Beyond the Boundaries of Architecture

Having been rejected by various bourgeois magazines, this article wriggled out of the miserable reproduction-machine of unpaid submissions and lumpen labourtime, and ended up here. It was written in March 2020 and attempts a literary reading of the Nine Elms development in London, bringing CLR James’s innovative reading of empire through cricket to new urban developments. 

 

‘Lurking beyond the boundaries of every game are the controlling interests, the forces of oppression: the economics of the owners, the politics of the government, even the passions of the fans,’ Robert Lipsyte says in a 1983 introduction to C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, his incredible book of anticolonial critique and cricket commentary. The game has its own geographical codes that construct identities of interiority, zones of exclusion, marks of worthiness and a scientific logic of supremacy. In the good-old-boys competitive field, all is equal. Beyond the boundary, everything is configured according to the illusion of equality within.

The game of architecture builds a fortified scientific language around its playing field. Reason and enlightenment have always been divisive concepts, used to label the outside barbaric. Colonial empires, capitalist nation-states, cricket games and architectural projects build a language of civility within their boundaries. And, as Thomas Hobbes writes, ‘Life in nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ In opposition, centuries later, to Nine Elms.

Nine Elms is a development of more than 20,000 properties on the western South Bank of the Thames, in the Borough of Wandsworth. It is one of the biggest redevelopment projects in Europe – and by far the largest in London, costing almost double the £9billion Olympic Park in Stratford.

An estate agent’s website says, in the beautifully repetitive language of high modernism, Nine Elms before redevelopment had ‘few areas of safe, green areas.’ It was dangerous. Tick. Hobbes is already twitching. The Guardian says it was ‘wasteland’ before the redevelopment. The Conservative leader of Wandsworth – Thatcher’s ‘favourite council’ – Ravi Govindia, who received a vote of no confidence from his council in 2020, says the area was a ‘blank slate’ before the building started.

In the industrial poverty of the city centre, the spectre of outsideness has always lurked. The controlling interests are beyond the boundaries, but the boundaries seep between each other. England has long been defined as the hub of an extra-oceanic empire. But the empire’s ideologies of race and class seep into the homely waters. When the writer George Sims walks around London in 1889, he says that the working class inner-city is ‘a dark continent’ populated by ‘wild races.’ Conrad’s heart of darkness is also right here, beside the Thames. Britain has tried to push its race ideology outwards, defining Whiteness globally as itself and Blackness as the colonized. Meanwhile, it pushes the class ideology inwards, with stations of working class inner-cities and suburbs puncturing the bourgeois peace of country cottages. But on the London riverside, within the boundaries, class and race blur.

This tension between outside-empire and inside-empire has defined the space of British architecture for centuries, since the beginning of capitalism and its regime of enslaving international trade. “Growth” in external spaces is terrifying. David Attenborough says ‘population growth has to come to an end.’ Charles Mountbatten-Windsor hails the ‘family planning services’ that cull population growth in the developing world. Scientific, liberal eugenics. The plan is: don’t have a family. Don’t exist.

“Growth” within the space of empire, however, is the pinnacle of all being. At Nine Elms, the estate agent says, we need ‘to support growth in the area.’ We need schools ‘to create a real growing community.’ With more funky modernist repetition, ‘to fulfil the area’s potential as a tourist area’ we need £15billion ‘to support growth.’ Growth here is good. It is everything. Growth there – ah! dispatch the family planners!

The way to start an empire is war followed by the permanent suspension of war. You enter with extreme brutality, then claim to be the police protecting colonized subjects from war. The present and the future are subsumed into a retold narrative of the past. Remember the war? Well, you don’t want that to happen again, so trust me – and my homeland.

Lurking beyond the boundaries of the colony are suggestions of the original force. The motherland. The queen and country. The flags and moustaches. The luxury estate agencies and their fridges full of expensive water.

In 1918, C.L.R. James is rejected from the bourgeois contingent of the army because he is Black: ‘the merchants selected only white or brown people.’ He had to join the ‘masses of people’ in the normal army. The ‘mass,’ the ‘horde,’ the ‘swarm.’ These words signify a group of racialized people from beyond the boundary of empire. The mass only means anything, though, when racialized people from the peripheral orbit of empire enter the central circles. When they step into the architecture of home. Our always-white home-place where growth is good.

The logics of colonial space depend on various overlapping circles. The core of the cosmology of imperial space is the circle of Englishness. Britishness stretches into the core of Englishness, merging in its aesthetics, and reaches over the colonial spheres. Britishness is the universal imposition of Englishness with a new racialized aesthetic: it’s the knock-off brand of Englishness traded in colonized countries in return for their entire produce.

Within the English circle there is also antagonism. Country versus City. Architecturally, moustachioed waving fingers mount a tirade of abuse at modernization, and have done for three hundred years. Each of these English country subjects is buried in deep nostalgia for the English cottage, the vernacular architecture of a mythically unifying past. That thatched-cottage-past, invariably, is White and middle class.

A certain high priest of the colony – Charles Mountbatten-Windsor – presented a BBC programme in 1988. ‘Sometime during this century, something went wrong,’ he said. ‘For various complicated reasons we allowed a terrible damage to be inflicted on parts of this country’s unique landscape and townscape.’ Society as a fabric has been torn, and it turns out it happened after WWII, in the 1950s and ’60s. Coincidentally coinciding with the dissolution of the empire, the formal independence of colonized countries and the migration of many formerly colonial subjects to Britain. The terrible damage of all these new people arriving, of the paradigms of our imperial architecture crumbling, and the central circle turning in to just another mixed bag in the orbit of global capital. Now Britain serves the World Bank, the Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization just like every other country does. Charles Mountbatten-Windsor, like all his predecessors (John Ruskin, E.M. Forster, Charles Dickens, Enoch Powell, Mathew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, Margaret Thatcher, etc.), fears terribly that the boundaries of the empire will be dissolved.

There is England, and then there is the rest. That’s what the hefty presence of architectural nostalgia in English literature is vehement about. There are cricketers, and then beyond the field there is everything else, all the non-cricketers.

New urban developments always recode the logic of boundaries. They do not simply sit in space, or neutrally provide a place to live. They are the defining border between space and place, between the outside and the inside. In Britain, this can never be separated from the dominant discourse – architectural, social, economic, philosophical – that has created the concepts of England and Britain. And that is empire. Gentrification is a category that creates the social categories of class and race. Why are the developers at Nine Elms so intent on growing their interior to subsume the dangerous surroundings of their land? Why is Charles Mountbatten-Windsor so disappointed in the postcolonial city full of people he cannot fit into a nostalgic suit of Englishness? Why does David Attenborough think that nonBritish and poor people have to stop reproducing?

John Ruskin spent his life trying to bring back a mythically perfect time of Englishness. He decided that perfection was the gothic cathedral (a notion he took from Hegel’s Aesthetics). The iron suits of medieval knights were woven into the iron uniform of train stations and grand hotels. American modern architecture, though, was sick of the Europeanness of iron. It wanted a neoimperial form all of its own. A sleek, smooth, white and adaptable structure that represented the ideal form of the Aryan body. Many architectural theorists from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc onwards made this connection between the White body and white modernism very clear. The Chicago skyscraper was built to enforce the vertical superiority of the overseeing eye, since the overseeing plantation owner could no longer oversee after the American Civil War. The Chicago skyscraper – its steel core, high windows, rectangular symmetry and lightly ornamental top – is the aesthetic form of the new buildings in Nine Elms. Who had to leave the land where these towers are built? Whose life was defined as the opposite of growth before the new development? Whose use of land categorized the area as wasteland? Who is waste in this important boundary between the social codes of Chelsea, Brixton and Clapham?

It’s not so simple as: cricket means England, and Black life is pushed to the outside, forced into an impossible mimesis of the English performance. Within the orbital space of empire, outside the game but subjected to its ritual subjectivity, is a cooling gel that turns away from imperial architecture. It stands against it, an unEnglish form of life that is miserably definable only by its relation to England, to the empire’s architectural game, but is at least not included in the repetitive disappointments of point-scoring. As James says, ‘So soothing were our waters that I could be struck hard blows in the outside world and be cured as soon as I returned [to Trinidad].’

And then there are more positions. One of them is a form of life that swings between the boundaries of pitch and seat, of internal master and external object. There are so many relations to take within the crossing circles of the architecture game. Empire mingles in the circles and drips across the boundaries. The only point is to never think of the circles as exclusive, to never think that architecture is arbitrary or innocent. Feel the violent nostalgia of empire in every construction, and jump around the ruins – that’s the only intent of this game.

Does it help to think of architecture and the city as places fundamentally more serious than a game? Does it help to think that the urban fabric, when torn or dissatisfying, can only be mended by multi-millionaire investors, starchitects and famous politicians? C.L.R. James teaches us that the boundaries are part of the mythology of power. There really is no internal boundary, no external rule demarcating the colour line, or any other oppressive limit. There are spheres constructing ideologies of nation, race, class, gender, ability… But they’re only as solid as the architectural history we believe in. Yes – it’s steel; it’s pretty solid. But it’s also knocked down every few years and retorted into a new fashion. This is why the dominant social narrative is to think of society as a fabric. When fabrics are broken, out of fashion, stained or sodden by invasive rot, we must come together to fix them. If society is a steel column, or a cricket game, a patch of grass, the motivation to fix the fabric and return to a nostalgic state of previous perfection seems suddenly absurd.

Architecture cannot produce and destroy space without the boundaries of capital and race, in the same way that C.L.R. James knows you cannot talk about cricket without talking about empire.

But James also knows that the boundaries are not real. They are illusions of power. Illusions, of course, can still enforce real violence. Illusions can take away people’s houses, can collapse and reform the land. But illusions can also be broken. As James says, ‘They were ready to break the barrier. We should have been ready to accept.’ Ready to break the barrier, even if the barrier is an illusion. Maggie Nelson says that ‘in the field of gender, there is no charting where the external and the internal begin and end­–’ but that applies to every field, and like in every field, the absence of an official chart does not mean the illusory boundary of external and internal cannot be broken.

To seek a critique of gentrifying urban architecture, there may be few better places to look than a twentieth century Trinidadian Marxist’s adoration of cricket. There may be few better cultural productions to learn from, that is, than everything included in the mythical boundaries of nation and capital. As Joe Dunthorne writes in ‘Poem in which I practice happiness’:

            … More people love football

than love social justice

but that doesn’t mean football

isn’t brilliant. …

Far more people, too, find violence in the structuring social codes of Nine Elms than in the Oval cricket ground, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t all contributed to the enforcement of national and capitalist boundaries.

Architecture is all a game, and the boundaries we believe in only keep us from breaking in.

Allegedly. 

The investigation is still ongoing.