Urban space is shaped and re-shaped by many competing forces. Global cities have been marked to varying degrees by the grand ideas of planners, the whims of political will, and the machinations of capitalism. David Harvey (1985) is a prominent voice in theorising the spatial effects of capital. The essence of Harvey’s contention is that during periods of over-accumulation in capitalist production a shift occurs whereby capital moves from production into the production of the built environment. This occurrence is a method of diverting surplus capital and a means to deter a larger crisis (Christophers, 2011).
In London, during the reign of the previous Mayor (2008-2016), a shift in desire and thinking took hold, one that argued that London needed an iconic skyline of imposing skyscrapers. The city soon ‘boasted’ a cheese grater (The Leadenhall Building), a walkie talkie (20 Fenchurch Street), a Shard (Shard London Bridge), and even a gherkin (30 St Mary Axe [formerly Swiss Re Building]). This is not to mention City hall which is either an ‘onion’ or ‘testicle’ depending on your point of view. However, as Harvey suggests capital in times of crisis focuses on the production of urban space. For London, this has been combined with the desire for skyscrapers that offer premium office space in boom times and bust.
Images courtesy: CityAM, Architects’ Journal, Skyscrapers News
The EC3 postcode, in the heart of ‘The City’, is home to the major headquarters of the leading insurance companies. It is a district that is spatially configured and development to the tunes of the insurance sector. However, as new buildings are completed they are standing empty. The Financial Times reported recently that One Creechurch Place which is a modest 17 floors and boasts 272,00 square feet is completely unoccupied. New developments including the 59-floor tower at 22 Bishopgate and 24 floor 60-70 St May Axe with the sobriquet of “Can of Ham’, among others, are being completed without any pre-letting. Some of this due to more efficient use of space or changing working patterns and some is due to nervous businesses reacting to uncertain times. The search for new tenants is hampered by business rates, declining interest of banks wanting to be in this area, and new tech companies preferring a location closer to ‘Silicon roundabout’.
This leads to questions of the possible spatial impacts of Brexit and how this will play out in urban space. If companies move or working practices continue to be increasingly flexible then these high-rise projects could stand temporally as indicators to the uncertain flows of urban capital. However, as Harvey suggests, the tendency for destructive creation in a capitalist economy means that maybe these building will be more ephemeral than expected. At present the show still goes on. The Scalpel (Lime Street/Leadenhall Street) is under construction and two further buildings, at 22 and 100 Bishopgate respectively, are part of a projected extra 4 million square feet of office space that will available by the end of the decade. How much of this will stand empty and what will happen if they do are questions that will soon to be answered.