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October 23, 2014 / Leo Hollis

The Street and the Ghost House: London

As a young man I began walking around my home city in the same spirit as might a new arrival entering London for the first time. I spent weekends on foot, uncovering the stories of the past, first weaving together the historical narratives found in the monuments and architectural wonders; then finding others stories, less well-known, that offered new stories and threads.

Walking the streets led me to think about the history of the place, the people who once were here, and what they left behind. The city seems to reveal itself in geological strata, but this is a rough and uneven layering: Roman, Tudor, the dark capital of the Enlightenment, the industrial metropolis, the modern megacity. At moments, time collapses and the past reveals themselves in the street pattern, a monument, a connection across centuries. Today, the city is the place where I live but also who I am. London is now a part of my identity, twisting through my DNA like an invisible third spiral of a helix.

But it is no longer London’s places that draw me back to the city every time I leave it. Cities are made out of people, not buildings, and it is in the crowds that one learns the most about London. A city, this city, is an unfolding narrative that is forever expanding, crowd-sourced, and freely edited by anyone who cares to do so.

Rather than looking for a single explanation, or a unique function, we must therefore consider the city as the interaction of different, albeit defined, parts. Instead of seeing London as a still point, a solitary moment, we should see it as a flow of bodies, goods, ideas, fixed structures and unreliable time. And, perhaps, somewhere in that fluidity we can find the soul of the place.

Thus the city offers itself up in different ways: for an economist London is a money machine; for an architect, it is the place where flesh meets stone; for an immigrant it is the hope of home; for a free runner it is an assault course to be conquered. The city is busy with diverse activity, bumping into each other, interweaving. This is the London that I found when I first went out into the city many years ago. It is the face of the metropolis that is forever changing: open, inclusive and alive.

The city is made of places where people come together, where the tributaries of the human city flow into each other, causing, whirls, eddies and counter currents. These common spaces of London are too often ignored and, as a result, are undervalued. But they have powerful effects on those who come here. The public spaces of the city are where we interact and learn how to be with each other: this need not be the grand, official spaces of the city, but can be found on any neighbourly street.

This is an urban complexity that has taken many years to evolve. More often than not we take it for granted, but unlike many of the ways that Big Data quantifies the city, this is a quality that cannot be counted, or reduced to number. Nevertheless we are all too aware of its absence once it has disappeared. This vital complexity cannot be built, or planned into the design of a place but comes when that place is used and is integrated seamlessly into people’s everyday lives. It cannot be defined by contract, but is a place where some aspect of common ownership has been negotiated by action. This spirit can not be given a price or be sold.

These are urgent lessons, for some parts of London are coming to resemble a ghost house, such as the empty residences found in Mayfair and Belgravia. Here the super rich have invested in the market, creating a land bank of grand terraces and squares. Thus the house – and the city – is no longer a home but an asset to be traded. The ghost house is the spectre that haunts more than the streets and neighbourhoods in which they sit, but the whole metropolis.

This calamity is the result of London’s popularity. In this year’s edition of Knight Frank’s annual report on wealth management, The Wealth Report, London was ranked number one in their global cities index. How it got there was through being the most important city for the world’s ultra high net worth individuals, a position the city is expected to hold for the next decade. An accolade to some, but to me this is a threat: without action we could create a city that it closed, exclusive and dead.

London is caught between these two identities: the complex, human city versus the ghost house. These two different faces of the city are in a fluid tension, each offering an image of what the city could be, and whom the city might be for.

[this article originally appeared in the new Journal for the London Society: Join now!


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