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Who's afraid of Canary Wharf?

A situation highlighting pseudo-public space


Basically a couple of years ago for my Art War Terror course at Goldsmiths I staged this situation where I read poetry by romantic poet William Wordsworth on top of a podium in Canary Wharf. I wanted to show the limits of what you could do in a pseudo-public space, i.e. one that is owned and managed by a private entity and has the right to make you leave.

I did something I was perfectly entitled to do on any ordinary street corner, but here I was immediately surrounded and asked to leave by the private security. Fortunately I found myself on a tiny patch of public space, so surrounded as I was by security guards and even a boat on the other side, I was free to do as I wished provided I remained within that small area (a power subtsation owned by the national grid).

Since this was an academic exercise there's an essay which you can read below and also here on google docs.


This essay describes my intervention[1] challenging the restrictions of pseudo-public property performed in Canary Wharf, positioning it in the theory of urban space and broader political and economic considerations.

Contemporary urban space reflects the interests of powerful interests in society. It is the physical manifestation of the zeitgeist. In recent years what is considered to be public space has been privatised and subjected to controls on access and action. In the process the ability ordinary people to exercise their rights and enjoy the city is being curtailed. The aesthetics of public spaces have changed along with their management. They have been made antiseptic and empty, “dominated by a series of monocomplexes of offices, roads, national retail chains and leisure centres” (Widgery 1993 p.230). However the transformation in ownership is often hidden from view. The appearance of public space is presented, but with an absence of the rights that would normally be attendant.

As the interest that dominates public space changes from social to commercial, the way in which they are operated and controlled does too. Increasingly, private security forces are employed to protect spaces from the very public the spaces are intended to serve. Surveillance has also increased, with much of public space being monitored by vast arrays of cameras and recording equipment.

Urban space is frequently controlled through this method of securitization and surveillance. Davis (1992) presents a nightmarish vision of Los Angeles: a city that criminalises the activities of the poor and racial minorities. While pleasant surroundings are built in affluent neighbourhoods, public amenities are removed from areas of high poverty and crime. Alongside this degradation the governors of the city have created hyper-securitised enclaves of the rich, surrounded by high-tech walls and invisible discriminatory boundaries, such as regulation strategically designed to only apply to poor families, that serve to heighten inequality and further segregate the urban environment.

The reason for these changes reflects broader economic decisions: the architectural consequence of a relentlessly pursued neoliberal agenda. Private interests direct the use of public space solely towards commercial activity squeezing out other interests if they are unable to produce a return on investment. The expanse of empty office space often seen in cities is a consequence of capitalism’s penchant for overaccumulation (Harvey 1994). The physical environment can be seen as the manifestation of the ideological system, where capitalism transfers from ideology into a “fixed and long-lived physical element” (Harvey 1994 p.426).

While this trend is currently limited to certain areas of public space, such as offices and shopping centres, the pseudo-public format of land and architecture is becoming more frequent, and is at risk of dominating the landscape of cities and towns. London especially is becoming a neoliberal city designed around principles of self reliance and competition. This atomises the public space itself turning it into a location where individuals become communally isolated. The city is not only a product of political thought. The form of urban architecture determines its function and therefore our behaviour in it. “what kind of city we want cannot be separated from the question of what kind of people we want to be” (Harvey 2003 p.1). Ultimately, it weaves the fabric of society. Through the change in form the “vivacity and urbanity” of the city is extinguished (Widgery 1993 p.231).

There is cause for the concerned citizen to act against this transformation because this change occurs subtly, as “the reshaping of our metropolis is experienced passively in odd disjointed glimpses” (Widgery 1993 p.230). Therefore, Canary Wharf can be seen as a warning of a covertly developing urban landscape. Without resistance, the urban environment could be quietly overwhelmed by forces of commerce.

The impact is not limited to the public space itself. The design of public spaces influences the way the city functions and how people live their lives. The redesign of the city according to neoliberal principles necessarily involves the rearrangement of habitation along class lines. The proletariat are shifted away from the centre of the city when “declared inconvenient” to the needs of capital (Widgery 1993 p.230). Public space with freedom of assembly has long been held as a necessary condition of the functioning of democracy from the agoras of ancient Greece to Rousseau’s ideal of public assembly. The restriction of such rights therefore threatens the health of the political system and protects entrenched interests.

Such a sustained focus on the idea of public space also brings into the foreground the question of what public space actually is. On close examination, the view of property rights as something absolute and control over space as total does not bear scrutiny, especially when the ownership and use of land appear to contradict each other.

There is a long history of interventionism in public space, influenced in a major way by The Situationists who were active in the late 1950s and 60s. Guy Debord’s concept of the ‘society of the spectacle’ stated that culture itself was becoming the ultimate commodity and developed practices to reverse this trend. One such method was the derivé - a meandering walk determined by one’s desires, designed to resist the work and control oriented design of the urban environment. The Situationists held “the radical idea that ways of being in physical space (particularly in the cities) are political acts” (Thompson et al 2004 p.16).

Alex Villar is a Brazilian artist who performs interventions that challenge the structure of public space by “ignoring the city’s spatial codes and therefore resisting their effects upon the organization of everyday experience” (Thompson et al 2004 p.66).

Another artist who works with public space is Valerie Tevere. Tevere conducted a series of “interviews to map public perceptions of public and private space” (Thompson et al 2004 p.89). The results make the viewer aware of the psychological nature of boundaries that divide public and private space.

During my research I consulted with the Space Hijackers - an experienced anarchist organisation whose interventions frequently challenge the restriction and commercialisation of public property. For example their intervention titled, ‘NO NO NO’, a satire of prohibitive restrictions on private property. They gave advice on how to best affect the audience of my intervention through the use of humour. I also met Danny Shine who, operating under the guise of ‘the love police’, stages interventions that challenge the nature and extent of authority over public space. Becker argues that artists can create “microutopian interventions that allow us to dream back the communities we fear we have lost” (Thompson 2012 p.68). These interventions are responses to something that is perceived to be absent from the social reality.

Canary Wharf is a 1.3 million m2 privately owned estate in east London and is home to a group of large financial institutions. It was built on docklands left derelict in 1980. The London Dockland Development Consortium (LDDC) was an Urban Development Corporation established by the Thatcher government in 1979. It began its work to regenerate the area in 1981 (Thornley 1993). It was given broad powers to impose its strategy including: to acquire public land, to broker contracts and development planning, even to overrule statutory local plans and the social objectives of democratically elected local authorities. Although the local planning authority can appeal to the secretary of state, the office has almost always sided with the corporation.

The private estate operates as a pseudo-public space, with through roads, street furniture, bus stops and traffic lights which mimic the surrounding area, giving a convincing impression of a standard, if rather glossy, town centre. The area is controlled by a force of private security guards, who wear a uniform designed to resemble that of the police as closely as possible without infringing the law. At a glance, or from a distance, it is difficult to identify them as security guards. However they have no greater legal power than any other person in Canary Wharf. The use of the image of authority is co-opted by the private interest of the landlord to create a power figure without the need for legal standing.

The architecture cements the position of individuals on the site as consumers of the space, dissuading attempts to engage with the property in a way that does not serve the narrow corporate interest. While activities relating to consumption are permitted in the area’s shopping centre, bars and restaurants, the space is designed to reduce as far as possible opportunities for spontaneous interaction or engagement with the area in a meaningful way. The environment is mostly constructed from harsh granite, providing little space to sit, functioning only as a channel from skyscraper to the cavernous underground station.

I wanted the intervention to highlight the hidden consequence of ownership of public space to users of Canary Wharf. I also wanted to call into question the way in which we define land, by revealing the precarious division between public and private space and how the distinction is not as clear as it might seem at first. To achieve this I planned to perform a public poetry reading of Wordsworth’s romantic poetry on private property in Canary Wharf. The aim was to antagonise the security guards to restrict what I was doing, ignore their instructions and continue to read until the police were called, and then comply either when arrest was threatened, or continue and be arrested or escorted physically from the premises.

The Docklands Community Poster Project which ran from 1981 to 1991 was a community-led act of resistance against the development of Canary Wharf by Lorraine Leeson and Peter Dunne. The motivation was a response to the sentiment of big money moving in and pushing local people out. The artists produced a series of photo murals collaboratively with local residents, portraying a sense of unity within the community, and the threat from the Canary Wharf development. The murals were displayed on public noticeboards in the area. The intention of the work was to represent the negative impact on local residents as a design of the developers rather than inevitable change.

There were two attempts at the intervention, neither of which conformed to the original expectations, but both developed in interesting ways. For the first attempt, I chose a raised platform opposite the underground station, as it formed a suitable natural stage. I read for 20 minutes from a book using a megaphone. After the first minute, I was instructed to stop by a security guard, but after this point there was no further interaction. Three security guards stood on each side of the platform and a security boat appeared behind, but there was no attempt to stop me. I discovered later that the spot I was standing on was an unmarked area of public property just a few meters wide meaning that the private security force’s powers were limited to monitoring me.

The map above shows the small strip of public land tucked within the large private estate In the second attempt, I chose a Friday evening at rush hour to find the largest available audience and make the biggest possible impact. On this occasion there was unusually no security presence at all on site. I was able to read this time without being surveilled or restricted in any way.

Though the intervention did not meet the original expectations, some interesting points were revealed in the process. The major point being the curiously sharp legal distinction between public space and private, restricted space. Although this was well known to the managers of the space, the architecture deliberately obfuscates these lines and they are difficult to find on publicly available maps. The impact of the intervention recalls Tevere’s work, given the importance of boundaries and concepts of space that exist only in the mind and how these can clash with legal definitions. The intervention also served as a demonstration of the impotency of the security when faced with an intrusion that does not originate from the property they control.

This intervention is situated in a history of practice that relates to the dichotomy of public and private space and the rules that regulate it. The control of land by private interests directly affects the architecture and function of the space, directing it towards commerce. This goes on to shape society in general because of the political and economic impact it generates. Many of our public spaces have become sterile and antiseptic due to their corporate purpose. This intervention was intended to raise awareness of this effect. In practice, the effect demonstrated the strangeness of the division between public and private space, questioning the cleanness of the dichotomy. Bibliography

Davis, M. (1992). Fortress Los Angeles: the militarization of urban space. Variations on a theme park, 154-180.

Docklands Community Poster Project 1981 – 1991. n.d. cSPACE. Retrieved from http://www.cspace.org.uk/cspace/archive/docklands/dock_arch.htm

Harvey, D. (1994). The invisible political economy of architectural production. The Invisible in Architecture, 420-427.

Harvey, D. (2003). The right to the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4), 939-941.

Sorkin, M. (1992, March 1). Variations on a theme park: The new American city and the end of public space (M. Sorkin). Hill and Wang.

Thompson, N., Sholette, G., Thompson, J., Noordeman, A., & Mirzoeff, N. (2004). The Interventionists: Users' manual for the creative disruption of everyday life. The MIT Press.

Thompson, N. (2012, February 17). Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (N. Thompson). Mit Pr.

Thornley, A. (1993). Ideology and the by‐passing of the planning system: Case studies of Canary Wharf, London, and the Globe, Stockholm. European Planning Studies, 1(2), 199-215.

Widgery, D., & Shelton, S. (1993). Some Lives!: A GP's East End. Simon & Schuster.