Future Histories

What will the ruins of neoliberalism look like?

By Will Jennings

In a time of climate breakdown and as-yet-unknown threats, an architecture of flexibility and iteration, adaptable and dismantlable, may be critical.

— Will Jennings

Will Jennings is a London‑based writer and visual artist, interested in cities and human-affected environments, in particular how they intersect with politics, culture, history, and society.

By identifying the symbolic figure of the “New Zealander” Will Jennings takes us on a journey through the trope of the city-in-ruins to the glossy veil of rendertecture generated by architects in the service of property speculators and asks: what will the ruins of neoliberalism look like?

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land1

When French artist Gustave Doré and British journalist William Blanchard Jerrold published London: A Pilgrimage in 1872, it marked the completion of a four-year project documenting the inequality, deprivation, and “light and shade” of contemporary London.2 On the cover of the collection of 180 engravings, Father Thames appears to cower with a lion in the muddy shade of a Thames bridge arch, with a tour through opium dens, dark lanes, markets, and docks of the city following. The final image of the tome stands stark from the preceding 179 apparent journalistic illustrations, set in an imagined distant future with a solitary cloaked character sat on a broken arch of London Bridge, surveying the ruined remains of London with book and pencil in hand.

This shaded character was “The New Zealander”, and his silhouette is framed stark against the heaven-lit collapsed dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by urban wreckage, the premise being that he was a traveller from the distant future, visiting the ruins of an ancient empire.

Future Histories

The New Zealander by Gustave Doré, 1872. Image: Public Domain

Perhaps he was trying to piece together an imagined architectural and social history from the elements left behind to aid him in building his growing New Zealand, just as the aesthetic of the British Empire was constructed from fragments of Greece and Italy retrieved on Grand Tours before. The only building which is not a ruined hulk is the “Commercial Wharf” building, perhaps Doré presumed the power of capital would outlast even that of the church and state?

The trope of “The New Zealander” which Doré drew on had been repeated so much during the mid-nineteenth century that Punch magazine said he was a “subject of allusion two or three times a week, in speeches and leading articles”.3 There was little concern at the time that London was imminently close to such disastrous collapse, but this romantic spectre served to celebrate the very apparent solidity and importance of that which was resplendent and valued at the time, perhaps a reminder that it will one day end but also a self‑serving mechanism to locate that moment of the British Empire as a critical moment of mankind’s story.4

Even prior to the New Zealand phantom, the city-in-ruins traversed cultures, and still does. From biblical to sci-fi tales, romantic to conceptual art, it’s also deployed within the imagining of architecture itself. When clearing a streetcar depot in Nuremberg, preparing ground for his designs for the Zeppelin Field rally ground, Albert Speer noticed how unromantic the piles of concrete debris with rusting iron reinforcements were. Knowing Hitler’s admiration and ruin lust for ancient monuments, he developed “A Theory of Ruin Value” where buildings were designed so that “even in a state of decay, after hundreds or… thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.”5 Architecture with inbuilt intent of nostalgic ruin, constructing walls to stand tall even after roofs and ceilings collapsed, avoiding reinforced concrete where possible so future historians may gaze upon preconfigured imperial monuments.

To illustrate my ideas I had a romantic drawing prepared.
It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy,
its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there,
but the outlines still recognisable.

Albert Speer 6

This illustrative strategy had earlier been employed by Joseph Gandy in a ruin-rendering for John Soane in his 1830 watercolour, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England, allowing cutaway vantages into intricate internal spaces.

Future Histories

A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England by Joseph Michael Gandy, 1830. Image: Public Domain

It is an image which flits through dimensions, at once section, plan, and elevation, while seemingly existing as historic ruin, imagined future, and (as it was created to mark the building’s completion) also record the present. With a squint of the eye, Gandy’s image of post-collapse could be perceived as a monument under construction, not collapsed, a further slip between past and future, while also implying a glorious long future for this most ideological building of Empire and power. It also offered a foreshadowing of 1925, when nearly all the building within the external façade was demolished to make way for a Herbert Baker rebuild.

An alternative, and more common, imagined architectural future is a glorious monumental permanence, an architecture so perfectly conceived and constructed that anything other than immaculate persistence cannot be imagined, a refusal to acknowledge decay, age, or redundancy. In photography this architecture is devoid of occupants, and judged for competition before a single person has crossed its threshold or put it to use. It is architecture as object, where its existence as signifier is more a function for the proponent (developer, authority, designer) than the programme or functionality. In the late 20th century this was iconic architecture, but in the neoliberal landscape of contemporary Britain a majority of architecture, however mundane, can fall into this bracket.7

Where capital is the primary function, only the image of architecture is required. If property is sold off-plan to investors who will leave any apartment unused, solely to store value, more important than the architecture is the Computer Generated Image (CGI) of the project to attract initial investment and hype. CGIs populate marketing brochures, press, and construction site hoardings, and are such a dominant aesthetic that it seems as though construction of a building is simply an architectural afterthought. When it does arrive, the development never looks like the hyper-realistic render which foreshadowed it: the sky not as bright, the building not so polished, perfect or imposing, and the public space not so populated by joyous render ghosts.8

On occasions the CGI building or structure doesn’t even get built, the glowing render forever standing in as a ghoulish replacement for an unlived existence. The Garden Bridge in London is a case in point. This proposal for a new pedestrian bridge across the River Thames was cancelled in 2017 due to a perfect storm of public opposition, legal complications, over-ambition and under‑funding, but iconic CGIs of it live forever; occasional tourists looking at apparent digital photographs ask locals where it can be found. The bridge’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, had already more than once claimed it to be “a project for a thousand years”9 in Speer-esque statements which suggested he believed everything in London’s history, streetplan, and character was simply preparation for his genius “tiara”10 to be placed on top.

“The glowing render forever standing in as a ghoulish replacement for an unlived existence.”

Future Histories

The Garden Bridge. Image: Arup and Heatherwick Studio

Super-polished CGI renders of luxury apartments, Garden Bridges and vast developments can be considered ruinscapes as much as those by Doré or Gandy. The ruination may not be aesthetically similar – the smooth gloss and phantasmagoric warmth exuding from digital renders contrasting to the anxious, unsettling wreckage of ruin-lustful scenes – but carry an equally mournful loss and tangible absence. Physical ruins crumble from the outside in, while CGI architecture rots from the inside out, a void behind an image. And what is the neoliberal city if not just a heap of broken computer generated images?

This hollowing is increasingly replicated in physical form. A regular sight across London is the increase in “façadism”, where external walls of an historic building are retained while the entire interior volume is ripped out and replaced by a bulging floorplan to wield more capital and serve the service and luxury sectors.11 Developments retain the heritage image of the city, but behind their thin skins are simply vehicles for extracting the last drops of financial value from the ruined physical and social structures of the neoliberal city.

Sometimes when historic buildings are undergoing conservation, scaffolding constructed around the architecture is sheathed in a representation of the building underneath, to announce the works underway and in an attempt to smooth disruption to the streetscape. It is as if over the last four decades of neoliberalism, London has similarly slowly wrapped itself in a tight fabric of simulacra, city as veneer, a shallow rendition slowly standing in for a hollowed-out centre. Perhaps one day that tightly wrapped gauze of city‑representation will be peeled away, and we will see it as a shroud.

In his autobiography, philosopher Bertrand Russell recalled:

After seeing troop trains departing from Waterloo, I used to have strange visions of London as a place of unreality. I used in imagination to see the bridges collapse and sink, and the whole great city vanish like a morning mist. Its inhabitants began to seem like hallucinations, and I would wonder whether the world in which I thought I had lived was a mere product of my own febrile nightmares. … I spoke of this to T.S.Eliot, who put it into The Waste Land.12

T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, repeats the phrase unreal city. His textual montage flows between references, ideas, languages, cultures. It jumps between first and third person, placing us into the action yet keeping us outside. It also explores a 1922 London with existential ruin that can perhaps serve value to us nearly 100 years later. In 1922 London, Eliot sees a wasteland of ruin, despite the buildings, bridges and streets appearing physically intact. The ruin is deeper, it is existential and in the psyche of place and people. It is the haunted minds of Great War survivors trudging to work over London Bridge, in the death of the soil underfoot, and in a fractured economy of the 1921 recession and massive unemployment. As well as a poet, Eliot was a banker for the Colonial & Foreign Department of Lloyds Bank, and the London streets he documents in The Waste Land map the financial district of the City of London – that same City of London which has shaped neoliberal London and its architecture.

“The ruin is deeper, it is existential and in the pysche of place and people.”

Eliot’s words are an exploration of the need for rebirth from fragments shored up against ruins. Of the need for uncertain new systems to be built from the detritus of old ones, for struggles between memories of the past and future desire that are contained within the “dead land” of the present:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

As I sit and write this essay, I am cocooned in my South London flat, occasionally gazing away from my computer towards the house where Vincent van Gogh lived in 1872. London is, along with a third of the planet right now, locked-down by Coronavirus, and I have just returned from my once-daily permitted trip outside. Van Gogh’s painting Prisoners Exercising, a tight circle of prisoners walking in a jailyard, comes to mind. He painted it in 1890 while detained in his mental hospital bedroom, and it is a near direct copy of a Doré engraving from London: A Pilgrimage, which he would have encountered while living in the house outside my window. The bit of the city I just walked seemed unreal, boarded-up shops, empty roads, and near silence, and I think of T.S. Eliot’s lines about short and infrequent exhaled sighs, gazes fixed to the feet.

Future Histories

Prisoners Exercising(after Doré) , 1890. Painting by Vincent van Gogh. Image: Public Domain

Coronavirus will pass, though at the time of writing the economic and physical wake it will leave is not known. Whatever happens, it can also be read as a warning and rehearsal for other shocks to come: climate breakdown, authoritarianism, sudden cracks to the neoliberal financial bubble. Each of these shocks will show just how little maintenance the systems and structures hidden beneath the image of the city have been receiving, just how thin the glossy surface concealing a hollowed-out city really is. Disasters and upheavals don’t so much create the problem as shed light upon the structural ruin that has always been present, just concealed.

Future Histories

Image: Charlie Fegan for Mushpit magazine

What will the ruins of neoliberalism look like? And how should we go about representing an architecture that must be designed for a world that perhaps cannot be easily predicted, but is expected to be fundamentally different to the one we currently design for? One insightful idea may be found in the recent push towards “material passports”: a digital index of every material in a new construction, where it is, its makeup and volume, so that when the building is destroyed, dismantled or extended, a future architect knows what she is dealing with, how a material can be re-used or how it can be redeployed. This means that the future of a building may look entirely different to how it was represented in its CGI marketing or day‑one unveiling; that it may reshape like a transformer; or be fragmented and dispersed across countless new architectural needs like body parts of a human corpse when donated to save the lives of others. How do we represent an architecture which shifts its shape and won’t remain as monument, or decay to romantic ruin?

“Architecture has to exist in a place where it is unshackled from these two destinies, monument and ruin.”

Importantly, architecture has to exist in a place where it is unshackled from these two destinies, monument and ruin. The time of each new building trying to present itself as the crowning glory of place, career, period, or ideology is surely over. There is an impermanence expected of most new architecture which is profoundly unsustainable, with many buildings lasting only a decade or two before being swept away to make space for a grand new project, with new capital and power. New architectures may acknowledge this impermanence and build it into its designs. Instead of destruction and rebuilding, there might be adaption, reconfiguration, extension or fragmentation. In a time of climate breakdown and as-yet-unknown threats, an architecture of flexibility and iteration, adaptable and dismantlable, may be critical.

Which perhaps means our cities of the future may well exist in a continual state of ruin. Not in the hollowed ruin of Speer, Doré or CGI, but in that permanently evolving space between construction and deconstruction, where an ongoing repositioning of fragments suits changing needs. A wasteland, if you like. 

1 T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (London: Faber & Faber, 2019). [First published 1922].
2 As described in the book prospectus for London a pilgrimage by Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold, in 12 monthly parts price 5s/= each (London: Grant & Co., 1872).
3 Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay, The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, vol 1, pp. VII-IX, (London: Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1860).
4 For a richer study of “The New Zealander”, see: David Skilton, “Contemplating the Ruins of London: Macaulay’s New Zealander and Others,” Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2004/skilton.html (accessed on March 31, 2020).
5 Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), p. 56.
6 Ibid.
7 See: Leslie Sklair, The Icon Project (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
8 For more on render ghosts, the digital characters who populate cgis of marketing images and construction site hoardings, see the artwork and writing of James Bridle, artist Alberto Duman’s 2017 Talking Ghosts project and also Dean Kelling, “The Zone,” in Regeneration Songs: Sounds of Investment and Loss from East London, edited by Alberto Duman, Dan Hancox, Malcolm James and Anna Minton (London: Repeater Books, 2018).
9 Heatherwick, T., quoted in Olivia Cole, “Let’s build bridges,” The Spectator, June 20, 2015.
10 Lumley, J., Garden Bridge originator speaking on The Culture Show: “The Unstoppable Thomas Heatherwick”, directed by Colette Camden, bbc Two, July 31, 2013.
11 See: “The Gentle Author”, The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism (London: Spitalfields Life Books, 2019).
12 Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967-9) vol 2, p18.
13 T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (London: Faber & Faber, 2019). [First published 1922].