sold $90 billion of residential mortgages annually. Bowen’s responsibility was essentially to serve as the quality control supervisor ensuring the unit’s creditworthiness. When Bowen first became a whistleblower in 2006, 60 per cent of the mortgages were defective. The amount of bad mortgages began increasing throughout 2007 and eventually exceeded 80 per cent of the volume. Many of the mortgages were not only defective, but were a result of mortgage fraud. Bowen attempted to rouse the board via weekly reports and other communications. On November 3, 2007, Bowen emailed Citigroup Chairman Robert Rubin and the bank’s chief financial officer, head auditor and the chief risk management officer to again expose the risk and potential losses, claiming that the group’s internal controls had broken down and requesting an outside investigation of his business unit.

The subsequent investigation revealed that at the Consumer Lending Group had suffered a breakdown of internal controls since 2005. Regardless of the findings of the investigation, Bowen’s charges were ignored, despite the fact that withholding such information from shareholders violated the Sarbanes–Oxley Act (SOX), which he had pointed out. Citigroup CEO Charles Prince signed a certification that the bank was in compliance with SOX despite Bowen revealing this wasn’t so. Citigroup eventually stripped Bowen of most of his responsibilities and informing him that his physical presence was no longer required at the bank. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission asked him to testify about Citigroup’s role in the mortgage crisis, and he did so, appearing as one of the first witnesses before the Commission in April 2010.

As the crisis began to unfold, on 11 April 11, 2007, Citigroup announced that it would eliminate 17,000 jobs, or about 5 percent of its workforce, in a broad restructuring designed to cut costs and bolster its long underperforming stock. Even after securities and brokerage firm Bear Stearns ran into serious trouble in the summer of 2007, Citigroup decided the possibility of trouble with its CDO’s was so tiny (less than 1/100 of 1 per cent) that they excluded them from their risk analysis. With the crisis worsening, on 7 January, 2008, Citigroup announced that it was considering cutting another 5 percent to 10 percent of its 327,000 member-workforce.

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The Architecture of Death

IMG_3354

As some of you will know, on Tuesday, 2 October a man was killed by a window pane falling from the Corniche building, which with Merano Residences (designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners) and the Dumont building (designed by David Walker Architects) is one of three new developments of what the advertising boards call ‘luxury apartments and penthouses’ that make up the newly-named Albert Embankment Plaza. This lies within the Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea Opportunity Area, over which the London Mayor has planning authority.

Like the other two buildings comprising the Albert Embankment Plaza, the Corniche was built by the Berkeley Group, the largest property developer in London, which has 75 per cent of its sites inside the M25, and pre-tax profits for the year ending April 2018 of £934.9 million, up 15 per cent on the previous year. The building was designed by Foster + Partners, the largest architectural practice in the UK, with pre-tax profits last year of £20.8 million, and whose partners took £23.4 million in bonuses, up 43 per cent on the previous year.

ASH went round to have a look at the building later that day, and the fallen pane could clearly be seen missing from the penthouse apartment on the 27th floor. The last five remaining 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom apartments are currently on sale for between £2.7 million and £6.25 million, but the penthouse from which the window pane fell was reported by the architecture and design magazine Dezeen to have been on the market for £22 million (although this information has subsequently been removed).

Apparently this isn’t the first time a window pane has fallen from the building. Last August, during construction of what Foster’s website describes as ‘curved gardens in the sky’, another pane slipped from its frame and nearly hit two carpenters working on the site. Despite this precedence, the hoardings outside the building advertise the Corniche as ‘Life ahead of the curve’, the irony of which disappears with this latest fatality from London’s housing.

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Calling All Architects: New Approaches to Old Housing

This article is based on separate video conference interviews conducted by Emily Schmidt in October 2017 with Geraldine Dening and Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing (ASH), architect Frédéric Druot, and Graeme Stewart and Ya’el Santopinto of ERA Architects and the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (CUG+R).

Emily Schmidt and Rosalie Genevro, ‘Calling all Architects: New Approaches to Old Housing’, in Housing as Intervention: Architecture Towards Social Equity, guest-edited by Karen Kubey, Architectural Design, vol. 88 (July/August 2018)

Southwark Sleeper: A New Housing Initiative for London’s Homeless (Or Not)

In exciting news for developers, Sadiq Khan has announced a new package of funding under his Homes for Londoners programme. In collaboration with Southwark council, ‘Southwark Sleeper’ will be test-piloted this winter as a solution to the growing army of London’s homeless. Peter John OBE, Leader of Southwark council and newly-elected Chair of London Councils, told reporters: ‘I’m very excited about this new initiative, which demonstrates once again that Labour is the party of practical solutions. Every homeless family will be offered their very own container, the construction of which by Sheffield-based My Container Ltd will be subsidised by London’s Labour Mayor to the sum of £50,000 per container. All the lucky recipient has to do is clean up the contaminated land on which it will be located.’ When asked whether constituents refusing to be housed in the containers will be classified as ‘intentionally homeless’, Councillor John said he had an urgent business lunch with property developers Lendlease at the London Stadium and ‘couldn’t take anymore questions’.

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What Is To Be Done? Changing Metaphors of Change

Jean-Luc Godard, La Chinoise (1967)

1. Radical for Revolutionary

During my misspent youth we spoke, however hopelessly – no doubt because hopelessly – of ‘revolution’; even, with an eye to dialectical materialism, of ‘The Revolution.’ I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. But nowadays (except among my communist comrades) the standard appellation among socialists and activists alike, including many self-styled anarchists, is the word ‘radical’, which is used to describe everything from networks, assemblies, meetings, marches, communities, groups and theories, to book fairs, magazines, trainers, pop bands, fitness clubs, restaurants, marketing consultants and advertising agencies. To understand this shift in metaphor – from the turning wheel of revolution to the excavated root of radicalism – it’s useful to consider the origins of this word, both etymological and historical, and why it has been adopted as a viable alternative to the previously revolutionary aims of political practice. This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Radical / adjective & noun
[Late Latin radicalis, from Latin radix: root.)
A. adjective. 
1. Forming the root, basis, or foundation; original, primary. (Late Middle English)
2. a. Of a quality etc: inherent in the nature of a thing or person; fundamental. (Late Middle English) b. Of action, change, an idea, etc: going to the root or origin; pertaining to or affecting what is fundamental; far-reaching, thorough. (Middle 17th Century) c. POLITICS. Advocating thorough or far-reaching change; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; specifically: History. belonging to an extreme wing of the Liberal Party. (Early 19th Century) d. Characterised by departure from tradition; progressive; unorthodox. (Early 20th Century)
B. noun.
1.
PHILOLOGY. a. A root; a radical word or letter.

2. A basis, a fundamental thing or principle. (Mid 17th century)
5. A politically radical person. (Early 19th Century)

The political sense of radical as meaning ‘change from the roots’ was first recorded in 1802 (as a noun) and in 1817 (as an adjective) to describe the extreme section of the bourgeois Whig Party, which went on to form the Liberal Party in 1859. It has been used to mean ‘unconventional’ since 1921, and has been used in slang since 1983, derived from 1970s U.S. surfer-slang meaning ‘at the limits of control’.

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