Sunday, 20 November 2011


Photo by me. This post sat in drafts for ages, which is why it's a bit behind the times.

When Paternoster Row, adjacent to St Paul's Cathedral in the city of London, was destroyed by fire during the Blitz, 6 million books were consumed by the flames. For centuries, the area was the centre of London's bookselling and publishing trades - before Fleet Street, before the Charing Cross Road, before Bloomsbury. Robinson Crusoe was published there [1]. Its destruction was the terminus of that part of the site's history; the area was rebuilt as Paternoster Square, which was first a modernist office complex, and since the 1990s has been a deadly historicist Carolingian showpiece. It is home to the London Stock Exchange, now targeted by our local representatives of the Occupy movement. Unable to camp in the square outside the stock exchange - this so-called public space is privately owned, and was promptly sealed off by the police - the Occupiers have set up in St Paul's churchyard, prompting a continuing crisis at the cathedral and much public debate, which I won't recap here.

The one incursion the Occupiers have been able to make into the Paternoster complex is to stick posters and other ephemera on the pillars of its external colonnade - as shown in the photo above. I have fairly mixed feelings about the occupiers[2], so took the opportunity one evening a week or two ago to go down to the site and look around for myself. I found an orderly, friendly and essentially unobstructive protest. But I was most charmed by the informal poster-pillars, which immediately reminded me of the area's publishing history - nearby, the Occupiers have also set up a "library", and those book-covered tables seemed another connection to that past.

Recently I was at the Architectural Association, attending Thrilling Wonder Stories 3, a conference of speculation. There, Kevin Slavin gave a fascinting talking about the rise of "algo-trading" - the use of algorithms to trade stocks. You can't just buy or sell a million shares of something without undesirable market effects, so algorithms are used to break up that one big trade into many small, seemingly random trades. More algorithms are used to try and detect those programmes. So much trading on stock exchanges is now automated, and that in turn is changing where trading occurs. Microseconds can make the difference between profit and loss, so the banks of computers running these automated trades are increasingly locating themselves around switch hubs, the "telephone exchanges" of the internet. This reduces the lightspeed travel time of their commands to the market - and also moves them away from traditional financial districts. Increasing auomation, and the migration of this automation, means fewer and fewer actual people working on Wall Street and in the City - and thus Slavin compares the Occupiers to hermit crabs, taking over an abandoned shell after its previous inhabitant moved on.

What I think is most striking about the Occupation is the reoccupation of public space in the city with visible ideas. Of course the powers that preside over the City have ideas, they have an ideology. But it serves their purposes to not really advertise those ideas, so that we almost forget that they have ideology at all, and believe that they are mere innocents, "entrepreneurs" frolicking wealth-creatively in a benign state of nature, a fragile state at that, one which must not be disturbed for fear that they might just take off like deer. The City is a very strange place indeed, and has been for decades. For most Londoners, the ones who don't work there, it's just a kind of lacuna, mostly only regarded from a distance. And the City I think favours this semi-visible status, which is why it has happily driven other uses (such as the publishing industry) from its bounds, and would like to do unto Smithfield as it did unto Spitalfields. Its penetration by visible dissent isn't threatening to it as an obstruction or as a way of stopping its work - the Occupation really doesn't obstruct anything significant. The threat is connected to the possibility that is might have to explain or justify itself. We might have to think about what is done there, and how it is done. Which is, in a democratic society, a generous public service by the Occupiers.

[1] These facts from the Encyclopedia of London.
[2] Which aren't important. There has been much griping from the Do Nothings about Occupy, I don't intend to join in.


Fiend's Brave Victim said...

Am I missing something? That a writer on architecture wouldn't claim, correctly, that most of the buildings in the City are unashamed and very loudly-communicated ideas?

Will said...

That's entirely true, but only up to a point. I think most of the corporate architecture of the City broadcasts ideas of solidity and security - or, in some exceptions, glassy transparency and openness - which are in fact quite at odds with the agendas of the institutions they house. A few ostentatious outliers like No 1 Poultry, the Heron Tower's north face and the Lloyds's building aside, a lot of City architecture seems very concerned with discretion as well, which is of course an idea being broadcast loud and clear, but again isn't exactly expressive about the agendas of the institutions etc etc. And, like Paternoster Square, a lot of the City is pretty two-faced or brazenly dishonest - pprivate space masquerading as the agora.

Perfectly valid point though; I suppose by ideas what I mean is debate and polemic, and the possibilities of alternative views and philosophies to the ones embodied in stone and glass. Which makes the ideas embodied in tone and glass at once more visible and (I'm sure the occupiers hope) more contentious.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

Well said, although care to elaborate on 'brazen dishonesty' of privately-owned public space? Or are you getting at something more specific?

Prompted by this article I had a run down to St. Paul's on my way to the Gerhard Richter show (untrustworthy I thought) on Sunday. Apart from a sign saying 'Question fractional reserve banking'---untypically approaching informed for this crew---I saw no ideas that I didn't see way back at the '90s G7 protests, and that weren't probably recycled from 1960s San Francisco. Seems to me that Tent City---transient, poorly resolved, full of holes---is as good an architectural expression of their 'ideas' as any I've seen in the City proper.

Will said...

By brazen dishonesty I meant that Paternoster Sq poses as a public space, and is surely described as a "public space" by its owners, and it is dressed in the architectural language of the piazza, the street, the market or the agora, but it is in fact a completely private space, as private as any office atrium. In that way it's a dirty stinking lie.