The Anarchist Present: Eaton Square

I know almost nothing of anarchist theory, but of what little I know there seems to be a problem with what happens afterwards. A little like Jane Eyre’s famous concluding line — ‘Reader, I married him’ — it’s the unwritten bit that follows that will determine whether the love affair was real or just infatuation. But whether the idea is to destroy the power of the state (and refuse to get married) or take power (and abolish marriage as an institution), I don’t understand how that is meant to be done or maintained against the power of the military-industrial complex backed by the wealth of international capitalism. Communism, by contrast, came up with a pretty clear image of the future once their fabled Revolution was brought about, even though so far things haven’t quite gone according to plan — quite the contrary. However, the hope and faith in the Revolution has induced a sort of idealism in communists, who tend to act as if it was always just around the corner, capitalism always in crisis and just about to fall — as it has been, it seems, practically since it reared its ugly head. I have always felt that the contradictions of capitalism are more often to be found in the hope and faith of those predicting its imminent demise than in the economic, political and ideological system that has colonised the entire world.

This hope and faith — terms more appropriate to messianic religious nutters than materialist revolutionaries — leads communists to act in ways that are purely formal approximations of political activity. The latest example was last week’s communist protest outside a Glasgow bar, apparently against Bacardi for being ‘an enemy of Cuba’. If you can’t see the ridiculousness of this you belong in Stalin’s politburo — or worse, on Tariq Ali’s picnic guest list. Quite apart from the Borg-like behaviour of its adherents towards those who don’t toe the Party Line, it’s because of such absurdities that communism has never managed to appeal to the British working class sufficiently to make it a political force in the UK, as it has been, at times, in Germany, Italy and France. As much as communism gains a certain authority from its international scope, and notwithstanding the importance of its critique of capitalism as a global system of exploitation and violence, the British working class, faced with homelessness, unemployment and poverty, and without an apparent alternative to the corruption and capitalism of the Labour Party, are not going to be lured by communists banging on about Palestine, Cuba and Venezuela and thrusting one hundred year-old texts by Lenin in their faces. The failure of communism to increase its followers — even now when there is such a need for a political alternative — is, if not proof, then a strong argument for the truth of this accusation, no matter how unpalatable it may be. The working class of Britain want to be spoken to about solutions to their own sufferings, which however much they pale besides those of the people of Palestine, Yemen or Syria, are theirs, getting worse, and to which no political movement in this country is presenting a solution.

It’s for this reason that anarchists alone, it seems to me, are grabbing the attention of the despised of Britain, the ‘left behind’, the ‘just about coping’, and other euphemisms of capitalism’s victims. Marching, demonstrating, protesting, and all the other out-of-date activities of the Left have become a purely formal, symbolic activity. That is to say, they have become the playthings of the middle-classes. They have neither constitutional reckoning (which is why President Trump really doesn’t give a fuck how many people march against him) nor political threat — not only because of the growing power of the police, army and other security forces, but because, with a few exceptions, the mass of people who march, whether in Washington or London, do so with no intention or ability to use their numbers as a political force. What was once — a long, long time ago — a demonstration of working-class power, has for some time now become little more than a show of disapproval. And politicians with armies at their disposal don’t care about disapproval.

In contrast, the occupation of an oligarch’s empty mansion in Eaton Square last week by the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians is real, not symbolic. The courts, acting with a swiftness that only a billionaire’s displeasure can buy, will have them out of there at the end of the riot police’s batons, but they have pushed back against the occupying force of capital that presides over every aspect of this servile country, and in doing so opened a chink in its armour — a chink we and others may chose to help force open. They haven’t made demands of the corrupt, they haven’t asked someone else to do something about the problem, they haven’t stood around waving flags demanding that a politician in a faraway country who has never heard of them does something he wouldn’t do in a million years and pretended they’re making a difference. They’ve taken direct action — a term that is much used but little understood. Marching, demonstrating, protesting, demanding, petitioning isn’t direct action. Whatever affectivity people might kid themselves into thinking it may have is always mediated through the recipients of their pleas, who really and truly do not give a fuck. If you don’t know and face this, your protest is not only ineffectual bullshit, it is contributing to the spectacle of democracy by which the mass of people in this and every capitalist country are kept politically passive. We are not the 99 percent — they are well in hand, watching TV, playing with their phones, discussing politics online, voting every five years; we are the 1 percent, and acting otherwise is to play your allotted role in the State’s stage management of our protest.

Anarchism may not have a plan for what happens when our three-volume romantic novel is closed and we all walk off into the sunset with Mr. Rochester, but we’re no way near crossing that line. Quite the opposite. And pretending we are is the surest way to turn our Bildungsroman into a Gothic horror. Perhaps anarchism is best understood — it’s how I understand it through watching and participating in the actions of my anarchist comrades — as political action under the yoke of capitalism — which is to say, in the horror story of our present reality.

Finally, anarchists, whether chasing fascist architect Patrik Schumacher down the street, occupying the Aylesbury Estate, smashing the Cereal Cafe, taking Tower Bridge, hanging anarchist and anti-fascist flags over Eaton Square, or setting up a homeless shelter in an oligarch’s empty mansion, really know how to produce an image that captures the imagination of anyone in Britain who may be thinking of throwing off the shackles of capitalism and the blindfold of parliamentary democracy and joining the fight. And under the blanket propaganda that keeps the British electorate in a state of consumerist complacency rising, when required, to xenophobic hatred, this is one of the most important tasks of direct action. I’d suggest that, if communists ever want to turn their Revolution into reality, they should start learning from the anarchists.

After victory for Harrods’ workers organised by United Voices of the World, and the halt to the compulsory purchase order on Millwall Football ground and the surrounding estates and businesses by the campaign of local resistance, the occupation of 102 Belgrave Place, which has been reported around the world, is our third victory in London in 2017. And we’re still in January.

Architects for Social Housing

Estate Demolition and the Business of Homelessness

Ivy House, a private hostel for homeless families by Manor House tube station, stands directly opposite the former Woodberry Down Estate, where 1,980 council homes were demolished when the current Hackney Mayor, Philip Glanville, was Cabinet Member for Housing. According to the Woodberry Down masterplan, which was granted planning permission by Hackney Labour Council in February 2014, these are being replaced with 3,292 luxury apartments for private sale, and 2,265 so-called ‘affordable’ units – that is, up to 80 per cent of market rate – of which a mere 1,088 have been promised for social rent. These proposed tenancies, however, are dependent upon future viability assessments – which means the profit margins of the developers.

Woodberry Down is being redeveloped by property developers Berkeley Homes and Genesis housing association, which according to Hackney Labour Council is responsible for delivering over 1,900 homes for social rent and shared ownership. However, in July 2015 Neil Hadden, the chief executive of Genesis, declared: ‘We are not able, or being asked, to provide affordable and social rented accommodation to people who should be looking to the market to solve their own problems.’ The Berkeley Group, which has the highest profit margins of any builder in the UK, recorded a 34 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £392.7 million in the six months to the end of October 2016, up from £293.3 million over the same period the previous year. The Chairman of the Berkeley Group, Anthony William Pidgley, CBE, has a total annual compensation, made up of his salary, annual bonus and stock options, of £21.489 million.

Former council tenants on Woodberry Down estate who moved into the Genesis homes have complained that they have fewer rights as housing association tenants, receive worse service and pay much higher bills. And there are reports – particularly from pensioners and low-income families – of tenants having to go into debt just to afford the heating, or of moving out altogether because they cannot afford their increased rent, service charges and utility bills.

The women in the hostel across the road live in single bedsits with their children, and although Ivy House is categorised as temporary accommodation some families have been there for more than two years. They are allowed no visitors at any time, day or night, are not permitted to eat in their room, cannot smoke anywhere in the hostel, and are prohibited from using their own bed sheets. CCTV is fitted throughout, and there are regular room inspections by staff. One interviewed mother said: ‘I feel like I’m in a prison.’ Their entire Housing Benefit goes to the privately-owned hostel.

Ivy House, which has 97 bedsits over 2 floors, is owned by Rooms & Studios London, a company set up by business operations expert Danny Edgar and structural engineer and technocrat Zamir Haim. They have 1,500 units for rent across London, and describe the accommodation as being for ‘professionals, students and hostel seekers’. In the three decades they have operated in London the two entrepreneurs have bought, built, refurbished and sold assets worth over £200 million.

Hackney Labour Council currently houses 793 homeless families in hostels like Ivy House, the highest number of any London borough, where a total of 2,733 households, around 8,000 people, live in temporary accommodation, the sixth highest in London. £35 million per year in Housing Benefit is being paid to private landlords like Rooms & Studios London in order to house homeless families in temporary accommodation in Hackney – but it’s being paid by Central Government, not Hackney Council. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Hackney Mayor recently stated he was ‘pleased’ he kept the borough’s hostels open.

Hackney Council isn’t alone. London Labour Councils lead the way in the number of homeless households they place in temporary accommodation, making up 10 of the 13 worst councils and accounting for 37,661 households out of a total of 53,343. That’s upwards of 150,000 people, including 90,000 children, living in temporary housing, bed and breakfasts, hostels and other private accommodation across London. Yet the programme of estate demolition – also led by London Labour Councils – continues.

According to figures released this month by the Department of Communities and Local Government compiled from the 2015-16 data returns of Local Authority Housing Statistics, 5,098 dwellings owned by London Labour Councils (out of a total of 6,139 across the capital) are sitting empty this winter. But in reality, given the number of council estates having their housing stock transferred to private developers and housing associations and then emptied – and left empty for years on end – in preparation for their demolition, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg.

In the face of this housing crisis, Hackney Labour Council has recently announced the extension of its demolition programme to 19 council estates across the borough. This doesn’t include its collaboration with the Guinness Partnership in its plans to demolish Northwold Estate, whose council housing stock was transferred to the housing association. In place of the 19 demolished council estates, Hackney Council has said that it’s going to build 2,760 new homes: 1,360 for private sale, 500 for shared ownership or joint equity – about whose dangers residents are kept in the dark – with 900 homes promised for social rent.

What Hackney Labour Council doesn’t say, however, is how many council homes it will demolish across the 19 estates, how many residents will be made homeless by the demolition of their homes, how many will be able to afford to take up the council’s ‘Right to Return’ to the new developments, how many will be housed in privately-owned temporary accommodation for how many years within the borough, how many will be moved out of the borough under the threat of being declared to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ (at which point, following the 2011 Localism Act, the council’s duty of care is now discharged), how many net homes for social rent will be lost to the estate demolition programme, or what guarantees it gives that the 900 homes for social rent it has promised will actually be built now that, with the changes to planning legislation under the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, there are no longer any obligations to do so. And you can understand why.

Architects for Social Housing



ASH was recently asked a number of questions about our principles and practices by a member of Momentum, a faction of the Labour Party supporting Jeremy Corbyn that we have been highly critical of in the past because of its support for Labour councils demolishing council estates. Many of the questions we were asked are one’s ASH has been asked before; but what made these different was that they were based on consistently inaccurate perceptions about what we believe and what we do. Perhaps it was no more than a provocation; but it was interesting to see so many contributors to our Facebook page respond at such length to the questions, and correct so many of the lies spread about the viability of estate refurbishment by the councils trying to demolish them. One of the things we were asked was ‘What is ASH?’, and I think the discussion that ensued is one of the answers to that question. It seemed to us, therefore, that it might be useful to anyone interested in ASH to publish these questions on our blog along with our answers, which incorporated many of the contributors’ responses.

I’m not really sure who or what ASH is, but these are genuine questions to them or this forum:

1) What is your alternative to estate redevelopment on estates that are past their sell-by date? Do you simply think the council should spend millions on keeping decrepit buildings upright when it would be cheaper in the long run to rebuild? I think many of the tower block demolitions were probably wrong, and no one now suggests removing those still standing, but blocks like Tower Court, where I worked for years as a gardener, clearly needed demolishing as it was covered in cracks. Similarly, I think it strange that you appear to dispute the claim that there is a need for family-sized flats, and your position of not redeveloping appears to leave many families in substandard, too small accommodation.

2) If you accept there is a need for some redevelopment, which I hope you do, how would you finance it? I don’t need to point out that we have lived now through decades of attacks on social housing by central governments, both Tory and Labour, wedded to the ideology of ‘mixed communities’. There is no money for social housing in Hackney. The mayor, Philip Glanville, is clear that their redevelopment is only possible via the sale of significant numbers of luxury flats and providing so-called affordable housing. What is your alternative to this funding? Personally, on Woodberry Down – again somewhere I have known and worked on for 30 years and is now not great housing – I think they could have done far more piecemeal approach, redevelop bits at a time; but fundamentally there were blocks there, like where Skinners School is now, that were cracking up, had no lifts, so no good for mums and the old. Another good example, which I campaigned around initially, was Haggerston West with Carl Taylor. Haggerston East was transferred to CanalSide, who actually did do up the old blocks, knocked some flats together, and that was the option that I would have liked on Haggerston West. However, what was proposed on Haggerston West gave a lot more houses, a lot more flats, and that persuaded the tenants who voted – those that were left – for the council’s scheme. I think they were conned, but, equally, I understand that the kind of money that CanalSide used was not available for the Haggerston West redevelopment, and that that could only have been funded by private housing. Fundamentally it seems to come down to this: you seem to believe that all redevelopment is gentrification as it introduces luxury flats, so does this mean you simply want to keep things static?

3) Where do you think London Borough of Hackney will get money to renovate flats from? By building private infill, as you slightly bizarrely seem to support? I was involved in opposing the council’s infill Estates Plus programme 10 years ago, as the tenants felt it took away their garages and green space. We won, by the way. If you think that the council can simply borrow money I would be very interested to hear of examples where this has happened, as I am unaware and think there are some legal issues, but I may be wrong.


Thank you for your questions, which I’ll try and answer as far as I can:

1) I’m not sure what you mean by estates being ‘past their sell-by date’. Half of London lives in 150 year-old Victorian brick terraces, and we don’t hear calls for them to be demolished. The concrete structures that are consistently described by councils as ‘past their sell-by date’ are nowhere near such a loose definition. You’ll recall that concrete was first used by the Romans, and the structures they used it on are doing pretty well. As the builder on the ASH forum wrote, the cracks that you put forward as evidence that these estates ‘clearly need demolishing’ are nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, like the Labour councillors whose assertions you seem to be basing your judgements on, you don’t seem to understand technically what you’re talking about, and should speak a little less authoritatively on a subject that has such consequences for the homes of thousands of residents.

As for the need for a proportion of families on estates to move into larger flats – or more accurately, flats with more bedrooms – I don’t know where you get the idea that we ‘dispute’ this. In fact, in our critique of these inaccurate judgements about the state of disrepair of council homes justifying their demolition, ASH has addressed precisely this issue in our article on Lambeth Labour Council’s ‘Criteria for Demolition’. You may wish to read this text. Again, a family growing and requiring more bedrooms does not, as you claim, make that accommodation ‘substandard’. On the contrary, the council homes Labour councils are so intent on demolishing are considerably more generous in size than the increasingly reduced space standards guiding new builds.

2) If by ‘redevelopment you mean the demolition of existing council homes and their redevelopment, then no, we do not accept that. If you take the trouble to go onto ASH’s blog, which I hope anyone would before asking us such lengthy questions, you’ll see that our first principle is ‘that increasing the housing capacity on existing council estates, rather than redeveloping them as luxury apartments, is a more sustainable solution to London’s housing needs than the demolition of the city’s social housing during a housing shortage, enabling, as it does, the continued existence of the communities they house.’ On all the design alternatives to demolition ASH has produced – on Knight’s Walk, Central Hill, West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates – we do not demolish existing homes, which we propose to refurbish, but we always introduce new homes, increasing the housing capacity of the estate by up to 45 per cent. Far from wanting to keep things ‘static’, as you assert – again, based on I’m not sure what – we propose a future for these estates by refurbishing the existing homes, keeping the community together, and adding new homes to extend the life of that community and provide more housing for rising housing demands (as opposed to real estate investments). You can find our designs for each of these proposals on our blog. If you’re genuinely interested in our proposals and how we propose funding them – which so far no council of the Labour Party has been – you can read our 50-page Feasibility Study Report on West Kensington and Gibbs Green.

3) As ASH has said consistently for some time, we believe what you call ‘redevelopment’, which only follows on from the demolition of council homes, is not gentrification but social cleansing, so your ‘seems’, once again, is wrong. I wonder where you’ve got your uniformly inaccurate opinions of ASH from: it sounds like from the Labour Councils whose social cleansing of London’s council estates we oppose. I’m also not sure what you’re trying to convey by your description of our infill proposals as ‘bizarre’, except to try to dismiss them. But if you look at our proposals, they are for both infill and roof extensions, and are a mix of homes for private rent or sale and more homes for social rent, not exclusively ‘private’ as you assert. And they never eat into the green spaces on the estate, as you suggest they have to, but are almost always built on derelict or disused land identified by residents. Again, you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about with these blanket assertions, and I invite you to look at ASH’s proposals for a better understanding.

There are a number of ways in which estates can generate the money for their refurbishment. One of these is by a Right to Transfer to a Community Land Trust, such as is being attempted by the West Kensington and Gibbs Green community. Another might be by setting up a Tenant Managed Organisation and borrowing against, for instance, future rental income, as Cressingham Gardens have suggested as one of several financial models proposed in their People’s Plan. This is up to the individual estate campaigns and residents. What we propose architecturally, which can combine with and compliment these options, is generating funds for refurbishment through the renting or selling of a proportion of the new homes we propose to build on the estates.

But more generally, your assertion that Labour councils are broke and cannot afford to refurbish their estates so they have to be redeveloped is based on a fundamental untruth, which is that refurbishment is too expensive. In fact, quite apart from all the problems of destroying a community, the disruption to lives of decanting an estate, not to mention the social, mental health and environmental consequences of demolition, refurbishment has been consistently shown to cost a fraction of demolition and redevelopment. Far from being the only financially viable option, councils are taking on enormous financial risk setting up special purpose vehicles in such an insecure housing market, and against the advice of people and institutions that have a far more objective understanding of the risks than the easily lobbied amateurs on Labour cabinets. As campaigners at Cressingham Gardens have pointed out to Lambeth Labour Council, tenants rents and service charges are ring-fenced and only allowed to be spent on housing as part of the Housing Revenue Account, and are therefore not affected by the central government funding cuts you mention. As an example, only £200-250,000 of the £1,200,000 the council collects in annual rent from Cressingham Gardens is spent on maintenance and repairs. And even if SPVs were the only way councils can raise the money they have squandered through mismanagement of the housing revenue account and the escalating wages of their officers, they should do so not in order to demolish council estates but to refurbish and extend them according to models such as that offered by ASH.

To argue that demolition and redevelopment is the only financial option is to buy into the very easily exposed lies of the Labour councils that are responsible for fabricating this argument. There are many examples of this I could give you, but to take just one, read the article on our blog by Professor Jane Rendell, based on her testimony at the Public Inquiry into the Compulsory Purchase Order on the Aylesbury Estate, about how Southwark Labour Council buried the report they commissioned into the relative cost of refurbishment versus demolition. The Labour councils to which ASH has presented its alternatives to demolition – Lambeth and Hammersmith & Fulham – have done exactly the same thing with our alternatives to demolition based on fabricated figures, withheld information, inaccurate assessments, false claims and deliberate misunderstandings – lies, in other words. The truth – which perhaps your allegiance to the cult of Corbyn has blinded you to – is that Labour councils are not looking for solutions to the housing crisis; they are devising – with Jeremy Corbyn’s blessing and Sadiq Khan’s support – ways to sell as much of our public land as possible into private hands.

Architects for Social Housing

Dear _________ Labour Council


Dear _______ Labour Council
Please don’t put a price on our homes:
Our estate is where we live,
You cannot sell what you don’t own.
When you come round here to consult with us,
Listen hard to what we say to you,
And we do hope you consider it well
When you decide what we want to do.

Dear _______ Labour Council
Please hear these words that we speak:
We know you want this land,
But in this you are not unique.
The rich get rich building luxury homes
They rent and they sell for too much,
And the rest of us work all of our lives
For a dream that we never will touch.

Dear _______ Labour Council
Please don’t dismiss what we say:
We’re not about to back down,
We’re not about to move far away.
Each one of us has a right to a home,
And we know you know this to be true,
And if you vote to regenerate us
We will vote and regenerate you.

– after Bob Dylan

Harrods and the Social Cleansing of London


There was a disproportionately large police presence last Saturday at the United Voices of the World demonstration at Harrods Department Store. The protest was called in support of 450 waiters and chefs demanding they receive 100 per cent of their tips from customers, rather than the 25 per cent they are currently receiving, which reduces the salary of each member of staff by up to £5,000 per year. To put this in context, this theft of up to 75 per cent of staff tips by management comes in a year when Harrods announced that their pre-tax profits for 2015-16 had increased by 19 percent to £168 million, sales had risen by 4 per cent to £1.4 billion, and the owners had just paid themselves a juicy £100.1 million dividend. Architects for Social Housing turned up in support of this protest, as did members of Class War, while the Left – whether in the form of other unions like Unite, the Corbyn support group Momentum, or the various Trotskyist factions such as the Socialist Workers Party – were conspicuously if unsurprisingly absent: the UVW being unaffiliated to the Labour Party and therefore beyond the bounds of its control. Despite this, the protest was well attended and conducted peacefully and in good humour, stopping the traffic several times with the giant blow-up banner, but letting people pass freely along the pavement, and we were generally well received by passers-by, with none of the well-heeled patrons taking excessive umbrage at having to enter the Harrod’s Sale by the side doors.

The only violence – as at every demonstration I have attended over the past few years – came from the Metropolitan Police Force, whose numbers grew rapidly throughout the protest. Large numbers of police vans were parked up and down the Brompton Road and along its side streets; several police camera crews filmed everyone attending from both inside and outside the department store; and eventually even riot police from the Territorial Support Group turned up – completely unnecessarily. The police attempted to bully and intimidate us from the beginning, pushing us around, fencing us in and trying to kettle us in groups. A young lad was arrested right at the beginning for letting off a red smoke flare – although what possible harm that could do to anyone beyond adding a bit of theatre to the proceedings isn’t apparent; and a middle-aged woman was arrested for alleged ‘criminal damage’ – which, when she resisted, was upgraded to ‘assaulting a police constable’ – a charge the MET hands out like confetti these days. I spoke on behalf of ASH in formal support of the UVW protest and immediately became the object of police attention to the extent that I felt I too was about to be arrested, with cameras trained on me as I walked around and much finger-pointing and notebook-scribbling by the blue-shouldered officers. Having been arrested at a demonstration last year on a similarly manufactured charge of Assault PC (a charge dropped when video evidence showed the constable assaulting me), I recognised the signs and judged it best to leave the demonstration a little early if I didn’t want to join my fellow protesters in the local nick.

Because of this, I didn’t see the subsequent arrests as the police moved in at the end of the protest, around 4pm, and arrested a further 6 people, including the General Secretary of the union, Petros Elia. Without any proof being produced, Petros was held for 17 hours in Belgravia Police Station along with 5 other protesters, then released on Sunday without charge. His bail conditions, however, as with the other protesters arrested, include prohibiting him from coming within 50 yards of Harrods, effectively precluding him from taking part in any further demonstrations by the union. Even in the long and shameful history of the UK’s industrial disputes, I can’t recall another instance of the General Secretary of a union being prohibited by the police force from approaching the company with which the union he represents is in industrial dispute. Apart from the police abusing their powers of arrest and bail to influence the course of industrial action, all of this contravenes our rights as citizens to move freely (article 5), our freedom of expression (article 10), and our freedom of assembly (article 11), under the European Convention on Human Rights; but then the police have been abusing these rights as a matter of practice for some time now without the need to change the law, as Theresa May will when she introduces the British Bill of Rights.

In reality, though – which is to say, our present reality in the UK – none of this should be surprising, since the Qatar Investment Authority that owns Harrods owns more of London than the Crown Estate, with around £30 billion worth of investments out of an estimated £275 billion in assets worldwide. A sovereign wealth fund set up to manage the surpluses from Qatar’s oil and natural gas reserves – currently the third largest in the world – in practical terms the QIA is the piggy bank of the Al Thani royal family, with the current CEO (who is also a member of the royal family) having been appointed by the Emir of Qatar. Besides its extensive foreign investments, the QIA also profits from the enslavement of millions of workers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in abject living conditions (below) in Qatar’s building industry. The International Trade Union Confederation has predicted that 7,000 construction workers will die on building sites in preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar, where 1.8 million migrant workers are kept in conditions of semi-slavery, with pay withheld, with their passports confiscated, living in work camps and labouring in 50 degree heat. In contrast to which, Qatar’s 278,000 citizens have the highest per capita income in the world.


The Qatar Investment Authority bought the Harrods Group for £2 billion in 2010, and since then has invested heavily in London real estate, acquiring the Shard, three 5-star London hotels (Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Connaught), Burberry’s Department Store, the Olympic Village (for which the Clays Lane Estate in Newham was demolished), the US Embassy (which it plans to turn into another luxury hotel), Chelsea Barracks (which it is redeveloping into luxury housing), 1-3 Cornwall Terrace (which it plans to turn into a royal palace for the Al Thani family), the Shell Centre, One Hyde Park, £1 billion and 279 acres of residential property in Mayfair, Camden Market and the whole of Canary Wharf; and its property development company, Qatari Diar, is expanding its portfolio to manage over 4,000 homes in London. The QIA also has substantial shares in Barclays Bank (with which it has twice been investigated and fined by the Serious Fraud Squad), Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, the International Airlines Group (which owns British Airways), Heathrow Airport and the London Stock Exchange.

It is hard to believe – it would be naïve to do so – that it was not under the instruction of this ruthless and immensely influential financial power with a huge presence in London that the Metropolitan Police Force arrested the General Secretary of United Voices of the World at Saturday’s demonstration. The aggressive and heavy-handed police presence at the demonstration was clearly a crude attempt to stamp out the unionisation of the Harrods workers by the UVW and their just demands for all of their tips; and the arrests of their leadership and other members is equally clearly an attempt to bully, intimidate, harass, dissuade and criminalise further union action. This demonstration was reported in advance in papers around the world, and had huge coverage in the UK leading up to Saturday; yet the following day every paper, including The Guardian, The Mirror, The Mail, The Independent and The Telegraph, as well as the reliably biased BBC, reported gleefully on the first two arrests but failed to mention the arrest of the General Secretary of United Voices of the World (the honourable exception to this censorship was The Morning Star). It’s a genuine question: would the UK, were it to apply for re-entry into the European Union, be rejected on the grounds that our police force, national press and elected government fail the requirements of the Democracy Index by repeatedly demonstrating themselves to be the instruments of corporate interest?

When ASH talks about the social cleansing of London we mean not just the forced eviction of the working class from our council estates and the replacement of their homes with investment opportunities for vehicles like the Qatar Investment Authority; we also mean the replacement of that class with a migrant workforce which, like many of the staff at Harrods, are employed on zero hours contracts, on the minimum wage, without unionisation, and who have to commute to work on long journeys from the outer boroughs of London. What is driving social cleansing is not only the enormous financial profits to be made from redeveloping land in Inner London, but the resulting demographic shift that is driving London further and further towards a Parisian model of the city, with a centre for the international rich surrounded by a suburban ring of service industry workers drawn from a largely migrant population. And we saw in 2016 how that social contract is working out.

It should also not surprise us to learn that several protesters, who were arrested later that evening, were initially detained by Harrods security guards in cells they keep for suspected shoplifters located in the basement of the department store. It seems the Qatar royal family not only regards Harrods as part of its private emirate, but believes that British citizens on its property are subject to the same laws under which they keep 1.8 million workers enslaved in Qatar – and judging by the actions of the MET on Saturday they’re right. The use of our police force to break union action and demonstrations, and the increase in their powers of surveillance and arrest under the cloak of protecting us from terrorism, is part of a vast project of social engineering that is transforming every aspect of our public and private lives in the UK, and of which the demolition of our social housing for foreign investment is only one campaign. It is for this reason that ASH has been publicising, supporting and reporting on this struggle by UVW. ‘The workers united will never be defeated’ – a phrase we used at the demonstration – is not just a nostalgic chant, it’s a political imperative; and if we don’t want to see London socially cleansed and replaced with the working conditions, employment practices and class relations being imported from totalitarian states like Qatar, we’d better take up its call now. Architects for Social Housing stands in solidarity with United Voices of the World in our shared struggle to oppose the forces of our economic, political and legal subjugation in 2017.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing


Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social Housing Legacies and Futures

‘In 2004, architects Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal, and Frédéric Druot authored a manifesto on the value of renovation over demolition with a powerful opening statement: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse!” Their study, PLUS, came in response to an architectural competition to replace a 1960s high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, and has become emblematic of a surging interest in refurbishing post-war high-rise and superblock housing.

‘Cities worldwide undertook major residential building programs in the mid-Twentieth Century to create much-needed new housing for workers and low-income residents. Usually built with direct state intervention and in clustered developments on superblock sites, mass housing took different forms – from carefully detailed British council estates to aggressively pragmatist high-rises in the United States – but held the common promise of modern, reasonably priced apartments. This built fabric today represents a significant physical asset, yet in many cases suffers from maintenance issues, financial disinvestment, and social stigma.

‘Where once demolition seemed the de facto response to these persistent issues, efforts in a number of cities demonstrate that we can serve current residents, steward resources for the future, and reinvigorate the urban fabric through smart public policy and good design. Redevelopment has gone by different names – regeneration, transformation, revitalisation – but in many of the best cases looks to maintain and improve the existing building stock and surroundings. When we choose to reinvest – in many cases the more financially, socially, and environmentally conscious decision – how do we do so in ways that benefit and protect current residents?

Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social Housing Legacies and Futures will examine the history, current status, and prospects of high-rise and superblock residential development. The conference will confront questions of design and policy. What does it mean to reconsider this building stock as an asset, rather than a liability or failure? How can the building stock be reimagined to better serve current residents and future generations? And what roles can architects, designers and affiliated professionals play in housing crises?’

The Architectural League of New York (10 December, 2016)

Confucius Plaza Apartments (1975)

A limited-equity housing cooperative in Chinatown with 762 apartments, the 44-storey Confucius Plaza building was the first major public-funded housing project built almost exclusively for Chinese Americans. Initiated by a Chinese-American shop owner who organised a development group through word of mouth and the use of Chinese-language newspapers, and funded mainly by the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, the project became the centre of a significant protest led by Asian-Americans for Equal Employment, which protested the lack of Chinese or Asian-American construction workers. Later joined by a host of other Chinatown organisations, as well as city-wide minority workers’ groups including the Black and Puerto Rican Coalition, the demonstrations led to the hiring of roughly 40 Asian-American workers as well as the addition of community and commercial facilities to the housing complex.

Sugar Hill Development (2014)

A mixed-use development in Harlem with 124 apartm, 70 per cent of the Sugar Hill apartments are targeted to extremely low-income (30 per cent Average Median Income, or below $25,750 for a family of four) and very low-income households (50 per cent AMI, or below $42,950 for a family of four), with the remaining 30 per cent rented to households below 80 per cent AMI ($68,700 for a family of four). 25 of the 124 apartments are reserved for homeless families; of the remainder, 50 per cent are reserved for residents of Community District 9. Residents were chosen by lottery and will not pay more than 30 per cent of their gross income in rent. Designed by Adjaye Associates and developed by the not-for-profit Broadway Housing Communities, the 13-storey building also includes, at ground level, a 100-seat pre-school, a children’s art museum and a community room.

– Susanne Schindler, Architecture vs. Housing: The Case of Sugar Hill 

Architects for Social Housing

Avant-Garde Architecture: The Seagram Building

The lesson of modernism was that meaning comes not from content but from relationship. If – and God help our students if we were – ASH was teaching a class in architecture, our first lesson would be to ask our students to write an essay on the Seagram Building, for our money among the best buildings in Manhattan. Unlike all the muscular frat boys rubbing shoulders as they push through Midtown East, it sits back from both Park Avenue and 53rd Street in its own plaza, which, apart from a flagpole and (when we were there) some seasonal Christmas trees, is completely bare. This gives it all the room it needs, and like Lionel Messi on the edge of the opposition’s box, you can’t take your eyes of it. It sits there, wrapped in what looks like the blackest black you’ve ever seen, brooding. You’re not even sure whether it heard your stammered offer to buy it a drink, let alone whether it’ll accept one. It has a hundred thousand imitators, many of them standing within a few blocks, but no equal. That’s not surprising. Each art movement has its day, and later imitators can never equal the inventors: Picasso in Cubism, Holiday in Jazz singing, Parker in Bebop, Dylan in popular music. Mies van der Rohe was one of the handful of inventors of this architectural language, and this is his masterpiece.

The noisy idiots – and they are legion, particularly in this country, particularly in positions of power – who dismiss the modernist grid as repetitive and boring have gelded eyes, and should confine themselves to a-symbolic gasps at the latest clothes on the Emperor’s fashion parade. You might as meaningfully dismiss Mondrian’s Neo-plasticism, which for twenty years limited its palette to a black grid on a white ground with three primary colours. And Mies van der Rohe, if anything, has gone even further, to something like the black-on-black paintings of Rodchenko. Everything here is about proportions. The proportion of the building to the plaza, of height to width, front to side, footprint to mass, of ground and top floor to the floors between, of windows to crossbeams, frontage to reception, doorway to door, of each element of the grid to the totality – which is what this building is: a total work of art, combining every lesson on architecture from Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to Le Corbussier’s Unité d’habitation, and containing within it a thousand more buildings – if only architects knew how to look as well as build.

Architecture is an experiential form, and if you can’t feel in your bones the rightness and harmony and tensions and dynamism and mass of these proportions as you walk around this building, you have no right putting yourself forward to become an architect. Nowadays (and perhaps it was ever thus) we are inundated with musicians with no ear, artists with no eye, actors with no voice, dancers who can’t move, singers who can’t sing, writers with no feeling for words. But above all, looking around London, we are suffering under a time in which the buildings being thrust upon us – from the anodyne homogeneity of the New London Vernacular to the back-of-a-napkin doodles of the towers lining the Thames – are quite clearly designed by architects who have no eye for formal relationships, no sense of composition, no awareness of proportion, no feeling for architectural form – by architects, in other words, who are not architects.

And above all, by architects with no interest in the social dimension of architecture. I said an appreciation of the formal relationships of the Seagram Building would be the first lesson, not the last. ASH is not a modernist architectural practice but an avant-garde collective. No doubt the designers of parametric blancmanges, high-tech emporia and amusingly nicknamed towers will think us arrogant if we say that ASH, to our knowledge, is the only avant-garde architectural collective in the U.K. But before its innovations in form were turned into the formalism of the post-war neo-avant-garde, whose proponents lived largely in the United States, the avant-garde was first and foremost a response to changing social circumstances. Dada, which rose in rebellion against the insanity of the Great War, was exemplary in this respect, and has much to tell us about our own epoch of violent absurdity. The Seagram Building, completed in 1958 and designed by a leading member of the European avant-garde who moved to the U.S., is a prime example of the decadence into which modernism fell. Perfect in its formal relationships, its formal purity is utterly corrupted by its social use – its International Style having become the perfect expression of the international capitalism of its tenants. Originally designed as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram’s & Sons, today the building is occupied by the following companies:

  • Quadrangle Group, a private investment firm that has raised $3 billion of equity capital;
  • Trilantic Capital Partners, a global private equity firm with aggregate capital commitments of approximately $6 billion;
  • Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a private equity investment firm managing $17 billion of assets in 52 businesses with an aggregate transaction value in excess of $80 billion;
  • Centerbridge Partners, a multi-strategy private investment firm managing over $25 billion of assets;
  • Winton Capital Management, a British investment management firm managing $25 billion of assets;
  • Wells Fargo & Company, an American international banking and financial services holding company with $1.849 trillion of assets. In 2015 it became the world’s largest bank by market capitalisation before slipping behind JP Morgan Chase in September 2016 in the wake of a scandal involving the alleged creation of over 2 million fake bank accounts by thousands of Wells Fargo employees. Has since become the third-largest U.S. bank by assets, and the second largest by deposits, home mortgage servicing and debit cards, and was ranked 7th on the Forbes Magazine Global 2000 list of the largest public companies in the world.

Perhaps the U.S. flag that flutters in the plaza stands for all this horror. So even if you are one of those architects who can see and feel and appreciate the formal purity of the Seagram Building (to which these photographs only approximate), don’t start patting yourself on the back just yet, because if you can’t also see and feel and get angry about – and more importantly want to do something about – its social and political dimension, then you don’t belong with ASH.

And whatever you feel, before you presume to put yourself forward to be an architect, ask yourself first what the final and ultimately determining relationship of this building is – which is the social relationship between its perfection of form and corruption of content. Because only when you understand that the separation of form from content, of the appearance of a building from its social and economic use, is an abstract division that serves the ideology of the abstract markets of capitalism, where profit is divorced from the labour from which it is extracted, and the value of housing is measured by other criteria than its use as a home, will you be ready to become an architect for social housing.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing