In this article, the author argues against the gentrification of an area that has been contributed to by a project mentioned in the Squire and Partners lecture. The article was inspired by a line of questioning at the end of the lecture. The views stated in this article are the views of the author, not of the magazine.
“Gentrification already existed in the area, so…” he finishes his statement by shrugging his shoulders, raising his eyebrows insinuatingly, and topping it off with an unconcerned smile.
This is Squire and Partner’s CEO’s defence for refashioning their newly acquired Brixton headquarters from an old Edwardian department store into an ostentatious, shabby chic office complex, called The Department Store, and causing a rift within the unpresumptuous urban fabric of the surrounding area.
They are a 250 employee strong, successful luxury apartment and high-end business development architecture firm, ranked twelfth in the AJ100, and were recently asked to give a guest lecture for OxArch. On their website they state that they are “revers(ing) years of neglect – revealing original brickwork, stone, marble and terracotta – and reactivat(ing) the street level through animation and display.” However, after briefly scrolling through local news posts online, it became clear that the Brixton community thinks otherwise. There was a strong display of dissent for the exaggerated exclusive privatisation of a visually dominating structure in central Brixton Village: “sticking a hugely expensive bespoke glass dome” on the rooftop area, access to which “requires memberships…dished out to the lucky few who were then able to sip cocktails from their lofty perch overlooking Ferndale Road, in an area suffering child poverty in excess of 40%.” The article is certainly negatively biased; the result of the locals having seen a rapid growth of real estate agents moving in, pushing housing prices, steadily forcing out the existing culturally diverse but poorer demographic. Nevertheless, the argument rings true. The mere fact that the Architectural Journal is supportive of the refurbishment and alternatively describes the glass dome as “the dilapidated existing cupola... having been replaced by a new glazed dome”, proves the disjointed relationship between the locals and their new neighbours.
If Squire and Partners truly put heritage sensitivity at the forefront of their design motivation, shouldn’t the fact that the building was “the first purpose-built department store in the country” be a vital characteristic to incorporate into its program? The department store typology depends on the public to activate it. Squire and Partners, through their closed off ground level entrance tend more towards alienation of the public. Their defence when questioned was that they are a private company and so public inclusivity has its limits, which is a fair point, but does this justify the added segregation of an elite member’s club?
Moreover, what is most concerning is that Squire and Partners do not seem to harbour any qualms for adding to the gentrification of an already gentrified area, and are ready to admit it even to aspirational, conscientious university students at their guest lecture. For being successful and, in the case of The Department Store, being their own client, one would hope that they were more ethically oriented.
If those who can actually afford it will not endorse this mentality, it forces either smaller architecture practices, or non-design associated charities, to take up the slack. It is an established trend, proving once again that architectural industry is using the cover as “for the people” to justify their more immediate commitment to aestheticism. It has gone on for long enough.