BY George Kafka in Opinion | 11 DEC 19

Broadgate and the City of London’s Architecture of Inequality

The redevelopment of an icon of 1980s finance capitalism is an object lesson in how London has been reshaped in the decade following the global financial crisis

BY George Kafka in Opinion | 11 DEC 19

It might seem odd to consider the 2010s through a building complex completed in 1986. Broadgate, the 32-acre office-and-retail labyrinth that sits between London’s Liverpool Street station and Shoreditch, has long been considered the architectural embodiment of the late-1980s economic ‘Big Bang’ that followed Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of financial markets. As depicted in Boom, Bust & Bankers, a documentary (directed by Joseph Bullman) about the site that aired on Channel 4 in November, Thatcher herself launched construction work on the site from the seat of a mechanical digger. The masterplan and initial phase of the development were designed by Arup Associates with the Chicago-based architects Skidmore, Owings & Merill responsible for later additions. The result was a collage of large scale high-tech and postmodernist projects centred around Broadgate Circle, a travertine amphitheatre overlooked by shops, restaurants and trading floors.

Broadgate Development, 1985. Courtesy: Arup Associates Group; photograph: © John Donat

Yet, 30 years on, the gradual evolution of Broadgate reveals a surprising amount about how social and political shifts have manifested themselves in London’s built environment in the decade following the financial crisis. ‘It’s design was as fortress Broadgate, to keep people out,’ explains David Lockyer, Head of Broadgate for British Land, in Bullman’s documentary. ‘Particularly those to the north and to the east of Broadgate, which 30 years ago was a very different world altogether.’ In this scene, Lockyer is speaking to his team, who have gathered to hear about plans for the so-called enlivenment of the complex as it undergoes a major and ongoing redevelopment programme. Part of this involves opening up the ‘fortress’ to which Lockyer refers – making the site more permeable and providing more activities, such as shopping and eating, for those who dare to enter. ‘We are dismantling Fortress Broadgate and turning it into a neighbourhood as part of London, and a community,’ he continues. 

This language of community, inclusivity and accessibility has become gradually meaningless over the last decade, particularly in the context of urban development. Beginning in earnest with the demolition of the Heygate Estate in 2011, residents of housing estates located on financially valuable land across London have been displaced via bogus consultations. In their place, new developments have sought to depict new versions of community, authenticity and belonging through extensive marketing campaigns (excellently documented by Crystal Bennes on her Tumblr, Development Aesthetics) and the promise of smatterings of housing defined by another meaningless word: affordable. 

Joseph Bullman, Boom, Bust & Bankers, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Halcyons Heart Films

So for Lockyer to describe Broadgate, a site where nobody lives, as a ‘community’ is, by now, unsurprising. But his acknowledgement that the area around Broadgate has changed is worth noting. The social cleansing of Shoreditch and Hoxton to the north and Spitalfields and Whitechapel to the east are now so complete that the landlords at Broadgate are willing to lower the fortress drawbridge to the local public! Another talking head in the documentary is Charlie Horne, Head of Construction, who describes the ‘advent of Shoreditch’ during Broadgate’s lifetime, which neatly sums up a decade of neighbourhood branding and the erasure of pre-existing Londoners. 

Horne expresses his desire for Broadgate to become ‘cooler than Shoreditch’, as the documentary goes on to depict members of the estate’s Consumer Experience and Events and Communications teams explaining pop-up exhibitions such as ‘Sense of Space’ (‘it’s all about wellbeing and mindfulness’) and the ‘Alphabet’ installed in Finsbury Avenue Square for the 2018 London Design Festival. (‘The key thing we want to get across is the alphabet.’) As manifestations of the ‘pics or it didn’t happen’-led experience economy, installations such as these (a series of sensory rooms and a set of chairs based on the letters of the alphabet, respectively) have become a familiar feature of the city’s landscape. The role of PR, refracted through social media, has come to play a major role in the city’s public design, with ‘Instagrammable moments’ appearing in design briefs from clients in search of greater commercial footfall.

Broadgate Development, 1985. Courtesy: Arup Associates Group; photograph: © John Donat

Broadgate also reveals a lot about what hasn’t changed in the city since 2010. Time-lapse footage from Boom, Bust & Bankers, shows the construction of MAKE architects’ 5 Broadgate, the headquarters of Swiss bank UBS and a Carbuncle Cup nominee for the UK’s ugliest building when it was completed in 2010. The construction of this comically awful leviathan was a declaration that business in the City would be continuing as normal, mere moments after the global financial crisis. The UK’s biggest banks – ‘too big to fail’ – were bailed out while successive Conservative-led governments implemented brutal austerity policies to balance the books. As a result, nearly 800 libraries have closed and more than 170,000 council houses have been lost since 2010. Social housing construction has fallen by more than 90 percent and homelessness has increased 165 percent over the same period.

Of course, this status quo wasn’t accepted by all; a mile to the southwest of Broadgate, the Occupy movement took root at St Paul’s in 2011. As well as beginning a decade of popular protests against austerity and its consequences, Occupy’s initial expulsion from Paternoster Square refocused critiques of privately-owned public spaces – Finsbury Avenue Square and the Broadgate Circle among them – and their role in policing perceived social deviance. Construction workers on the Broadgate site, for example, are sacked on the spot if they are seen wearing high-vis clothing on the public side of the estate’s construction hoarding, as Charlie Horne, Head of Construction, explains in Boom, Bust & Bankers

Joseph Bullman, Boom, Bust & Bankers, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Halcyons Heart Films

The documentarians also meet Luis Valencia, a cleaner at Broadgate, and his father Eduardo, a cleaner at Victoria Station and St Paul’s. In their limited free time, the Ecuadorian pair are active with the United Voices of the World trade union, campaigning with others for fair wages for cleaners. Amidst these bleak scenes, from the vapid to the villainous, their story is a reminder that a better city for all is possible, if we fight for it. The city constructed in the 1980s and regenerated through the 2010s may be hostile and exclusionary, but not entirely without hope.  

Main image: Joseph Bullman, Boom, Bust & Bankers, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Halcyons Heart Films

George Kafka is a writer and editor living in London. He writes regularly for architecture and design publications including Metropolis, The Architectural Review, Blueprint and Disegno