Loft Living in King’s Cross21 minute read

From Warehouses of Physical Capital to Warehouse of Knowledge Capital

This palimpsest project will focus on the cultural, macroeconomic and planning changes in London which led to the obsolescence of manufacturing warehouses along the canals near Kings Cross, and their subsequent land use changes. Whilst they were previously sites of production for British manufacturing they have since become objects of consumption (Zukin, 1982a:3) in themselves. Their change in use, it is argued, is symbolic of some combination of a change in cultural values around living in ‘lofts’, macroeconomic shifts in production and recapitalisation of the urban core. Urban factories and warehouses, as well as their associated infrastructure such as canals, are some of the most striking symbols of the urban industrialisation which swept through London and many other British cities in the 19th an 20th Centuries. Their shift, which is argued to be structural (Hamnett and Whitelegg, 2007:107), is one of the finest symbols of macro shifts experienced in land use, from industrial to post-industrial, from an economy of production to one of consumption. Indeed, many famous places in London are built on/in old large industrial buildings, such as the Tate Modern or Canary Wharf, both of which seem emblematic of Britain’s current mode of accumulation through financial services and the ‘creative industries’. A change in the class structure of London has facilitated this transformation of land use in London, with the death of most of inner city manufacturing, and the growth of topearning services (Hamnett and Whitelegg, 2007:108). The living and creation of offices in what previously were warehouses is clearly an example of an urban palimpsest, which sees the new interact with the old in a non-supersessionary, non-linear temporality. This project will engage with the term ‘palimpsest’ through its literary and geographical uses, relating them to the analysis of loft living in New York by Sharon Zukin (1982a, 1982b). This essay will conclude that whilst structural factors in the economy are highly important in the regeneration of Kings Cross, a subtle reading of cultural forces as well as policy interventions, allows a richer description of the local process. This localisation of global processes hopes, somewhat ambitiously, to move beyond dogmatically structural or post-modern interpretations of the same phenomena, some of which can in fact be reconciled when taking a cautious middle-ground. What is clear is that whilst the King Cross regeneration resembles many of the forces discussed by Zukin in her analysis of New York, the level of central government impetus to regenerate Kings Cross is much greater than in New York, because of the level of dilapidation in Kings Cross.

The Palimpsest

The original definition of palimpsest is of a piece of vellum on which the traces of erased inscription remained underneath the new inscription (Dillon, 2005). Implicit in the notion of palimpsest, in this author’s opinion, is a Hegelian teleological inquiry into the true purpose of things. Dillon (2005) and others falsely attribute the creation of the term palimpsest to Thomas de Quincey in 1845, though this inability to truly verify the creation of the term bears a degree of irony for ‘the palimpsest is a trope for memory and absolute origins that cannot remember its own origins’ (de Groote, 2014:110). Maniquis (2011:313) critiques the metaphorical appropriation of palimpsest by Dillon (2005), instead preferring a stricter material palimpsest. In this material palimpsest it is not difficult to see the relevance to loft living, where the physical remains of a previous regime of accumulation are used in the next cycles of capital accumulation. De Groote brings these two interpretations into a communion of a double hermeneutic circle between the palimpsestuous (metaphorical, Dillon) and palimpsestic (material, Maniquis), arguing they are in non-dialectic competition, rather than binary. The palimpsestuous represents a linear history, and a supersessionary layering, whereas the palimpsestic represents more process of erasure. In this way, one can study both the gradual process of layering of the King’s Cross cityscape, and the historically important temporalities which significantly effected the creation of the current palimpsest of loft living, such as the Greater London Council (GLC) making Regent’s Canal a conservation area in 1974. There are both material and symbolic aspects to the palimpsest of King’s Cross. One aspect of the literary history of the palimpsest which this author thinks pertinent is Carlyle’s and Coleridge’s respective coupling of palimpsest and forgetting. Should one cast their mind back to the origin of the palimpsest and imagine trying to actually read the rubbed-out traces on a piece of vellum, it is not unimaginable that actually reading the words would be very difficult. Coleridge, cited in Reisner (1982:93), claims that ‘I have in vain tried to recover the lines from the palimpsest tablet of my memory’, showing the unattainable aspect of the palimpsest. This is an idea more deeply interrogated by Carlyle, who describes the erasures necessary for the creation of the palimpsest, showing the palimpsest as a memorial to compounded losses (de Groote, 2014:111). This is an area of interest, for perhaps even if the traces remain, the extent to which a loft may at all resemble its industrial past in anything but a broad aesthetic remains questionable.

Whilst the palimpsest notion is deeply literary, it can be applied to the urban setting without reducing the city merely to text (Huyssen, 2003:7). This term is steeped in the idea that the landscape is itself a palimpsest, a site upon which there is an ‘accretion of historical events and processes which accumulate to bear “silent witness” to the passage of time’ , subject to the constant process of addition and amendment (Crang, 1996:430). As buildings fall into obsolescence, especially in an age of urbanised capital (Harvey, 1985) where the capital switching into the secondary circuit of capital accumulation (Lefebvre, 2003; Harvey, 1978) occurs, new land uses for buildings are created, leaving traces of the old land uses. ‘Just as each era forms a landscape according to its artefacts and uses’ argues Crang (1996:430), ‘so each succeeding era takes that landscape and overwrites it, and is in turn overwritten’, showing how regimes of accumulation build a landscape in their own image. De Quincey’s notion of palimpsest echoes this, in the sense that it is a succession of layers which seem to bury traces of the past, though these traces are not extinguished. Bartolini (2014), however, argues that in the current state of the usage of palimpsest as an analysis method, the palimpsest has been overused into redundancy, and used to simply mean the mingling of past and future. Importantly, Bartolini’s critique extends to the linearity of the layering of a city. Bartolini’s critique seems far less valid when considering the palimpsest of the likes of Walter Benjamin whose, in contrast to that of Huyssen, is not a supersessionary one (Harris, 2009:99), rather a disruptive palimpsest, which critiques the universality of history through historical materialism (Gosta, 2010). This Benjaminian historical materialist palimpsest challenges the assumption of a teleology of objects, questioning whether there is a ‘true’ purpose to things. Khirfan (2010), along with Bartolini, shows that the palimpsest not only shows the tangible physical remnants of a thing, but also the intangible, symbolic elements of urban form too.

Loft Living

Sharon Zukin pioneered geographical inquiry into the phenomenon of loft living. Lofts, as defined by Zukin (1982b:256) are ‘large, unobstructed floors of multi-storey, nineteenth century factory buildings’. London has a direct resemblance to many of the symptoms and processes of New York (Zukin, 1982a:xi). London has a significant avant-garde art scene, is a global hub of finance and property development, and manufacturing, displaying some of the necessary characteristics for the generation of a loft living lifestyle. Zukin’s seminal work presented a structural analysis of the increase in loft living in New York in the 1960s and 70s. The analysis brings a Marxist analysis of accumulation, linking recapitalisation and reconceptualisation of the city centre to the growth in loft living. As a growing number of artists began to live in lofts in SoHo, New York, middle class taste and lifestyle preferences changed such that the ‘economic and aesthetic virtues of loft living were transformed into bourgeois chic’ (Zukin, 1982a:2). This is what Zukin calls the ‘aesthetic conjuncture’, where the Artistic Mode of Production (AMP) became the cultural model for the middle classes, who’s valorisation (after a phase of devalorisation through deindustrialisation) of loft living led to its subsequent commodification and gentrification. In Zukin’s analysis, there is an intermingling of cultural forces, the politics of investment and the economics and politics of long-wave deindustrialisation of the urban core at play in the new phenomenon of loft living. Zukin argues that manufacturers in New York were displaced by gentrification processes, though the prolonged period of obsolescence in Kings Cross acted as a buffer against gentrification-led displacement of local manufacturers; instead, deindustrialisation is the root cause in Kings Cross.

Whilst Zukin’s work is highly influential and largely nuanced, it is not without critique. Jackson (1985) critiqued Zukin’s overly-structuralist anylsis, instead arguing culture should be given greater agency. Podmore (1998) furthers this critique, drawing on Bourdieu’s (1984) ideas of habitus and distinction. She commends Zukin’s analysis as a good model for historical material analysis in the cultural turn, which fits into Benjamin’s historical materialist notion of the palimpsest. Podmore, however, is critical of Zukin’s relegation of ‘culture’ to the realm of an investment commodity, relying on an economic base/superstructure argument about urban change (p283-4). Certainly Podmore’s analysis is valid in the sense that the manifestations of loft living are locally specific, as can be planning regulations, and the interaction of local politics with developers and central government is highly important in place-making. The forces behind the loft living are, however, largely structural (Hamnett and Whitelegg, 2007; Zukin, 182s,1982b, 2009), though not without important and deliberate government efforts to spur regeneration. Indeed, in planning discussions about the inclusivity of contemporary Kings Cross Central regeneration, one cannot shy away from the macroeconomic factors which create endemic social issues (Fainstein, 2000:455), or the ‘underlying material and political processes which shape cities and regions’ (Yiftachel and Huxley, 2000:987). The localisation of the global process of cultural revalorisation by Podmore enables her to apply a Bourdieuian analysis of such loft lifestyle, arguing that the new loft dwellers have an oppositional habitus to the suburban middle classes, using the inner city as a residential space as a form of distinction. Habitus, Podmore argues, is a location beyond physical space in which class identification is key to linking aesthetic dispositions with social practices (p286). Indeed, Zukin (2009:551) does refer to the urban middle class’ taste and lifestyle preferences, without directly referencing Bourdieu, with regard their taste for the consumption of authenticity. So Podmore’s critique may have been somewhat over-egged as a scathing critique by Hamnett and Whitelegg (2007) in their important analysis of loft living in Clerkenwell, and if rejecting Podmore’s critique of structuralism, then one certainly can take something from the Bourdieuan notion of distinction in the consumer choices; the two are not irreconcilable. This theme is touched on too by Pratt (2009) in his analysis of the cultural regeneration of Hoxton, in analysing Zukin’s gentrification of loft living and the compatibility of habitus in describing the subtle interface of economy and culture in creating gentrification patterns.

Much work, including this piece, emphasises the contemporary post-industrial land use of King’s Cross after its very industrial recent past. ’Post-industrial’ is a term critiqued, however, by the likes of Soja (1989:61) and Lee (2010), as it negates ongoing industrial relations. Hewison (2014:29) argues that the role of culture and cultural capital had an ‘explicitly instrumental’ social purpose to transform inner city areas, such as the Kings Cross area. Rather than existing in an age of post-industrialism, accompanied by ‘the end of history’ and ‘the end of ideology’ in fact it is an age where cultural production becomes inextricably linked to economic policy with the hegemony of neoliberalism (Hewison, ibid:25). Perhaps, then, to term post-industrialism too loosely does have implicit ideological concerns. The term does however, reflect a general decline in heavy industry and manufacturing production, with the relative and absolute growth in services provision, but neoindustrialism is preferred (Pratt, 2009). What is clear is that the shift in the land use of these urban warehouses is symptomatic of neo-industrialism (Savitch, 1988; Hamnett and Whitelegg, 2007). This neo-industrialism is by no means only related to the labour market, but it has significant impacts upon the spatial structuring of land use (Ley, 1996:367). Hand-in-hand with regeneration debates, about which Kings Cross has been and will be the focus of much academic inquiry, comes gentrification interest. The gentrification with which this paper deals is by no means the traditional gentrification originally identified by Ruth Glass in 1964, as it deals with what Pratt (2009:1043) identifies as ‘industrial gentrification’. This entails either industrial-industrial or industrial-residential shifts. Whilst it may be seen that including entire changes in land use, without the obvious displacement of previous inhabitants, it is this author’s opinion that the term is entirely valid, as it causes secondary displacement via increases in house prices.

Regarding Kings Cross, much work has been already done on the planning procedures of its regeneration (for example Hunter, 1990), and the degree to which this planning has been participatory. This project doesn’t have the scope to cover much of this debate, though a comment on the inherent conflict between speculative developers and the local people and Labour Camden council is all that can be indulged. Kings Cross has never, perhaps until now, been a core part of London; indeed, as Bolton (2014) tells us, the only real reason Kings Cross was urbanised was because of industrialisation, and urban Kings Cross was instantly industrial and poor. Contemporary Kings Cross is, then, possibly the only Kings Cross which is not a peripheral fringe part of the city. This comes both with London’s urban core expansion and the change in the economic fortunes and inhabitants of the area. As one of the transportation hubs of London; during the and period of industrialism in the late-19th and early-20th Century it grew in economic importance with the mass transportation of goods and people; the Kings Cross of today transports people around London, the UK and indeed Europe; there is even a plan by the Chinese government to link Kings Cross international to Beijing via high speed rail. Indeed, the centrality of transport throughout Kings Cross’ industrial and post-industrial history is a continuity shared between these two ‘epochs’. As well as the railway station, Regent’s Canal was a major artery for Kings Cross, enabling the transportation of goods, building materials and coal from the North of England to Kings Cross roughly between 1820 and 1960 (King’s Cross Central Ltd Partnership, 2016). In this period some quintessentially mid-late 19th Century industrial buildings and structures (such as the famous gasworks) were built, in a classic example of how the built environment reflects the mode of capital accumulation (Harvey, 2011:86). The industrial structures can be seen as representing the rationality, efficiency and functionality described by Harvey (1987:261) as part of the Industrial Revolution. In 1974 Regent’s Canal became a Conservation Area, followed by the canal-side buildings in 1983 and large swaths of Kings Cross in 1986, some of the last legacy the GLC before its abolition. Zukin (1982a:262) acknowledges that New York lofts experienced ‘revalorisation by preservation, rather than by new construction’ because of the choice and taste of middle class appropriators who want to preserve what is seen as the character (Hunter, 1990:127) of the inner city. This leads itself, shows Shin (2010), to further cycles of valorisation and displacement even of early gentrifiers by ‘super gentrifiers’ (Lees, 2003). In heritage consumption we can clearly see the maintenance, often politically motivated (Broudehoux, 2004), of historical traces of buildings and infrastructures, though this is not a ‘true’ historical memory, rather a construction which is intrinsically political. A selective history is created with heritage conservation, displaying in this instance a national pride in the Industrial Revolution, a time of British economic hegemony and innovation pioneering.

In the postwar period the industrial area served by the station and canals declined from an active industrial, though poor, area into obsolescence. With vast areas of large vacant premises, the area became derelict as the regime of capital accumulation for London and England shifted. In London, the 1962-3 winter was so extreme it froze over Regent’s Canal, leading to a diversion in the transportation means to road transport, a shift from which the canals never recovered. With the decline of manufacturing and warehouse land uses in the Kings Cross area the industrial job loss was significant, leading to significant local structural unemployment. It quickly garnered a new reputation of being a very poor neighbourhood famed for it’s prostitution and drug use. This is why Hamnett and Whitelegg (2007:122) claim that much of the loft living was ‘gentrification without displacement’, though only in the most direct sense of displacement, and the domino effect of increasing quality housing and office stock, as well as services to suit a different class of consumer have had significant indirect displacement effects (Holgersen and Haarstad, 2009). This prolonged period of dilapidation is what, argues Savitch (1988:185), distinguishes London from Paris and New York in that it experienced an ‘ambiguous’ tradition of neo-industrial production, rather than the rapid and whole-hearted transitions of Paris and New York. The public perception of Kings Cross as a ‘blighted’ neighbourhood made a ‘natural’ gentrification (through predominantly market forces) seemingly out of reach, and the centrality and transport connections of Kings Cross made its regeneration politically expedient. Reminiscent of Zukin’s tale of New York, some artists were attracted to the area by the lofts, where they set up studios for very low cost; Anthony Gormley is the most famous example of this.

What may be said of London compared to New York is that what may have been commodified in London was Zukin’s AMP from New York rather than a local one. This has been facilitated by the media and real estate agents who have promoted loft living as the lifestyle of avant grade artists, living in ‘trendy’ loft apartments. The reality of the Kings Cross of the 1980s and 1990s was more genuinely subversive in illegal raves, drugs an prostitution, and as such not capitalisable in the same way as the idea of an AMP. Here Pratt (2009) agrees with Hamnett and Whitelegg (2007) and Podmore (1998) in emphasising the role of the media in diffusing a symbolic system of imagery (Podmore, ibid:285). The media has expanded the influence of the SoHo artistic mode of production beyond the realm of New York, and has led to the speculative revalorisation of lofts in many neo-industrial Western cities. Similarly, real estate developers create marketing of lofts which consistently highlight the distinctiveness of the architecture of lofts, the perceived lifestyle of loft living and the cultural opportunities of the location (Hamnett and Whitelegg, 2007:115). Both the media and developers were manipulating the taste of middle class inner city residents, playing on their urban habitus to create demand for loft living.

To conclude, we have seen that deindustrialisation processes have been extremely significant in creating the palimpsest of loft living in Kings Cross. Not only do the lofts represent the industrial past of the Kings Cross area, but they also represent the neo-industrial present whereby capital is accumulated through real estate speculation and ‘the knowledge economy’. This trend does not look set to slow down in Kings Cross as the Regeneration Plan of the area will make the area a yet more attractive base to mobile capital; indeed Google are set to move their European Headquarters to Kings Cross in the coming years. Architect Thomas Heatherwick has designed a shopping centre in the former coal drops in Kings Cross, as part of the wider regeneration which Sir Peter Cook (2015) has described as ‘awful, boring, boring stuff’. The inspiration for much of this loft living has been fed to consumers of office space and residential lofts by developers and the media, rather than there being a more romantic notion of a genuinely productive and artistic way of life existing almost in subsistence, as Zukin described for New York. Rather, the AMP she described in New York has, along with finance and real estate capital, become more mobile. It seems fitting given the discussion of the palimpsest to discuss what has been forgotten in this project as well as what has been actively remembered; the acknowledgement that if there is displacement now through gentrification, it is by no means on the same scale, nor as direct, as the displacement experienced during industrialisation. Slums were cleared and many thousands of people were displaced. To romanticise the past is, then, to forget its brutal realities. Also largely neglected was a discussion of the planning processes of the regeneration and the attempts at creating a participatory plan. This palimpsest project has attempted to acknowledge both the material and metaphorical aspects of the palimpsest of King’s Cross, though more could perhaps be done to highlight the metaphorical aspect, perhaps through more direct qualitative research techniques to study people’s perceptions of the space. Heritage gentrification provides an interesting palimpsest as it disturbs Harvey’s (2010) assertion that the urban environment reflects the mode of capital accumulation, making the reader of the urban text reflect more deeply on how what seems to be an industrial landscape actually represents a quintessentially neo-industrial one at the same time. This palimpsest has painted a partial picture of Kings Cross, of the story of industrial devalorisation, dilapidation and neo-industrial revalorisation. Before Kings Cross was industrial it was home to some of the poorest parts of London like Agar Town, which themselves were in severe dilapidation, and the industrial capital invested in the area showed its revalorisation under the then cutting edge mode of capital accumulation. This, then, is part of a wider story of cycles of modes of capital accumulation affecting the built environment, echoing Crang’s (1996:430) sentiments of a continual palimpsest process of the built environment.


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