No matter how temporary, construction sites can be an eyesore. So it’s not surprising when someone chooses to spruce them up, maybe even with a bit of art.
That’s the thought behind “Canvas for London,” a new initiative launched by a construction, architecture, and engineering firm called Primebuild. The project identifies development hoardings—the plywood coverings that stand between construction projects and the street—as a canvas for local artists. (Editor’s note: “Hoardings” is a U.K. term, and none of us can quite agree on what Americans call these things. Construction walls? Help us, CityLab commentariat, you’re our only hope!)
Of course, the idea of dressing up development hoardings isn’t exactly new: for better or worse, in many cities it’s already an art form of its own. Take, for example, Development Aesthetics, a Tumblr devoted to documenting the “rise of the inane language and visuals used to market new buildings and developments in London.”
That site’s curator is Crystal Bennes, a London-based architecture journalist. Bennes has collected photographs of the ads featured at construction sites since 2013, shortly after she moved to East London. Having lived in the city since 2006, Bennes says the idea for cataloging developer “art” with the hashtag #DevelopmentAesthetics grew out of frustration.
“They are omnipresent. Because London is a very walkable city, you really see them everywhere,” Bennes says. “You can’t escape them and they became more and more prevalent. It's very irritating, it's quite claustrophobic in a way.”
In London, development hoardings became widespread in the 1990s, following the implementation of a “considerate constructors scheme” in 1997 in order to make construction sites cleaner and more visually appealing. That call to make construction fences and hoardings more aesthetically pleasing presented a blank canvas for the “marketing assault” that Bennes now documents.
Armed with a doctorate in classics and 18th century French literature, Bennes is well-equipped to take on the juxtaposition of new developments in an old city. One recent favorite example is a hoarding at London’s Lincoln Square development. It combines a modern sans-serif font with a Latin phrase, playing off the development’s proximity to the Royal Courts of Justice.
“The thing that makes me laugh is that there is no comprehension of the irony of putting ‘where great minds live’ underneath in brackets,” Bennes says. “The developers have tried to market the superiority of the development through this appeal to Latin, but the English translation rather undermines the point.”
Kitschy examples of developers appropriating London’s history and culture also abound. There’s the multi-use complex The Stage in West London, which uses Shakespeare’s likeness to advertise its location surrounding the archaeological remains of the Curtain Theatre. What John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has to do with a luxury hotel remains a mystery when a gigantic hoarding with the book’s frontispiece obscures the view of a nearby memorial statue of Bunyan. A hoarding for The Mission declares its development is “drawing inspiration” from its original site—a church.
London’s famous music history also features prominently, if not circumspectly, in construction-based marketing campaigns. A development of luxury apartments located on the site of a long-since disbanded jazz club appropriated both the name and likeness of the club promoter and trumpeter Ken Colyer, as well as the club’s ties to Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, on its hoarding.
Even when there isn’t a go-to nostalgia trip to ape, the language of many development ads proclaim their raison d’être with adjectives such as “iconic,” “visionary,” or “pivotal.” One site even declares itself as “history in the making.”
“There’s no awareness of the paradox, no self-awareness whatsoever,” Bennes says. “There’s not going to be anything, any history, left to sell in London if it just keeps getting destroyed for luxury flats.”
Things can go worse still when developers try to get in on the joke. Some of the more tone-def examples include a recent campaign urging prospective tenants to be “first settlers” in a part of the city, or a developer misquoting Andy Warhol to assert that “Land Really is the Best Art.”
Beyond what construction hoardings reveal about the housing market, Bennes says developer designs often imitate the local sense of taste and appropriate it for outsiders, including one sub-genre Bennes calls “Development Aesthetics Couples.”
“These are the ones that really piss people off, especially in East London,” Bennes says. “You get these photographs of straight couples, full-size photos broadcast across the hoarding, and they're doing what I assume developers consider to be ‘East London activities’—shopping, eating bagels, cycling around, or going to the flower market. I find them more amusing than anything, but there seems to be something about the repackaging of local lifestyles through these couples that really winds Londoners up.”
Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Bennes is also an American ex-pat who studied political science and worked in D.C. before moving to London, so Development Aesthetics provides a way to discuss not only her interest in art or language, but also the social context of the development changes she covers.
“The hoarding is kind of a gateway for me and my interest in the city,” Bennes says. “When I get frustrated by the hoardings, it's not necessarily the hoarding itself. It's everything behind it—local authorities allowing developers to ditch affordable housing provisions, land-banking, councils selling land at under-market rates, or developers marketing apartments to foreign investors rather than people in London.”
Development Aesthetics sometimes posts photos of graffiti on hoardings, documenting how locals have tried to reclaim them.
“Some of the graffiti hoardings are not so interesting,” Bennes says. “But there are many which are extremely clever, which pay close attention to existing marketing. Today, people are super visually literate and you often see taggers who adopt the same style as the existing hoardings. Sometimes, the graffiti is so well integrated into the original that you don’t see it unless you look very closely.”
One example is a graffiti work on a hoarding around a soon-to-be demolished estate in Southeast London that reads “BrutaliSE, VandaliSE,” imitating the standard visual language of the local council’s own hoardings, where the slogan reads, “RevitaliSE.”
Paying attention has made Bennes realize that hoardings, however temporary, represent permanent change.
“I think that’s why they have such as strong effect on people,” Bennes says. “They’re part of the furniture, they’re part of the fabric of the city.”