Marvin the Paranoid Android wandering Hackney Marshes
July 27, 2011 6:38 AM   Subscribe

The writer Iain Sinclair has been a fierce critic of London's 2012 Olympics project for some time. Now, with under a year until the games begin, his determined condemnations have again made the news. But, one architect wonders, is all he is offering just "the urban hipster version of shabby chic"?
posted by hydatius (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm always deeply saddened when someone seems to start with an argument I'm very sympathetic with, then carries it to such a level of crushing absurdity I need not just to part company but run away. The Olympics are a corrupt obscenity best visited on a people by money printing dictators who can bulldoze everyone and kill the embarrassing homeless than democratic societies. Even before the money ran out, people wondered if the UK could 'afford' Crossrail, a rail project needed since the 1930s. Yet few objected to a two week money pissing contest, leaving behind a bunch of irrelevant venues and fading warm feelings. Near me, ancient Greenwich Park is being needlessly torn up for some silly event. A higher bid for the irrelevant main stadium by a credible football team was rejected on some spiritual 'legacy' basis and given to a bunch of jokers who promise to keep the running track.
If I had the time I'd set up an Olympic Refund campaign so that struggling London workers could claim back some cash in exchange for promising to ignore the obscenity. Again, even if we were not broke, this is a waste on a Biblical scale for a nation with crumbling infrastructure and failing schools. The idea a fortnight of nationalism, Vegas like showmanship, irrelevant buildings and atomic supermen running about is a good investment is space based.
There is something to be said for ground up, slow, real regeneration based on infrastructure and skills rather than the wrecking ball. Borough is better today than Elephant and Castle. But Sinclair hates large scale development generally and is a reactionary, nostalgic oaf. He offers nothing but grumbles. It reminds me of chat I had with a Cypriot friend once about all the tacky resorts and concrete there. She said she hated them too until she spoke with some cousins who reminded her that being a waiter is a better life than subsistence farming with no damn plumbing. There is a Marie Antoinette’s ‘Village’/”Cheap holidays in other people’s misery” element to his guff.
Despise the Olympics, please, but only for the right reason. They are a colossally expensive, wasteful and corrupting imposition any proud nation should shun.
posted by The Salaryman at 7:03 AM on July 27, 2011 [17 favorites]

Well, you know that when it comes to good taste, whatever is left from the past is better than whatever you have today.

Schrödinger's hamburger.
posted by palbo at 7:04 AM on July 27, 2011

Mm. I think the salaryman has it right on the money.

There's certainly something to be said for architectural preservation (and have you seen the crap Britain builds these days?), but these arguments that dilapidated buildings should remain dilapidated, or that abandoned industrial areas should remain industrial, long after the said industry has moved out.

That's the absolute worst kind of nostalgia. It's nostalgia for a past that never happened. Those buildings were never meant to be gritty or run-down. That happenes because some part of the urban fabric failed, and needs to be repaired. Preserving decay isn't preservation at's inertia.

Now, there are a handful of exceptions I'll offer up. I'm all for mixed uses and reasonably dense development. Residential, commercial, retail, and light industrial can and should all get along, and be co-mingled throughout cities. It's completely insane that people don't consider the notion of living near your job to be the rule, rather than the exception.

On this note, I do lament that historic industrial facilities (and job centers) are often pushed out by development pressures. I would hate for London's delightfully old and gritty Borough Market to be removed, or renovated into an ugly modernist steel-and-glass structure. I lament the loss of New York's Fulton Fish Market, which was relocated and redeveloped into a shopping mall.

Plans are afoot in my neck of the woods in DC to redevelop the Capital City Market, which makes me equally sad. Admittedly, the market is a complete shithole that's been neglected since the day it opened in 1931, despite some nice architectural touches from the original construction. However, it's dangerously inaccurate to say that the market has fallen on bad times. Step in to the neighborhood any morning or weekend, and the place is positively bustling, with merchants, customers, farmers, delivery trucks, and wholesalers all doing business, sorting out the food and supplies for DC's independent merchants and restaurants. It feels like stepping back 80 years (or, as I prefer, into Mos Eisley). Once things close up for the night, one could very easily conclude that this is an abandoned industrial area, although that couldn't be further from the truth.

Who gets to make the call to determine the success or failure of a neighborhood? Grime and "grit" is often a symptom of a failed area, but is certainly not a 100% reliable indicator.

Yes. Progress should be made. If something isn't "working," it should be revitalized, torn down, or replaced with something new. If your vacancy rate is above 50%, it's time for some sweeping changes to be made.

I cry for the gorgeous architecture crumbling and being demolished in Detroit, but honestly see no other way forward for that city other than consolidation and modernization. Save what you can, but dire circumstances call for dire measures.

(Rant: Also, stop getting hung up on preserving old theaters. Yes, theaters are fine artistic institutions that often employed stunning architecture, but unless it's economically viable to support a new theater, it's not always a good idea to restore/preserve each and every one. There are plenty of other historic facilities with great architecture that are worthy of preservation that can actually be converted into economically-viable new uses. Yes, Howard Theater. I'm looking at you. That "restoration" is going to gut the interior, and completely alter the design of the exterior, because the interior was unsalvageable, and the exterior's historic design was frankly ugly as a sin. Worst. Preservation. Project. Ever.)

We don't want to tear down any more neighborhoods of historic rowhouses to build another Pruitt-Igore or Southwest Washington DC, but we also don't want to leave a city to rot and crumble until we have no other choice but to remove the buildings and infrastructure. This is especially tragic in an era when people are flocking back to cities. There's a demonstrated demand for more urban housing, and we should figure out how to provide that without steamrolling successful (albeit grimy) industries and neighborhoods.
posted by schmod at 7:54 AM on July 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was initially very against the Olympics but, having now moved to Leyton, about two miles from Stratford, I am more than happy for the regeneration. Stratford is a dump and anything done to improve it can only be a good thing.

The area where the Olympic Park has been built was one of the lovelier areas of East London and the walk past the run-down old industrial buildings along the River Lea an absolute delight, but to keep it for the sake of it, so some selfish arsehole can come slumming it down the east end when they fancy a bit of poverty tourism is completely unjustifiable.

It's a living, breathing city, not some bloody museum piece.
posted by fatfrank at 8:09 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Olympics are an amazing event. They are part of modern global culture.
London will host the world, and be able to showcase why that city is great.

London should be honored to be hosting them -
and if they don't want them, then plenty of other cities do.
posted by Flood at 8:10 AM on July 27, 2011

I gotta say, I really am happy for the Overground. it was needed. transport improvements are a silver lining, if there is one...

but really, all the tearing up and construction for two weeks of collective sports orgasms strikes me as a colossal waste.

And, to earn the enmity of most Londoners: why didn't they tear down Battersea to make the stadium? it's big and beautiful in a dead, industrial waste sort of way, but I still don't understand the fascination with it. I'd love to have this explained to me.
posted by EricGjerde at 8:14 AM on July 27, 2011

Metafilter: seems to start with an argument I'm very sympathetic with, then carries it to such a level of crushing absurdity...
posted by blue_beetle at 8:16 AM on July 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Preserving decay isn't preservation at's inertia.

This! I agree totally with the others, Sinclair is reactionary to the point of totally undermining his own argument. And it is a shame because it's an argument worth having - redevelopment is a fantastic thing as long as it is sustainable and leads to social mobility.

There are so many public, front-line agencies and charities who have to jump through hoops to prove to Government funders that their plans for capital investment are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound)... Yet the same doesn't seem to apply to the Government itself.
posted by dumdidumdum at 8:17 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

@The Salaryman

Whilst I'm in no way the London Olympic's biggest fan (don't get me started on the bullshit ticketing system that leaves me living not 20mins from the Olympic Park but completely without tickets) I do feel obliged to point out that there are areas where the infrastructure has benefited.

The London Overground (London's Orbital rail lines) is now the best performing rail network in the country - both in terms of reliability and independently surveyed passenger satisfaction.

A lot of that is due to TfL pumping their own money into it since they took it over, but it has also been a significant beneficiary of the Olympic money - particularly on the North London Line. ODA funding has contributed in some way to the complete reworking of Stratford, the new Rolling Stock, the signalling upgrades, the station revamps and the complete root-and-branch reconstruction of the East London Line.

The DLR has also benefited from the Olympics - with money going towards its extension to Stratford and the expansion of DLR trains to 3-car length from 2-car.

Now the money that's been spent on those infrastructure works is obviously not a large percentage of the overall Olympic budget, so its easy to grrr about that and say that if all that money had been spent on infrastructure work (be it transport or other) then London would be a better place.

But doing so ignores the reality of the situation - that without the Olympics arguably none of that money would have ended up being spent on those works.

There were parts of the North London Line infrastructure that still dated back to the 1870s and it had been neglected and ignored by the DfT and Silverlink (who held the Franchise) for years because it ran through various areas of North London that, frankly, neither the Tories nor New Labour gave a flying shit about because they were populated mostly by poor people.

Without the Olympics (which needed that Line as part of its delivery programme), TfL would arguably never have managed to gain enough support to pry the NLL out of the DfT's cold clammy hands, and all that extra cash we've seen spunked on London's railways would have likely gone towards funding the widening of the M4 or suchlike so that Government Ministers (of all party colours) could get to Oxford faster for Alumni dinners.

So there you go - if we're playing the "what have the Olympics ever done for us?" game then I give you the London Overground.

We got a much needed orbital railway out of it - and also proof that the way that railway is run (on a Concession system not a Franchise system) is a better model for railways in this country both from a passenger and a financial perspective.

Trust me, those two things combined will pay back any base-line cost of the Olympics ten times over in economic terms over the next thirty years.

Also, whilst Spurs may have made the bigger bid for the stadium, it's worth remembering that they're still going to build a new ground anyway, and always were if they didn't get it. So whilst you may feel short-sold on the stadium cost, the shopkeepers (and council) of Haringey, as well as whatever big construction firm builds New White Hart Lane, are probably grateful they didn't get the Olympic stadium.

Mind you, all that aside - I will completely agree with you on Iain Sinclair. The man is a windbag and an oaf, and someone who can rarely resist the urge to say in thirty sentences what everyone else manages in three. and yes, given the length of this comment I appreciate that I'm being a bit pot/kettle there!
posted by garius at 8:19 AM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Erm, surely adaptive reuse is cheaper than demolishing and rebuilding?

As for grit and grime, I think we're kinda confused about what it entails. Calling it a symptom of decay leads you to the false dilemma of soulless corporate regeneration - the idea that we are tragically losing something 'real' but would be happier with a big clean supermarket anyway - or ironic hipster gentrification - the idea that this 'realness' can somehow be preserved by the force of subversive commodification. But grime and grit isn't always a symptom of decay. You go to any sort of industrial estate and grime and grit is a sign that things are working. Yeah sure it's dirty and messy - it has to be, the toughness of the building there is a necessity of the work - and this work is necessary. Minerals and metals don't extract themselves from the earth and their processing isn't automatic.

Our association of grime and grit with decay in the western world is actually a symptom of a political economy that outsources all industrialisation to the developing world, and our confusion over grime and grit (a tragic but necessary loss for progress or compromised salvation via hipster preservation) is the flip side of believing that our economy can survive on increasingly nebulous concepts of service, creativity and financialisation in a society where everyone is middle class.
posted by doobiedoo at 8:29 AM on July 27, 2011

The Olympics are a joke. The tax-payer paid for this, and will probably continue to pay for several years, yet all the good tickets go to the wealthy and corporate sponsors. If we are paying $12 billion for this, we should get first refusal on any tickets.

And to hear that sheffield still has 600 million to pay out for the World Student Games which took place there 20 years ago is shocking, and it will probably be the same with the Olympics. Typical of this country, the poor pay so the rich can have a jolly old day out.

The IOC are as corrupt as FIFA.
posted by marienbad at 8:42 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Olympics will be a disaster, he seems to say, simply because everything is. Like Marvin the Paranoid Android wandering Hackney Marshes, he suggests that all new building is pointless, all attempts at planning doomed and any development always the product of base venality.

Sounds reasonable to me.

Seriously, though, I think Sinclair is being misrepresented here. I'm reading Ghost Milk at the moment, and it's not just the blimpish piece of nostalgia that some people seem to be assuming; nor is it the vehemently angry polemic that some reviewers have described, partly because it's a very funny book, full of jokes, and partly because Sinclair is so clear about what he likes (the human, intimate side of London) as well as what he loathes. He's not attacking development in general, he's attacking New Labour's grand projects, or what he calls 'this intimate liaison between developers and government, to reconstruct the body of London to their mutual advantage'. And I wouldn't just dismiss it as 'poverty tourism'; he raises concerns about toxic waste that seem to be shared by quite a few local residents. The plans for the world's biggest ever McDonalds in the 2012 Olympic Park are also raising a few eyebrows.

Don't forget that Sinclair's take on the Millennium Dome was also widely ridiculed, at the time, by supporters of the Dome who reckoned it was all going to be a fantastic success. Who's laughing now?
posted by verstegan at 9:45 AM on July 27, 2011

Ah, don't. It's like having a part of your city taken over by a temporary dictator. The roads will be closed so important people have a clear drive - even bloody Beijing knows how to push the powerful through the peons without permanently taking over lanes (well, sometimes). Wear the wrong T-shirt, perhaps one just the wrong colour and you can be arrested, and the plod can raid your gaff. Even the money's faked - the cost, £9 bn, is 'exempt of VAT and inflation' because that's what was decreed. I have *no* idea what that means. Someone's got to pay VAT. Who might that be?

You can put on some wonderful spectacles when you're a dictator, and lots of people love them. But I'd rather hoped we'd got beyond that.

Panem et circenses.
posted by Devonian at 3:39 PM on July 27, 2011

The Olympics are an amazing event. They are part of modern global culture.
London will host the world, and be able to showcase why that city is great.

Sydney is still paying back its debt from the 2000 olympics. We have a great park now, true, and it would have cost less than a tenth of the ultimate price to get those facilities built if not for the olympic boondoggle. Olympics is a shell game for suckers.
posted by smoke at 6:18 PM on July 27, 2011

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