Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
With the abrupt closure of Fabric, the U.K. capital does some soul-searching about its future.
It’s all over for London’s best-known nightclub.
Fabric, a cavernous venue founded in 1999 in the former cold storage of the city’s meat market, will no longer open to the public after its license was revoked by the local borough this week. The reason the council gave is drugs—tragically, two young men died there this summer of drug-related causes, one in June and one in August. The deaths of two otherwise healthy teenagers should of course be a cause for public concern, but defenders of Fabric, and of London nightlife in general, have nonetheless pointed out that a U.K. judge recently cited the club’s drug policy as “a beacon of best practice.” Some U.K. media have even alleged that the closure is part of a longer-term movement to free up more prime land for fresh international investment, and that Fabric’s situation is a bellwether showing the way the winds of redevelopment have long been blowing across Central London.
That may seem far-fetched, even if an undercover police operation in July found no evidence of drug dealing at Fabric. The overall tenor of police evidence against the club, however, does seem ludicrous. In suggesting an apparent ignorance of what a nightclub is, their comments certainly add grist to the belief that London’s authorities are hostile to any nightlife activities at all.
First up is Fabric’s layout. Police reports on the club have complained that it creates barriers to upholding the conditions of their operating license, commenting that:
“design visibility is hampered by recessed doorways, remote alcoves…and steep changes in gradient”
This is no doubt true, as it is of almost every nightclub in the world. Reading on through a report that scathingly notes a loitering problem in the smoking area (seriously), police imply that the club’s owners may also have aided the corruption of London’s youth with that ruinous substance… matte paint:
“The majority of materials used within fabric are dark in colour and matte in texture and absorb light, limiting visibility further. Light colour finishes on walls and ceilings should be used.”
When police suggest a venue needs to be a nook-less, dazzlingly lit, gloss- painted box to pass muster, it’s hard to fight the feeling that no nightclub of any kind would really be acceptable to them.
Then why did Fabric need to close? It’s hard to make a case that closing it down will actively prevent drug taking. Some younger British voices—step forward, Vice—are pointing the finger at Britain’s gerontocracy. The age of the people in power means they’re less likely to care about venues catering to younger people, and so make it easier for them to be swept away for new luxury developments. This has already happened on the site of Manchester’s once legendary Haçienda.
Many more commenters on social media have seen Fabric’s closure as the ultimate consequence of London’s hyper-gentification.
Because there's no drug taking in any other dance music club.— Irvine Welsh (@IrvineWelsh) September 7, 2016
(Always thought Fabric least druggy club in London.) https://t.co/2mNrRqXRTb
Yes because it's just about the DRUGS. Nothing to do with overseas investors buying luxury flats at all. Drugs I say https://t.co/imV7xWAtQw— San Miguel (@redlfc180) September 7, 2016
The area that contains Fabric has certainly changed in recent years. A formerly quiet, warehouse-filled strip on the northern edge of London’s finance district, the regions around Smithfield Market have become some of the most expensive places to live in London in the past decade or so. The idea that such prime real estate could remain set aside for a raucous nightclub was already in question.
The author Irvine Welsh cited the closure today as a signal that such areas are no longer going to have the sort of uses we previously expected of them. He called the closure the “beginning of the end of our cities as cultural centres, and indeed as entertainment centres in the traditional sense.”
This process might seem yet more acute when you reflect that Fabric isn’t really an example of the little guy just trying to scrape by. It’s a super-club, a major, mainstream operation (albeit it one with a strong, reputable music program). If you discount the drug issue as the grounds for closure—and not everyone has—then its departure is a sign that not even major London institutions can withstand the tide. Such is the pressure on Central London real estate that anything that threatens its propertied overlords feels as though it is at risk of being swept away. Even institutions that are supposedly motors of the vibrancy for which London is internationally marketed can come in the firing line.
Consider the case of another ongoing story, one taking taking place just across the River Thames on Central London’s corresponding southern edge. Residents at the Richard Rogers-designed luxury development NEO Bankside, where a modest one-bedroom apartment currently goes for around $975,000, are currently threatening the Tate Modern with legal action. They say that a viewing platform in the new extension to the world’s most popular modern art gallery violates their privacy and needs to be shut down.
This seems fair enough on paper. There’s been mention of snoopers with binoculars, which doesn’t sound like much fun. But if you’re familiar with what’s been happening in this area of London, it’s easier to understand that the residents’ position actually takes a good deal of nerve. Neo Bankside is about as discreet as a rabid moose. A gaudy, glass-sided development, it was constructed to make many of its apartment interiors highly visible from outside. The most obvious external features of the buildings are protruding winter gardens whose glass-walled spaces are the architectural equivalent of flashing neon underwear. It’s not as if visitors to the Tate’s viewing platform have suddenly discovered a secret lair burrowed into a mountainside.
There’s another layer of irony to the residents’ complaints. No development charging prices this high would ever have been constructed on London’s once-shabby South Bank were it not for the artwashing effect of Tate Modern’s arrival, taking over the adjacent former power station in 2000. NEO residents who have bought what could be London’s least private apartments are thus trying to stop the growth of an art institution without which they would probably never have set foot in the area in the first place.
All this sit at odds with the still-promoted image of London as a global cultural hive. The Neo-versus-Tate spat, just like the closure of Fabric, nonetheless reveal the true direction of London’s city core. As the city’s most expensive areas become under-populated safety deposit boxes for often non-resident landlords, culture and entertainment must take second place. You might expect purchasers of luxury property in these highly stressed areas to mind their becoming sanitized to the point of dullness. But then again, so many of them are almost never there.