London Crawling or Sprawling?


04/14/2015       London, 2015. Luxury residential and commercial towers transform the iconic skyline, often to tragicomic effect. The Skyline Campaign catalogues the worst architectural debacles in an uphill fight to preserve the historic skyline – 238 new skyscrapers were planned last year alone. Cranes abound along the banks of the Thames, evidence of a trophy apartment construction boom. Meanwhile, ‘commoners’ struggle to sustain themselves by sharing flats, rooms, and even beds. Cor blimey! – it’s Dickens in the 21
st Century, as we discovered for our piece on London’s housing crisis which aired March 19, 2015 on Kulturzeit/3sat, and can be seen here.

Controversial (and quite hilarious!) advertisements evocative of ‘American Psycho’ and ’50 Shades of Grey’ whet the appetites of billionaires and mere multi-millionaires to purchase ‘Master of the Universe’ apartments. The life-style pitched includes tuxedos, exotic cars, two-women per man and champagne pouring man-servants (at least in an earlier version that was pulled after our piece aired). Seriously. (There is also a video boom for highrise building ads. Some hilarious examples can be found here.)

Gary Hersham of Beauchamp Estates, the preferred real estate broker of billionaires, reveals that most of the luxury acquisitions are made by foreigners, principally from the former Soviet Union and Middle East, who do not live in their sky-palaces 90% of the time. These are trophy apartments, or to use Gary’s phrase from the piece – ‘spontaneous desires being transformed into spontaneous purchases.’

The London ‘boom’ has not trickled down to Vasillisa Forbes and Luke Grant-Muller. Vas and Luke are shacked up, sharing the same bed. But they are not a couple! Vas, 24, is a visual artist, photographer and filmmaker whose latest projects provocatively deconstruct sexism in advertising and popular culture. Luke, 33, is a multi-talented cross-discipline creative. Among his many talents, Luke is the designer of a really cool iconoclastic shoe line.

Vas and Luke are great friends and frequent artistic collaborators. Still, they resent that high costs force them to live like teenagers, adding that their living arrangement is one of ‘survival.’ They have kept their respective partners in the dark about their bedding situation, leading to some madcap Hollywood-type moments, like when Luke hid behind the fridge to avoid Vas’s boyfriend.

Vas and Luke are hardly alone in their London housing struggle. Matt Hutchinson, who runs ‘Spareroom.com,’ a flatmate matching service, has witnessed a 71% spike over the past two years in sharers seeking roommates. ‘Spareroom’ also runs ‘flatmating’ events, a form of speed dating for those seeking flat or roommates. Here (in an outtake not in the final segment), a fashion designer relays how she shares an apartment with eight others.

Not only the artist class is effected by high housing costs, as we learned that many teachers and nurses, for example, are being forced to take on roommates. Others are forced to travel great and impractical distances into London from their more affordable residences in the outskirts.

The problem with all of the new apartments isn’t just that the Vasillisas & Lukes of London can’t afford any of them. Additionally, the views of some of the most historic sites of the City (and indeed the world) are being ruined, so much so that Westminster may be decertified as a ‘world heritage site’ by UNESCO. Award winning architect Barbara Weiss has started the Skyline Campaign to fight back against the hodgepodge manner in which the towers are built, with blithe disregard to cultural preservation and aesthetic sensibility.

London may be overpriced and increasingly unsightly, but it also has a beauty and a power that is beyond reach of the developers, as we realized at the end of our shoot, as Vas walks into the horizon at night with the Tower Bridge in the background. Or, in the words of Shane MacGowan’s ‘London You’re a Lady’ –

At the dark end of a lonely street
That’s where you lose your pain
‘Tis then your eyes light up my love
And sparkle once again.”