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Issue 219

Canary Wharf: A ‘World City’ in an Age of Remoteness

In a specially-commissioned photography project, Laura Grace Ford and Majed Aslam journey through the ghostly citadel of London’s pandemic-stricken business district

BY Laura Grace Ford AND Majed Aslam in Features | 27 MAY 21

The lobby is like a hotel reception with pale modular furniture and architectural arrangements of flowers. Abstract canvases float on concrete walls, dark blemishes under milky glazes, black gestures on flake-white grounds. There’s an exuberant scent of cherry blossom, notes of griotte syrup and sweet almond.

Fifty floors up, the apartment is sharp-lined and lavish. It’s like a ship’s cabin with sliding dark walls (teak? mahogany?) and soft furnishings in bronzes, greens and teals. The curved terrace with its terracotta cladding is a magnet – we’re pulled irresistibly to it, always the same impulse, to absorb the magnitude of London, to locate ourselves in it.

The city is out of reach. At this height it’s stripped of stink and noise, absorbed in a hazy pointillist blur. The inhabitants of the tower, I realize, see us the same way we saw them: as a CGI rendering, a simulacrum, a hallucination. I point out our old house, the one next to West India Dock Road, the one lodged beneath Poplar High Street with its scuttling silver canisters and burnt-out cars, the one we bunked in because two of us had labouring jobs there. It’s a brush mark, a scuff, a barely perceptible trace.

Sometimes, the cans of strawberry Tango, the empty Russian Standard bottles, the Union Jack baggies, form heaps in my dreams; they drift like snow, trapping us inside the house. Now they’re invisible, erased like the scorched tarmac, the dumped tyres, the bloke living in the Vauxhall Corsa.

majed aslam 2021
Majed Aslam, 2021, chemically treated photograph. Courtesy: the artist 


Canary Wharf has become a citadel of unfinished towers, ruled over by workers in hi-vis jackets. Plans to create a ‘24/7 city where people live/work/play’ hang tattered and desolate like the construction waste blowing through struggling waterside gardens. London is a ‘world city’ in an age of remoteness. The brokers and hedge-fund managers are elsewhere, stuck in commuter towns where coffee franchises are besieged by terse, exercise-raddled men.

The financial centre is up for grabs. The desolate zone is returning. Ash groves are forming in deep excavations. Sometimes, you glimpse sunken forests, inaccessible and enchanted woodlands. Bullfinches and redstarts flit between branches, blackbirds nest there; it’s an odd sensation to look down on the tree canopy, to hear birdsong from above.

majed aslam 2021
Majed Aslam, 2021, chemically treated photograph. Courtesy: the artist 


We’ve scoped out our new home many times, pacing slowly around South Quay, gazing dreamily across the water at the 58-storey cylindrical tower. It’s like a cleaned bone, a stepped temple, a chalk cliff. We’d seen photos of high ceilings and wraparound terraces, swimming pools and plush, empty cinemas but it was hard to believe in them: they look computer-generated, a figment of someone’s imagination.

The flats have been on the market for three years, but few are occupied. The overseas investors have held back, and the scattering of residents who bought into the ‘lifestyle’ are trapped in a slump of negative equity. When you see them perched singly on geometric balconies or standing behind glass walls, it’s hard not to think of those stick figures dropping from the World Trade Centre on 9/11, or the lost souls of Beachy Head.

Eryngiums and verbenas erupt in empty office blocks. In their flight from containers and window boxes, they’re an emboldening force: you see them in ancillary spaces, or in the fracture lines of idle pavements, startling displays of amethyst and blue.

majed aslam 2021
Majed Aslam, 2021, chemically treated photograph. Courtesy: the artist 


The house is being converted into flats and the mess has a dispiriting, rasping effect like fingernails on a blackboard or the rub of sandpaper. Wires spring wildly from walls or loop parlously from ceilings, LED site lights form a neolithic henge. There’s a smell of hydrocarbons and clay, spores and hyphal threads.

We sleep on mattresses surrounded by laundry bags. All around us tenements creak and simmer: aerial fronds, satellite dishes, Shahadas cling to the walls like epiphytes. Out front, a scattering of silver canisters form the spectral outline of the BMW whose sound system we listened to in the night: reverberations of Pop Smoke’s ‘Dior’ insinuating itself into our dreams.

majed aslam 2021
Majed Aslam, 2021, chemically treated photograph. Courtesy: the artist 


Our sights are set on the other side of the ravine, the gated city of Canary Wharf where a pyramid blinks sterile white light. The headquarters of HSBC, Citigroup and Barclays are impervious to the carbon-choked warrens here; they bear down on us, high-handed and expressionless. Their metallic/vitric skins are opaque, reinforced against shock, but sometimes, at unexpected moments, they flash like jay feathers and you notice points of ingress, iridescent moments of possibility.

They were always advertising jobs for night-patrol officers and some of us had trained for Security Industry Authority licences, adopted the correct demeanour (bored / aloof / quiescent), familiarized ourselves with CCTV and alarm systems. A key duty was ‘liaising with staff and residents clearly and concisely’, which meant junking our accents, straightening our bodies, uncovering our heads.

When I despair of the traffic and eddying swirls of stuff – Mosa charger boxes, McDonald’s cartons, plastic utensils, discarded copies of the Tasheel at-Tajweed – there are reassurances, reminders that it’s temporary, that it’s nearly time to occupy, that we’re getting nearer.

It’s Thursday afternoon when the text comes to say it’s happening. We know what to wear, how to look; Kay’s relaxed her hair, our makeup’s neutral, everything subdued. We’ve learned to hold ourselves differently, to walk upright in bland apparel from Reiss and Cos – garms the pale and attenuated figures on the hoardings might wear.

A turnstile opens in a plywood fence, Junayd nonchalantly pushes ahead with the company insignia (a circle split in two) embroidered on his blazer. He issues our key cards with the veiled, protected look of a jaded security guard. This is what we’ve been counting down to.

majed aslam 2021
Majed Aslam, 2021, chemically treated photograph. Courtesy: the artist 

This collaborative work was generated by walking in lockdown, sharpening our focus as we circuited Tower Hamlets. Each photograph is a moment of intensity, a catalyst for new fictions, degraded residues operating agents in the virtual. By opening speculative fictive spaces, we imagine alternative social efflorescences, a people-yet-to-come.

Main image: Majed Aslam, 2021, chemically treated photograph. Courtesy: the artist 

Laura Grace Ford is an artist and writer based in London, UK, concerned with the politics and poetics of place. She is currently working on a novel, Charms Over Ashes, an audio commission, Solstice 93, at Dorich House Museum, Kingston University,London, and a new text for publication at the Coventry Biennial 202. A collaborative film with artist Sam Williams is now online as part of ’Hyper Functional Ultra Healthy’ at Somerset House, London.

Majed Aslam is a an artist and medical doctor based in London, UK, interested in urban pharmacologies, memory and erasue. His photographs will be exhibited at Somerset House, UK, in July 2021.