Central government in Westminster, local London government and an amalgam of interests and forces have colluded over the past twenty years in transforming the inner city boroughs of London through gentrification and social cleansing. In this process, unprecedented numbers of unemployed, working poor and lower middle-class residents have been banished from central locations into the periphery and beyond. The Independent, in 2014, put the number of poor families that had to leave London in the years 2011-14 alone at 50,000.
Since gentrification was first identified in London’s Islington in 1964, the processes involved have intensified and mutated. In North Europe, gentrification became in the 1990s a particular and intended feature of urban regeneration; and while in the UK, as in the US, gentrification is mostly market-led, government has contributed to and exacerbated this process, welcoming it as a solution to the ‘problem’ of inner cities. The reclaiming of inner cities from ‘obsolete’ unskilled labourers, migrants and poor has been understood to relate to the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Such an understanding envisions a moment of equilibrium, in which gentrification comes to an end once real-estate values reach a certain limit. Yet the entry of global finance into local real estate markets has upended existing theories of gentrification. London in particular, since the 2007-8 crisis, has become a refuge for investments - capital relocated from precarious investments in insecure conditions in cities such as Athens to the safety of London. As the comfortable middle classes have been placed under similar pressures to those experienced by the poor and lower middle class, so housing and gentrification have become increasingly major political issues.
The exodus of middle class citizens from over-priced inner city boroughs is now remaking London’s suburban outer boroughs. The newcomers, in search of affordable housing and bringing with them specific expectations and demands for urban forms of living; the borough councils, interested in attracting economically-active residents and development; and real estate, focused on opportunities of profit making, have together been remaking London’s suburbia. Higher densities have been created, urban morphologies and architectural typologies absent in suburbia have emerged, and urban forms of culture introduced.
In this context, the role of the architect appears pre-determined: in the inner city, to design high-end luxury housing for international investment, and in the outer boroughs to design housing that responds to the specific demands, values and expectations of middle class buyers. The studio intends to critique the role of the discipline and practice in such urban processes by studying other ways of doing architecture. It posits that architecture can contribute positively to a neighbourhood and a community by questioning the boundaries placed on architectural agency by developers and city councils; by identifying the spatial forms corresponding to relevant oppositional or alternative social forms; by altering the relation of the singular building to the urban whole – the latter understood as the cité, the political community. Another cité, the studio argues, is possible.