Last weekend, architecture lovers got a chance to visit one of East London's most iconic buildings—the striking, austere Balfron Tower. A 28-story-high 1960s housing project designed by the wonderfully named Ernő Goldfinger, the tower is recovering both from years of neglect and its (now much admired) brutalist architecture's former status as the ultimate in ugliness. Refurbishment is taking place, residents are moving out, and property guardians and artists are moving in—fittingly so, given East London’s latter-day role as one of Europe’s key art world centers. (In 2010, the tower and its residents actually featured in a major artwork themselves: Simon Terrill's Balfron Project.) Partly to celebrate the transformation commemorated in the project, the tower hosted a "vertical carnival" and international architecture showcase last Saturday. The day illustrated the extent to which the Balfron—rescued from near dereliction—has been reborn as a creative hub.
That's the upbeat gloss on the situation, at least. The truth is rather more complicated: Like much British social housing, the Balfron was indeed long neglected. Still, as this thorough eyewitness piece details, long-term residents say they've been flushed out against their will and hindered at every turn in their attempts to stay. New residents, meanwhile, are just passing through. The tower's property guardians (short-term, contract-based residents with fewer rights than normal tenants) can be evicted with just 24 hours' notice, and while some Balfron artists have been there for up to six years, most are on short-term agreements. When these expire and the full-scale refurbishment begins, the vacated flats will be rented or sold to a new breed of tenant who can afford far higher prices. That upscale tenants would flock to a Brutalist housing project may sound improbable, but bear in mind that London's Barbican Estate, in similar style (though built with wealthier residents in mind), is already hugely sought after.
To critics of this process—myself included—the artist community's short-term occupancy is being used for a classic profit-driven regeneration maneuver: artwashing.
When a commercial project is subjected to artwashing, the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place's transformation. Just as greenwashing tries to humanize new buildings with superficial nods to green concerns (such as wind turbines that never turn), artwashing provides similar distraction. By highlighting the new creative uses for inner-city areas, it presents regeneration not through its long-term effects—the transfer of residency from poor to rich—but as a much shorter journey from neglect to creativity. The process can happen by design, such as at the Balfron Tower or in East London's Hackney Wick, where landlords rented warehouses cheaply to artists as a preliminary step to residential conversion. It often happens organically, however, when developers spot areas that have attracted residents from creative industries, then earmark them as ripe for investment and remarketing to a new kind of customer.
Typically, the process doesn't last more than a decade or so. It only took seven years for a printmaker friend of mine to see the formerly industrial London Fields building where she used to work open as studios then close again to become high-end apartments. The leaky space where she used to make art is now home to a TV host. The process through which she entered and was later expelled from the building was essentially a cleansing process in which the artists moving into a burgeoning area were treated by developers as a form of regenerative detergent. These artist communities are not long-lasting but liminal. In a rising property market like London's, artists can live and work in such situations only in the brief period between low-income occupancy (or vacancy) and an area's ultimate remarketing to wealthier incomers or absentee investors.
While this transition time can be a boon to artists while it lasts, locals already living in such buildings rightly eye the process with suspicion. As this Balfron resident put it:
"The council … make out as if they care about arts. They don’t care about arts, not local arts in the area. They do not care. As soon as they get the investors in, they won't care about the artists."
This doesn't mean that artists are themselves predatory. Many artists live on working-class money, their movements within cities dictated not by a desire to transform a neighborhood but to secure affordable space to work and live in. One artist and Balfron resident, due to leave in December, told me of how he had bonded with his old-guard neighbors, mainly because their living situations were not markedly different.
"There's this weird idea that artists are super humans different to anyone else, but I'm not really that different to the people who are leaving Balfron," he says. "I probably have as much money as they do, have similar health issues, and I'm struggling to find work. It's not that there's no truth at all in the talk of displacement, but the polarization of it pisses me off. Since I moved here, I've been staggered at how much of a community I've found on my doorstep—of artists, yes, but also of local residents."
The brief space in which ex-industrial districts are affordable to artists also causes them problems. Their tenure is no more secure than anyone else's. Huw Lemmey, who co-directs an art space in a former North London backwater, explains the process going on around him that is squeezing him and his collaborators out.
"When we moved into the area, we were in a warehouse among a bunch of other light industrial warehouses, which have since been taken over by other artists," he says. "Now those artists, including us, are being priced out of that area because professional 'designer creative' types ... are moving in en masse. We run a non-commercially funded art space, but the people moving in now come from a different background. To put it bluntly, they're rich kids who are doing it with family money because they like the lifestyle rather than need the space. Their work reflects that, and they have aspirational galleries with an ambition to reach that more high-end art world. Still, they in turn are being pushed out by the council to have the place redeveloped. They and local landlords want to rebrand it as the 'Harringay Warehouse District,' rather than what it used to be called: St. Anne's."
Sure enough, plans emerged this spring that the local authority wanted to evict 1500 tenants from the area.
Clearly, artwashing processes like these don't offer artists much permanent succor. But what further conclusions are we supposed to draw? Simply saying, "Hey, gentrifiers and artists are people too" and then moving on seems a dead end. And even artists who do question how they fit in with artwashing are open to accusations of hypocrisy, because it's hard to work outside this model. The London Artists Collective Auto Italia Southeast, for example, is staging an exhibition soon examining how "art institutions sit comfy in the pockets of big corporations." They're doing it in a former industrial space provided to them for a year, apparently by a developer keen to have some artistic cache rub off on his property. I'm sure it will scrub up nicely under their influence, but it's an uncomfortable irony that the artistic critique of processes like artwashing is often complicit with it. This narrowing room to move in is the reality of most urban art practice, critical or not.
Perhaps it's too easy to be jaundiced about a process that does sometimes have positive results. This proposed (and quite cheap) plan to convert parking and garage space in East London into studio and exhibition space, for example, sounds imaginative: Not many groups could find a good secondary use for a part-subterranean parking lot. And the artist I spoke to at the Balfron pointed out that, while the sweeping views and light there were great for him, hiking 20 floors up to an apartment wasn't necessary ideal for the families that lived there before.
So, while artists do not power development, they can at least use the process of urban transformation to find opportunities to create worthwhile work—often in spaces ill suited to other uses. If handled carefully, changes in use and tenancy can be positive.
That remains a pretty big "if." We still need a more clear-eyed view of what is happening with creative workers in our cities. In celebrating their role, we are allowing the process of displacement to be mystified, and thus masked. An attitude has arisen which says, “Before, there was crime and emptiness; now we've got galleries and coffee. You're telling me you actually preferred crack dens?” This shuts down debate by asserting that art and cafés for incomers were the only viable antidotes to lawlessness and poverty, when in fact they merely shunt them elsewhere. It erroneously suggests that creative uses of urban spaces are an end point, and reveals the ugly undertone beneath much talk of neighborhood change: That these inner city areas are just too good to be squandered on the low-income people being displaced from them.
Even advocates of creative transition don't have long to enjoy its fruits. It’s almost forgotten now that, before it became Silicon Roundabout, the tech hub around London's Shoreditch was known briefly as an artists' stronghold. Nowadays, its apartments go to finance workers who work nearby, while its bars are samey places encircled by moats of urine. This doesn't make it a terrible place; more people enjoy themselves here now than they did in its heyday of cool. Still, we need more honesty about what we're getting. As things stand, poor residents are being flushed out and artists are being played. Developers who try to burnish their product with artwashing need to be called out. They are not promoting artists or their work. They are using them as a human shield.