Beige Holes of Fitzrovia: new squares are generic nowhere places derived from transactions and contracts

Creative, thoughtful landscape architects may be trapped in the making of non-spaces by development processes

Two new privately owned public spaces (POPS) in Fitzrovia are products of development and real estate speculation in a wildly distorted market. The first project, completed in 2016, is GROSS.MAX.’s design for Fitzroy Place, and the second is Gustafson Porter + Bowman’s Rathbone Square, completed in September 2017. Both developments are responding directly to market forces: “form follows finance.”

Entrance walkway.

These new urban spaces have the power to attract, compress, and trap money in the financial system as black holes consume all matter in their supergravity.

In each, no expense is spared on the landscape, as these landscapes are what drive the sales of the apartments on overseas speculative markets, along with images of the interiors. All aspects of the design are geared toward their imageability on real estate websites and in glossy brochures. “Landscape is a commodity,” acknowledges Eelco Hooftman of GROSS.MAX.

Of course, it can be argued that landscape has always been a commodity — certainly when it is employed as the scenography of power and private wealth, as it has so often been. It is an irony, though, at a time when the landscape profession is more focused than ever on themes of sustainability and ecology and social benefit, that the most lucrative work for Britain’s best landscape practices is rooted elsewhere — and nowhere. The scenography of contemporary capital demands a virgin space so that its business logic is not disrupted by the ethical obligations that the real city demands.

Fitzrovia’s urbanism is much more than scenery, though. It is both the result of and the reason for its particular sociality. Everywhere different floors of the same building yield space for different uses: a tailor or a lampshade maker below street level under a mansion block; a studio over an embroiderer over a café. Tiny mews streets filled with work spaces are capped at their ends with cozy pubs that become raucous as Friday approaches. The scale and grain of the area is changing fast, though, as it “modernises.”

The Beige Holes of Modernisation

Robert Fitch, in The Assassination of New York, wrote of the postindustrial city that it “is a mutation masquerading as a modernization.” The industrial city in the extensive phase of capitalism, in which labour, resources, and thus “surplus” wealth were extracted from far-flung empires and agricultural hinterlands, could afford the illusion of “inevitable” progress. Earlier a more agrarian extensive capitalism had declared vast stretches of land “empty”— terra nullius — to justify colonialism, simply erasing lives and cultures in the process. The Jeffersonian grid, which divides America into neat squares, is an emblem of that ideology of emptiness. Now the postindustrial city is driven by intensive capitalism, which is forced to transform itself from within, shaping itself around markets and services that cannibalise the city.

Asset stripping in colonialism gridded vast territories, mapping them for exploitation. Now cities are turned inward, and the new terra nullius must be found within. All the nooks and crannies necessary to everyday life in urbanism are ironed out, and the grid manifests itself as vast floor plates: office space and lateral apartments. The ideology rationalising these tyrannical spaces visualises them as “open,” “democratic,” and “free” “spaces of engagement” just as the colonial grid was spuriously theorised as a guarantor of spatial equity. As the grid of extensive capitalism worked a mutation upon rural land, so the grid of intensive capitalism now skews the space of the city. As Darwin saw, however, mutation rarely leads to evolution.

The urban spaces within which these vast grids are being realised I call “beige holes.” They have the power to attract, compress, and trap money in the financial system as black holes consume all matter in their supergravity. Beige, though, because driven by real estate imageability they must be styled to be sleek, tidy, and generic. Beige because they reflect the non-tastes of the elites in the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector. Beige because they must place the power of the transaction over local distinctiveness. Realtors and developers themselves call these places “safe-deposit boxes in the sky” or “concrete gold,” which clarifies their function as financial instruments rather than as places for living, working, playing — or for dwelling.

A whole generation of architects and landscape architects have read Marc Augé’s Non-Places, and yet find themselves trapped in a system that endlessly replicates the model. The non-place is defined as a place of transit, a space that defies acts of dwelling, and is exemplified by the modern airport. “The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude.” “Since non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time.”

The beige hole is a type of non-place — a place of transit. In this case the beige hole is a place of the transient wealthy their money. The units of time with which these spaces are measured are amortised in mortgages, counted in leasehold years, in annual contracts, in fluctuations of boom and bust. They are the relics of a financial system in which transience itself is the operative factor. If money in the current system ever stopped for long enough, it would only take a moment’s examination to discover its value is baseless and placeless, a fiction in motion, of motion. As Augé says, “the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it),” and these contracts are temporal. Beige holes are non-places that exist as records of transactions and contracts, as intangible and impermanent as flickering numbers on a stock market screen.

Fitzroy Place

“Certain projects should not shout,” says Eelco Hooftman of GROSS.MAX. landscape architects as he shows me the small site at the centre of Fitzroy Place. “This is not a statement project.” Indeed, it is luxurious understatement as a cipher for the financialised non-taste that characterises the project. Fitzroy Place, launched in 2016, is a major development on the site of the former Middlesex Hospital. It is now home to Estée Lauder’s London office and some of London’s most expensive apartments.

Granite art and chapel at centre of open space surrounded by buildings.

Fitzroy Place, launched in 2016, is a major development on the site of the former Middlesex Hospital.

The hospital’s former chapel (by architect John Loughborough Pearson, completed 1929) juts into the new square (named Pearson Square) but because it is so dwarfed by the scale of the surrounding buildings, it was clearly not possible to use it as the square’s focal point. A steel colonnade and pergola, developed by GROSS.MAX. with architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, help to step down the scale of the surrounding buildings to the chapel. Then the chapel is shrouded behind a screen of evergreen magnolia trees. A stone sculpture serves to refocus the square, while further stepping the scale down to the human. These are deft tricks, exercising the designers to new levels of virtuosity, but to ends that could have been avoided earlier in the design process.

The plants that have flourished most in this dark chasm are graceful multitrunk serviceberries, which have been placed in giant gunmetal-gray containers placed on the pedestrian lanes that serve the square. Elegant as they are, their body language is aggressive. They are placed as obstacles, deterrents as effective as beefy bouncers to physical and visual access into the site from the surrounding neighbourhood. This is a clear statement that the pretensions to publicness expressed in the planning applications were the usual whitewash.

Rathbone Square

Rathbone Square, completed last year, has become the new London headquarters for Facebook as part of a commercial/residential complex. Its central gated square was designed by Gustafson Porter + Bowman, the surrounding buildings by Make Architects. The square, like Fitzroy Place, opens up important east-west pedestrian access in an area with a pronounced north-south grain.

Open space surrounded by buildings.

Rathbone Square, completed in 2017, is on the site of a former Royal Mail delivery centre.

Here the gravest planning error was committed early on, with a failure to provide a direct east-west pedestrian connection at the north of the site that would have created ease of passage for locals as well as new small retail possibilities. Instead the route jogs south, frustrating access, and the passage is constricted through verdigris-green ceramic-clad tunnels. Inside the space, the building massing is more successful than at Fitzroy Place, allowing in more light.

Seating is refined, stepping up and down at right angles to provide a maximum of sittable space and defining a dark grid against the light grid of the granite paving that establishes a rhythm with the building’s facades. Here, though, the richness of the square’s materials is at odds with the building cladding, which appears to be stretched as thinly as cling film across the surface of the buildings. Windows are set into metallic panels at Rathbone Square that possess the dull lustre of Bacofoil.

At the centre of Rathbone Square, curving into the edge of Facebook’s offices, a crescent of lawn has been provided. Here it is intended as a catalyst for activity. “Private squares in London don’t support actual activity,” says Donncha O Shea of Gustafson Porter + Bowman, and time will tell whether Rathbone Square actually comes to serve as a community space.

A World Less Beige

I hope I have not portrayed the landscape architects as villains or failures. They are neither. Indeed, they are full of talent, ambition, and verve. If there is villainy or failure, it is systemic, and bred in the bone of development processes that are conceived of first and foremost as extractive and profit-driven. These forces also militate against artistry and urbanism, catering to generic international non-tastes and imageable outputs. William Morris diagnosed the same problems in his time in ‘Hopes and Fears for Art’: “Only we must not lay the fault upon the builders, as some people seem inclined to do: they are our very humble servants, and will build what we ask for; remember, that rich men are not obliged to live in ugly houses, and yet you see they do; which the builders may be well excused for taking as a sign of what is wanted.”

If we want a world less peppered with beige holes, then we will have to work with political and economic processes to transform development. There is hope here, with cooperation and communication improving year-on-year between architects, planners, and landscape architects, and with new models for development emerging in forms such as community land trusts. Then, perhaps, we can begin to make our cities more in ways that are genuinely wanted by those who authentically live in them.

Tim Waterman lives in Fitzrovia and teaches at the University of Greenwich and at The Bartlett. He is co-editor of Landscape and Agency: Critical Essays (2017, Routledge); and The Routledge Handbook of Landscape and Food (2018, Routledge). Find him on Twitter @Tim_Waterman. (This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in Landscape Architecture Magazine, The magazine of The American Society of Landscape Architects, July 2018.)

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