Architecture and commerce: Looking into the ‘past’ and ‘present’ within the spectacle of Canary Wharf; the ‘gated’ community’21 minute read

The site of investigation for my palimpsest project concerns Canary Wharf, a former port which became a financial district, located within the borough of Tower Hamlets. It was historically known as the West India Docks, which underwent an economic transformation by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) in 1981. The main objective of the redevelopment was to maintain the ‘unique blend of historic buildings…[alongside] encouraging office development’. This was done ‘in order to maintain and expand the role of the City as an international financial centre’ (Daniels and Bobe, 1992: 540). The area, is now currently owned by the Canary Group PLC who define the area as a ‘privately owned estate’ (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2017), which is used for public consumption.

The emphasis on difference despite geographical reality, leads towards the idea of Canary Wharf being a spectacle (Debord, 1989). This paper will argue that Canary Wharf is an overt spectacle which maintains exclusivity through enabling a new community of workers and consumers, replacing the traditional working-classes. This is displayed through the extravagant shopping centres and office blocks, which encompasses a plethora of functions. Therefore, Canary Wharf is seen to conform to the overarching illusion of London as being an affluent metropolis, when in reality it is a concentrated site of wealth. Therefore, through analysis of the area is essential in creating a broadened understanding of how Canary Wharf has changed drastically overtime.

I will investigate the reasons behind Canary Wharf’s development, through attempting to trace its past as a port which was home to many different industries; mainly shipbuilding and manufacturing. This project will be divided into four main sections. Firstly, I will present the existing literature in grounding my argument in relation to existing research. This provided the necessary foundations in which was useful in establishing links between my own research and emerging themes of architecture, private security and gated communities, in upholding the indispensability of the site. Through looking at these themes, it is incredibly useful in providing me with oversight into how palimpsest is present within Canary Wharf through investigating the juxtaposed architecture present throughout the site.

Defining ‘Spectacle’

The role of spectacle was incredibly prominent throughout Canary Wharf; maintained throughout its architecture. Debord (1995) defined the spectacle as being ‘a part of society and as…unification….where all attention, all consciousness converges’ (1995: 12). This is of considerable importance due to the locality of Canary Wharf being the locus of both leisure and work within Tower Hamlets. The borough currently has the ‘highest worklessness rate in London, at 7.7% and the highest rate of poverty as well [at] 39%’ (Trust for London, 2018). Therefore, it is evident that the redevelopment of Canary Wharf has solidified its role as a spectacle as the plethora of investment bank offices reinforces the ‘self portrait of power’ which ‘invaded [the Docklands] into the shape of a mere apparatus’ (1995: 19). This was especially poignant within the urban design of the area which is filled with high-quality office space and glass-orientated shopping exteriors. This conforms to the spectacle of which is characterised as being ‘in a state of stylistic competition…as there are no civic spheres [and] no public buildings’ (Edwards, 1992: XII) therefore, being at the ‘heart of society’s real unreality’ (1995: 13). Unlike Debord (1995) who characterised the spectacle as being a covert phenomenon, Canary Wharf is overt in its objectives to entice potential customers. This is not only seen through the prism of consumption but also as a place of leisure. This is viewed through the 97 acres for ‘fountains [and] tree-lined plazas’ (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2018). Through creating an environment, appropriates the notion that ‘everything that appears is good’ (1995: 15), creating artificial experiences. This is because the creation of tower blocks for office spaces at a cheaper price than the City ‘provides the flexibility to expand rapidly without relocating [with] large, open-plan floor plates are well suited for trading’ (Jenkins and Hammond, 2012). Thus, the concept of spectacle is essential in understanding the main objectives of the development in creating a new beginning for the site.

Applying Palimpsest

The role of palimpsest is important in highlighting the traces of the past from within contemporary sites such as Canary Wharf. Although defined in the literary sense in being a parchment filled and erased continuously (Dillion, 2005) it is also applicable to architecture. In essence, architecture is seen to capture ‘multiple, overlapping activities over variable periods of time’ (Lucas, 2005 in Bailey, 2006: 10), and this is significant in relation to Canary Wharf. Through transforming the area, has changed its purpose but not its significance in being a major contributor to the London economy. The ‘final layer…represents activities [that are] quite different from those that produced the earlier years’ (Bailey, 2006: 12). By observing the changing functions of the area is seen to reflect the economic shifts of London in being a ‘global metropolis through…the financial exchanges of the world economy takes place’ (King, 2005 in Church et al, 1992: 15). Therefore, this allows for a palimpsestuous outcome displayed in the architecture ‘with which one is presented as a result…[of] the subsequent reappearance of the underlying script’ (2005: 245).

Incorporating the theory of palimpsest is vital in understanding how traces of the past manifests itself. This is displayed through the prevalence of historical architecture in being able to resurrect the past as ‘their retentive function is a necessary means to that end’ (Dillion, 2005: 252). This is because the juxtaposed architecture allows for ‘making visible of what is previously unseen’ (2005: 253). By magnifying ideas surrounding the continued presence of exclusivity due to the important status of the site being a strategic centre for the economy. Through analysing the juxtaposed architecture present at the site allowed me to visualise how the regeneration project drastically impacted the local community. This is visualised through who occupies Canary Wharf in terms of work and leisure, alongside maintaining whether the site has redefined the image of the Docklands. Despite architecture being a major focus within this project, I will also consider the palimpsestuous nature of the community that changed overtime, as Canary Wharf became a global banking metropolis in how it displacing the traditional working classes.

History of Canary Wharf: Development & Significance

Constructed in the 1980’s, the Canary Wharf development programme was ‘the largest construction site in Europe’ (Home, 1989: 119), orchestrated by Thatcher’s government. It was conducted through the establishment of the LDDC whose objective was to bring ‘land and buildings into effective use [and] encouraging the development of existing and new industry’ (1989: 120). This was highlighted through the £4.4 billion contribution ‘by the private sector [through] five million square feet of new business space’ (ibid). Traditionally, Canary Wharf, known as the West India Docks was a former centre of manufacturing, shipbuilding and food processing (see Fig. 1). Thus, due to its diverse factories and ports drew in other industries. Thus, one can argue that Canary Wharf has always been a significant nucleus of economic growth which has changed overtime, highlighting the palimpsestuous importance in investigating Canary Wharf as a locus for the economy.

Figure 1- Around the Docks.
Figure 1- Around the Docks


By attracting foreign investment, from investment banking firms accelerated the transformation of the area; rapidly changing the purpose of Canary Wharf into a financial centre in which ‘the region adds £11.7bn to the UK economy’ (Biz, 2017). Thus, the redevelopment was viewed as a prestige project (Loftman and Nevin, 1995). They defined it as being an ‘innovative, large scale, self-contained development’ which was ‘primarily justified in terms of its ability to attract inward investment…promote urban images, and act as a hub of a radiating renaissance’ (1995: 300). Daniels and Bobe (1992) argued that through ‘[creating] a superior environment’ (1992: 539) noticed through relaxed planning laws due to the low land value of the site allowed for the mass production of offices. Through allowing private firms to base their headquarters which ‘enshrined developers as planners; [placing] greater emphasis on private-sector contributions to infrastructure’ (1992: 541).

Although the new development was able to transform the area from ‘a disastrous and bankrupt white elephant, [into] a familiar and thriving landmark’, to a financial district of commerce and finance (Brown, 2017). Thus, it was hailed as one of the successes ‘of Thatcherite deregulatory approach to inner city regeneration’ (Home, 1989: 119). Nonetheless, with the redevelopment has mass implications in destroying the factory community within the area through mass displacement, becoming a gated community (Atkinson and Flint, 2004) of concentrated wealth. This was evident through the reality of many locals not being able to ‘afford the new and expensive housing…as all the riverside is being gobbled up with luxury apartments’ (Rose, in Church et al, 1992: 33). In addition, the project was becoming a ‘reverse leverage’ (Home, 1989) due to it ‘costing billions [and accumulated] an ever increasing commitment of public funds’ (1989: 122). Through displacing the traditionally working-classes towards the surrounding areas allowed for the emergence of a newer global community of bankers and affluent consumers to the area.

However, the emergence of modern architecture can also be viewed as an underlying presence in curating a new anti-palimpsest; replacing the past with the new. This was due to the reality of the LDDC planning committee being ‘drawn in from industry and others from the world of property’ (Edwards, 2004: 7) of who have vested interests. Therefore, the goal of the redevelopment of Canary Wharf is brought into question, due to the nature of the meetings being closed off to outsiders ‘creating distrust between the LDDC and local community groups’ (2004: 8).

Methodology & Reflexivity

In order to unlock the palimpsestual nature of Canary Wharf I went on two different days to Canary Wharf, undertaking a two-part mixed-methods approach of the site, through non-participant observation and visual analysis of documents and artefacts. I underwent a visual analysis of Canary Wharf’s past by visiting the London Docklands Museum, located in the West India Docks. It was imperative to witness the transformational nature of Canary Wharf unfold through the visual stimuli that was present throughout the museum. This provided me a collage filled with the history of the site. In addition, through analysing the past broadened my own understanding of Canary Wharf as being an important site concerning manufacturing providing livelihoods alongside its current use as a location for finance. This was evident with the ‘former warehouses on the Isle of Dogs…including St Katharine’s and London docks, [which have been] converted or demolished’ (Page and Fidgeon, 1989: 67), into local amenities and apartments. As such the former warehouses have become the ‘premises for businesses and commercial development, recreation and housing’ (ibid). Through revealing the reality of the LDDC development which is viewed as a cumulative palimpsest through the ‘displacement of material by repeated human activity’ (Bailey, 2006: 12).

Through attending the museum, conveys the idea of a resurrective fantasy (Dillion, 2005), in which through visual stimuli illustrated the premise that the past ‘is not dead but sleeping…[as] nothing can truly die’ (2005: 246). Therefore, this reaffirmed the importance in attending the London Docklands Museum as it allowed me to witness how important Canary Wharf has always been, through different historical contexts. This was because I was able to visualise through the architectural design of the building ‘communicated and [exhibited] the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment’ (Gunay, 2012: 1251).  By examining relics of the past evident through the wooden barrels and iron crates highlighted the importance of the Docklands simultaneously as a former port and place filled with a sense of community.

I also visited the shopping centres of Cabot Place. Through its intrinsic nature in being a place for consumption, it was a great starting place in able to frame the ‘social setting in which people function, by recording the context in they work’ (Mulhall, 2003: 308) and socialise. Therefore, by analysing the way in which people ‘move, dress and use the space is very much a part of how particular social settings are constructed’ (Silverman, 1992 in Mulhall, 2003: 307). Through visualising the shopping centres allowed me to grasp a multi-dimensional view in how Canary Wharf as a private-public space is used for different purposes. Alongside the shopping centres, I also looked at the juxtaposition of architecture present within Canary Wharf, framing a double-meaning from within the area reinforcing the status of the site as being a mirage of affluence. By undertaking a visual analysis through the use of personal photography of the site was essential in allowing me to document the palimpsestual traces of the past and present. However, it was important for me to consider my own social positionality, in being an outsider to the area I held positive assumptions of the area as a convenient space. This is because ‘there is no neutrality [as] there is only greater or less awareness of one’s biases’ (Rose, 1985 in Corbin-Dwyer and Buckle, 2009: 55). Therefore, it is important to consider alternative viewpoints in which my observations allowed me to uncover.

Finally, I also conducted a short unstructured interview with a resident who lives at Royal Victoria as a means to see how the transformation of Canary Wharf has impacted the surrounding areas. This was necessary for me in capturing a snapshot of opinion in revealing the juxtaposed position in Canary Wharf being viewed as both beneficial and detrimental towards residents simultaneously. It was important to engage with the participant through understanding their personal experiences and perspectives (Hofisi et al, 2014) on whether the development of Canary Wharf has either been positive or negative for the community. By having ‘flexibility and…exploration’ of different topics (Hofisi et al, 2014: 62) allowed the participant to open up more about their own perceptions. Finally, verbal consent was given and the participant was informed that they can withdraw at any time.

The role of reflexivity is incredibly important in evaluating my methodological approach as access to Canary Wharf is often compromised. Because it is privately-owned public space, photography is often limited due to the premise that ‘any activity that takes place…is safe…and does not compromise security’ (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2017). This meant I was not able to access specific office buildings due to security. I managed to overcome this by taking field-notes of the site, alongside choosing to observe the tube station and the interiors of Cabot Place. This reinforces Debord’s (1989) idea of the spectacle representing ‘everything that appears is good; whatever good will appear’ (1989: 15).


Juxta-positional Architecture

The role of palimpsest is integral towards unlocking traces of Canary Wharf’s past as a former port embellished through the juxtaposed architecture that is present both within and around the area. This is displayed in Fig. 4 which illustrates the stark contrast between the skyscraper office buildings of investment banks to the archaic style of housing, and restaurants from within. Through conveying this juxtaposition, of architecture actively becomes a central component in becoming a window into Canary Wharf’s Docklands past. Architecture is seen to reinforce the palimpsestic nature of Canary Wharf being ‘one of layering [creating] a surface structure…[which is] often imperfectly erased’ (Dillion, 2005: 244).

Figure 2- Buildings of Canary Wharf.
Figure 2- Buildings of Canary Wharf

Through visualising the contrasting buildings reinforces the incorporation of palimpsest as the layering of the buildings ‘describes the structure with which one is presented as a result’ (2005: 245). However, despite the factory remains acting as preserves of the past the mass encompassing of new buildings, alongside the old buildings becoming commercial properties, seeks to undermine the area’s past. This is seen to have ‘fallen out of living memory and into oblivion’ (Cherry, 2006: 662). Therefore, despite being palimpsestuous, Canary Wharf is seen to solidify its status as a spectacle concerning the remit of representation as the architecture currently placed within Canary Wharf  is an ‘extension to the City of London’ (Daniels and Bode, 1992: 542).

Gated Community

Due to the mass wealth that is created within Canary Wharf through its focus on banking, has led towards the creation of a ‘gated community’. Atkinson and Flint (2004) define this as being a ‘walled and gated residential developments that restricts public access’ (2004: 875). However, Canary Wharf is located in Tower Hamlets, ‘one of the most deprived boroughs in London…with [one of the] highest unemployment rate at 12.8%’ (City of London Corporation, 2015: 10). The role of locality is of strong importance within the context of Canary Wharf, in being an exclusive space comprised of private firms. This in turn reflects the growing ‘patchwork of segregation’ (Minton, 2006: 5), that is present within London. Such views are fortified within the transformation of Canary Wharf itself as the LDDC, ‘was clearly created in the Conservative government’s image’ as the development was ‘property led but few local people…benefitted’ (Edwards, 1992: XIII). This is noticed through the higher increase of personnel in Canary from ‘27,000 to over 100,000 in…10 years (Allen, 2013). However, the existing population only ‘comprise [less] than one in 10 of the district’s workforce’ (Allen, 2013). Therefore, the goal of the redevelopment of Canary Wharf is brought into question, as the LDDC planning committee being ‘drawn in from industry and others from the world of property’ (Edwards, 2004: 7) of who have vested interests.

Private Security

Within the space of Canary Wharf, exclusivity is also illustrated through the prevalence of private security. This is evident upon entry into Canary Wharf (see Fig. 3) and is displayed around the complex through the prevalence of 24 hour CCTV surveillance, in Fig. 4. The growth of private security is in itself palimpsestuous due it changing overtime within Canary Wharf, however is exacerbated due to the site being both public and private in nature. This is orchestrated as a means to remove ‘the poor…excluded and the badly behaved’ (Minton, 2006: 8), who are seen as a threat in undermining the clean-cut image of Canary Wharf. Therefore, the ‘rise of individual landlords owning and managing entire city centre schemes’ mirrors the ‘parallels of inequalities of the Victorian era’ (2006: 3). Through extenuating the prevalence of private security highlights the palimpsestuous nature of Canary Wharf, as it has always been a strategic centre of industry, and has simply adapted overtime.


Figure 3. Security.
Figure 3- Security


Figure 4. CCTV.
Figure 4- CCTV

This is because the Docklands, have always been an exclusive area, something which is exhibited through the ‘extensive water basins and high security walls which extended around each dock system’ (Edwards, 1992: 5). Through the role of security, highlighted the importance of the docks, especially the West India Docks as it attracted other industries predominantly, shipbuilding. Nevertheless, despite the Docklands having ‘wider geographical significance’ as it was ‘important for London and the regional geography of the UK’ (Ogden, in Church et al, 1992: 2) in terms of trade, the workers were not valued from within the docks. This was because the workers were in ‘poor and living conditions’ (Royal London Docks, 2015). As a consequence, the workers were viewed as disposable labour as ‘commodities have transfigured human labor into labor-as-commodity’ (Debord, 1995: 28) as people work to survive. This reaffirms Debord’s premise in highlighting the importance of the spectacle of Canary Wharf being a vital asset towards the London economy due to its ability to produce a diverse range of goods allows the ‘commodity’s dominion over the economy’ (1995: ibid).

“Convenient, but Plastic”

When, observing the palimpsestuous nature of Canary Wharf, it was important for me to consider the changing community, regarding how different evaluate the development of Canary Wharf. The overarching perception towards the development of Canary Wharf from my participant was that was ‘convenient, but [felt] artificial and plastic’. Due to the nature of the area having everything is seen to only ‘serve the people that work there…as there’s no character of the area’ in which leads forth to the idea of palimpsest being replaced. Through only having ‘elegant amenities and a bustling retail scene make the space vibrant and attractive to both employees and visitors’ (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2018) is seen to strip the area of its manufacturing identity.

Therefore, with the development of Canary Wharf, the sight of ‘commodity completes its colonialization of social life [as] commodities are all that there is to see’ (1995: 29). This is illustrated through showcasing the vibrancy of the area presented with the ‘five malls- [filled] with more than 300 shops, cafes, bars and restaurants’ (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2018). Through the incorporation of Cabot Place, created an ‘integrated environment in which to live, work and play for [the] newer affluent population’ (Crilley, in Church et al, 1992: 25). From my participant, they maintained that the shopping centres provided choice. However, by calling the site ‘plastic’ reinforces the spectacle, as Canary Wharf is perceived to be a ‘sterile place which lack connection to the reality…of the local environment’ (Minton, 2009: 3), in which is detached from its past. The role of exclusivity is paramount within the site of Canary, especially within the West India Docks of 1800. But instead of being covert, it is overt in nature displayed through the illusionary image that is presented through the glamourised shopping centres and buildings present from within the complex.


To conclude, this project has illustrated how architecture presents a sense of duality within the site. On the one hand, the architecture of the site is used to certify Canary Wharf as a financial hub while also displaying its layered history. Despite my first impressions that my site would be devoid of history, the concept of palimpsest is very much present throughout the site that continues to have significance as an indispensable contributor towards the UK economy. The site heavily reinforces Debord’s spectacle, displayed through the conglomeration of shops and offices; adapting a plethora of social purposes. Although, it was initially supposed to be an all-encompassing site benefitting all, the benefits offered are superficial due to the site’s ability to reduce people to the status of workers and consumers, thus solidifying its status as a spectacle and as a gated community. Therefore, the palimpsestual nature of the area is prevalent through the changing purpose of the site, but the significance of the area remains present, as it has always been exclusive in nature. Despite the regeneration project transforming the area, questions are raised not only in who benefits but mostly how people perceive the area and use it, for a multitude of different purposes.

Christopher Schroeder


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Picture References

LDC (2016) Figure 2- Buildings at Canary Wharf [photograph]. Last accessed: 30/03/2018. Available at:

Schroeder, C. (2018) Figure 1- Around the Docks [photograph] (Christopher Schroeder’s own private collection).

Schroeder, C. (2017) Figure 3- Security [photograph] (Christopher Schroeder’s own private collection).

Schroeder, C. (2017) Figure 4- CCTV [photograph] (Christopher Schroeder’s own private collection).

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