‘Walking among the ruins of the future’ – thinking of a city beyond neoliberalism

25 Mar 2015 james
Entrance to Canada Water underground station - designed by Norman Foster
Entrance to Canada Water underground station – designed by Norman Foster


I’m waiting for Mika at the entrance to the Canary Wharf underground. We are about to go for a walk around the Isle of Dogs in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Unfortunately we are waiting at different station exits. The upside is that I spend twenty-five minutes absorbing the scene, observing a place I’d normally hurry through. A place in which it is not intended for people to loiter.

The plaza I’m standing in is an irregularly shaped pedestrian area between the canopy of the entrance to the underground and the steps that lead up to the base of the monumental One Canada Water. This massive fifty-storey tower dominates and symbolises Canary Wharf. It was celebrated as the tallest building in the UK on its opening in November 1990. Widely refered to as the ‘Canary Wharf Tower’ it was designed by Cesar Pelli and concieved as the European sister to New York’s Twin Towers. Pelli was also the architect of the World Financial Centre in Manhatten and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. As with other finance hubs around the world, the style of the buildings at Canary Wharf, constructed of silver steel and glass, does not reveal the distinct functions of companies they house, but rather obscures the particular activities of the occupants, the underlying structure of the ‘extractivist’ world around me.


1 Canada Water - the Canary Wharf tower, designed by Cesar Pelli
1 Canada Water – the Canary Wharf tower, designed by Cesar Pelli


There’s a gentle south-westerly breeze from the Limehouse Reach of the Thames and the sunlight is sharp on this warm October morning. Beyond the tube entrance there is a patch of grass and trees. Jubilee Park, created on the soil that forms the roof of the cavernous underground station. The wind shakes the leaves of the trees that look so newly planted. Workers hurry out of the tube and head towards the office blocks that ring the area. The majority are absorbed in their BlackBerry’s, busy on their mobiles or cacooned in ipods and headphones. This small stretch of public space is ringed with CCTV cameras. Canary Wharf Security staff in pairs patrol back and forth – several with German Shepherds straining at the leash. They are dressed in blue and white uniforms with peaked caps that are a perfect simulacra of the conventional dress of the Metropolitan Police.

At the north western corner of the area is a building occupied by Thomson Reuters, around it runs an LED display giving out fragments of news:

‘Ukraine gas suplies in doubt as Russia seeks EU payment deal’

‘Shell beats third-quarter forecast – adds to sectors upbeat mood’

At the base of the 1 Canada Water tower there is a metal structure supporting a line of clocks and a vast video screen, under which pass many of those who enter the building. The clocks give the exact time around the world and the screen shows the state of the markets:

Brent Crude                        86.25

                                    Gold                                    1,173.30

                                    Colombian coffee             188.50

This data feed is interspersed with images advertising the luxury of the Qatar airlines A390 jet and the a new Maserati car beside the slogan:

“The head says Yes. The heart says Definitely, Yes.” 

What strikes me is how temporary all this seems. How everything around me was built in such a short few years and radiates not a sense of permenance but fragility. So easily these tower blocks could all stand empty. The phrase from the artist Anselm Kiefer floats around my mind:

Over your cities grass will grow’.

Perhaps what inspires this sense is the feeling that the trees above the underground were planted nearly fully grown. They were trucked in from somewhere else and could just as easily be trucked away. Or the feeling that the Canary Wharf Security staff are somehow play-acting, pretending to be real police. That their contracts could be closed down in a matter of hours. Maybe it’s the knowledge that this space is a copy of somewhere else, of a plaza in New York or Frankfurt. These towers were washed in on a tide of capital. If, or when, those waters subside, they will be left stranded. What is currently immensely valuable real estate, could so easily become a stranded asset.

The 'ideal city' of Canary Wharf
The ‘ideal city’ of Canary Wharf


However while it exists this space is one of those that most perfectly represents the civic experience of the dweller in the neoliberal city. Canary Wharf is a kind of ‘ideal city’, a home for a ‘community of the ideal’ dedicated to a particular way of reproducing capital. This place is dominated by the capital markets. The video screen and the array of clocks remind me that it is a space of numbers and abstraction. For decades thinkers such as David Harvey and Doreen Massey have described how the market came subsume all the other spaces of the city that had previously been distinct, such as the places of worship, or the homes of the citizens. Few other parts of London illustrate this point so perfectly as Canary Wharf, it seems that almost nothing is allowed to exist here that is not about, or controlled by, the financial markets. The CCTV cameras and the security patrols are here to enforce that. Though the plaza that I’m standing in appears to be a public space, it is in fact privately owned by the Canary Wharf Group plc. On the day that I stood waiting for Mika, its majority shareholder was the China Investment Corp., the Chinese state sovereign wealth fund. In January this year it was purchased by QIA, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, who also own Harrods, The Shard, The Shell Centre, the Olympic Village and a swathe of other properties in London. A graphic illustration of the place of oil, of extractivism, in this city.

Canary Wharf is both the embodiment and symbol of a particular phase of capitalism – refered to as Thatcherism, or the financialised economy, or neoliberalism. The power of the international banks in the politics of our society is echoed by the sheer scale of their European headquarters that dominate the skyline of the Isle of Dogs – JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, and many more. Not only the banks but the industrial corporations too have offices here.

BP’s Trading Division, for example, rents several floors of 20 Canada Square. Their presence at Canary Wharf illustrates how the company altered its shape to adapt to, and indeed help drive, this new financialised era. John Browne was Chief Executive of BP Finance International in the 1980s and oversaw the development of a new ‘bank within BP’ and a dramatic increase in the way in which the company directed attention towards the investment banks that were its major shareholders. By the 1990s Browne was CEO of the whole of BP and the focus on the finance sector was given a greater permanence by the establishment of this new arm in the heart of the new financial district, Canary Wharf.

Indeed Canary Wharf has become a hub of the Carbon Web – here are offices of BP and Total; the banks such as HSBC, CitiBank and Barclays that have pivotal shareholdings in the oil & gas companies; the European Energy Exchange; UKEF (who’s role in the construction of oil pipelines we explored in The Oil Road); the ratings agencies – Moodys and Fitch; corporate law firms such as Clifford Chance; and advertising agencies like Ogilvy & Mather. This latter company is based at 10 Cabot Square and has overseen a number of brand promotion campaigns for BP, such as that for the London Olympics 2012. It was intimately involved in the sponsorship deals between BP and the likes of Tate. It trades under the slogan:

                                          “We Sell, or Else”

From 2000 Platform created a cycle of performance walks timed with the quarterly-results announcements of BP and Shell. At these events, called Gog & Magog, an audience was guided through an exploration of the physical world of the Carbon Web. These half-day journeys took us from significant building to significant building in Westminster and The City, as we relayed the stories of the corporations. It was possible to stand for some time in the street by a bank or government department with a crowd of people and only rarely encounter obstruction from security staff. It would simply not be viable to do this in Canary Wharf, where there are no real public pavements, no corners or gardens that are common property. For all the visual boldness of the towers of the new docklands, it is as though the Carbon Web has retreated into an even more private world. Is this a sign of strength and confidence, or of weakness and fear?

Statue of Robert Milligan by the former West India Dock
Statue of Robert Milligan by the former West India Dock

We walk east along the quayside of South Dock, once teeming with ships now an empty stretch of water on which are preening perhaps a dozen Great Crested Grebes. This land was the marshes of the parish of Stepney. Much of the Isle of Dogs was common land, like so many of the fields along the Thames, a place for common grazing, hunting, fishing and foraging. Land drained and reclaimed by the long labour of generations of farmers, working with pick and spade. By the late 18th century it began to be industrialised and to play a new role in the metropolis. A consortium of West India merchants undertook an eleven-year political campaign to acquire the land and to be empowered by Act of Parliament (1799) to construct a massive new set of docks for  trade in commodities such as sugar, mahogany, rum and coffee. The driving figure behind the West India Docks was Robert Milligan, born on his family’s sugar plantation in Jamaica, he used capital extracted from the labour of enslaved Africans to transform the marshes of Stepney into the world’s largest docks. A string of warehouses a mile long lined the quaysides of the Import Dock and the Export Dock that were dug by an army of ‘navies’, many of them from Ireland. The functioning of this industrial port was dependent upon vasts amounts of labour. This part of the former marshes now owned by the West India Dock Company was set apart from the world by a 20-foot high wall that ringed the complex and was defended by the Marine Police Establishment. (The latter was Britain’s first police force, created and financed by the West India merchants.) The docks, with an ability to berth over 600 vessels at a time, were dedicated to one activity, the generation of profit through the transfer of physical goods. For the merchants that commissioned it, these docks on the Thames were a place of the ideal. An ideal place to create profit. A statue to Milligan still stands on West India Quay.

We continue east along the blocks of granite and sandstone that line South Dock. This was an addition to Milligan’s orginal scheme. Built in the 1860s, its useful life lasted barely a century. By the end of the Nineteenth Century the competition between the various private dock companies in London was causing chaos, and after a period of economic decline, they were effectively taken into public ownership by an Act of Parliament in 1908 which established the Port of London Authority, the PLA. The land and assets of the West India Docks, like all the docks along the tidal Thames from Teddington to the sea, became the property of the PLA.

After a couple of wrong turnings we come upon the object of our quest. Leaning on the railings we look over a short stretch of dock, Antillies Bay, peering at a scarlet and black painted vessel lying squat in the water. Built of heavy steel plates she’s a retired fireboat, the Massey Shaw. In 1996 during the explorations around Platform’s Vessel project, we had discovered this small ship lying on the mud of a dock near Deptford and learnt of her history.

At four o’clock on Saturday 7th September 1940 Colin Perry was bicycling over Chipstead Hill, south of Croydon. He heard planes and looked up: ‘It was the most amazing, impressive, riveting sight. Directly above me were literally hundreds of planes, Germans! The sky full of them. Bombers hemmed in with fighters, like bees around their queen.’ Seconds later the docks were ablaze.

The destruction of the docklands and the death of thousands of its citizens through months of aerial bombardment in World War II, was an apocalypse that has defined the public memory of this place. The Massey Shaw is memorialised because of four years of her thirty-six years of active service, when her water cannons struggled to douse the flames of the bombed docks.

However the Massey Shaw, it seems, played a role in another event which is now almost erased from memory. In 1947 Herbert Morrison MP, Leader of the House of Commons, and Aneurin Bevan MP, Minister for Health, boarded the vessel. The crew let slip the moorings and steered the boat downstream. Anchored somewhere in the Thames Estuary, away from any possibility of interruption and observation, Morrison and Bevan held a conference at which they hammered out the final, politically contentious, principals that established the National Health Service. Learning of this story we were captivated by the idea that one of the key foundations of the Social Democratic settlement was laid by a conversation that took place midstream, in the dream space of the great river.[1]

Whilst the Massey Shaw battled the inferno of the docks created by the Luftwaffe, the shape of the post-war metropolis was being drawn up. Patrick Abercombie’s Greater London Plan, published in 1944, attempted to delineate something of an ideal Social Democratic city with housing and schools, slum clearances and new towns, health clinics and new parks. The physical construction of that city necessitated a struggle between the state and private landowners, between capital and labour, and because of this, the realisation of the plan was constantly imperfect.

The Social Democratic vision took the continuity of the docks, active with shipping and trade, as a given. Near to where Mika and I gaze at the Massey Shaw, is the St John’s housing estate. Raised on the ruins of bombed streets it was constructed by the Greater London Council and Poplar Borough Council to provide housing for the workers in the docks. Closer to us is a municipal office building, Jack Dash House. Owned by Tower Hamlets Borough Council, it is named after Jack Dash, the legendary Communist leader of the dockers during the 1950s and 60s. Although part of the Transport & General Workers Union, Dash was unofficial London dockworkers leader, barred from higher office in the TGWU because he was a Communist. Dash took pride in having being involved in every dock strike between 1946 and 1969, and the fact that dockers’ wages trebled between 1959 and 1972. His life epitomised the struggle between capital and labour in Social Democratic Britain.


Jack Dash, communist leader of the London Dockers
Jack Dash, communist leader of the London Dockers


By the mid 1970s when Dash retired, South Dock was a scene of desolation with grass growing on the quaysides. In large part this was due to containerisation. An American technological innovation, the ‘Container’ created an entirely new dimension in shipping, with the size of merchant vessels increasing dramatically and goods in containers being lifted directly off ships and onto lorries or trains, thereby mechanising much of the traditional tasks on the quays. Felixstowe Docks, owned by Trinity College of Cambridge University, became the first container terminal in 1967 and Tilbury Docks followed three years later. Both were marked by the use of labour policies designed to attack the strength of the unions. In the 1970s the quays on the Isle of Dogs were fundamentally challenged and again the PLA used this threat to battle with organised labour and make large numbers of dockworkers unemployed. The port that had begun as West India Docks 170 years before, lay in ruins.

We walk to the river’s edge and at the Samuda Estate look out on Blackwall Reach. It is low tide and the Black Headed Gulls and Herring Gulls, just in from a night roosting in the estuary, are picking their way across the mudflats. The mid-day river is utterly devoid of ships.

The dramatic decline of the London docks was partly driven by property speculation that began in the 1970s. The shift of trade from West India Docks to the likes of Felixstowe and Tilbury, opened up a whole new space for capital. It was a perfect opportunity for the neoliberal Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. The Secretary of State for Environment, Michael Hesseltine MP, set about this task with vigour. In 1980 an Act of Parliament was passed creating London Docklands Development Corporation, the LDDC. A new ‘Enterprise Zone’ for free-market capitalism was created, and the councils of the London Boroughs within that zone, had their powers radically constrained. The state acted decisively, in a draconian and anti-democratic manner to create the ideal free market city. Fittingly, Thatcher chose Canary Wharf to launch her 1987 election campaign.[2]

London Docklands Community Poster Project image - 'Big Money is moving in'
London Docklands Community Poster Project image – ‘Big Money is moving in’

But this advance of powerful capital was resisted by the borough councils, community associations and trades unions. One of these oppositional bodies was the political arts group, the Docklands Community Poster Project established in 1980 by Lorraine Leeson and Peter Dunn, together with other project workers such as Sonia Boyce. An early inspiration to Platform, their way of working was determinedly democratic. As Leeson explained:

 ‘When we set up the project we did a feasibility study and we visited a lot of tenants’ organisations. We talked about what people actually wanted in order to get the message across and nearly everybody said, ‘Look, we want posters, but we want big ones.’

What they created were several series of photo-murals, hoarding-sized poster works in which the images were slowly changed. Part of the impact of the photo-murals came from the contrast they formed with billboard advertising, which tended to use single slick images and slogans. This was particularly so with the advertisements commissioned by the LDDC. Leeson again:

‘The photo-murals have a different function to advertising. They are designed to get across complex issues and to reveal the underlying structure of what’s going on, whereas advertisements are generally designed to obscure the underlying structure and get across a product name. Advertisements do that by relying on people picking up an image quickly – most can be picked up by a passing motorist. Our photo-murals are sited in places where there will be people passing by.’

As they described it, the project workers saw the aim of their art as of ‘creating democracy in Docklands, not just reproducing a Development Corporation in another form’.

As we walk along the riverside overlooking Deptford, I talk of my memory of watching the Canary Wharf tower being built as we undertook Platform’s The Tree of Life – The City of Life project across the river at Greenland Dock. It was the summer of 1989 and the story was that the tower was being constructed at a rate of one floor every week. The scheme seemed extraordinary, insanely speculative and doomed to failure. My father, who had recently retired from a life in finance, tried to puncture my scepticism by pointing to the civil unrest in Poland, East Germany and Hungary. Four months later the Berlin Wall was pulled down. A whole new space for capital was suddenly forced open.

The Borough of Tower Hamlets – which includes the Isle of Dogs – like the other docklands boroughs of Southwark, Newham, Lewisham and Greenwich, has been a battleground on which distinct ideologies of industrial capitalism have been fought over for two hundred years. It has arguably been the place where the struggle between the private and the common has been most intense throughout London and whole of the South East. How does this struggle interrelate to the changes in the energy structures of the past two centuries?

West India Docks were built on an energy system combining wind-powered sailing vessels, the power of enslaved Africans and the low-cost labour of Irish migrants digging out the dock basins. By the 1830s steam driven traction engines, winches and ships’ paddles were beginning to make an irreversible impact on the nature of the docks and the vessels that brought goods in and out of the Thames. Coal, its value dependent on low-cost labour in the mines of North East England, fueled the steam boilers and poured carbon into the atmosphere. However the victory of King Coal was never total – sail-powered trading vessels continued to deliver to the docks until 1927, and the motive power of the lighters that ferried goods between docks was tide and oar until the 1960s.

Patrick Abercombie’s Plan designed a perfect petroleum city. Its realisation after World War II accelerated the shift from coal to oil, from train to motorcar. The maps of the 1944 Plan show clearly the line of the future M25 and the Dartford Tunnel, the construction and expansion of airports at Heathrow, Luton & Gatwick and the building of New Towns such as Basildon in Essex and Crawley in Sussex. The docklands of the mid 20th Century were powered by marine oil and diesel, putting paid to the last sail merchant ship and making all lighters redundant, except those pulled by tugs.

In the place of the docks comes Canary Wharf, iconic at night because of the myriad of lights that shine out from thousands of unstaffed offices. What is the energy usage of these tower blocks, accessed by lifts, heated and air-conditioned, fuelled by electricity? And more crucially what is the neoliberal energy system that is fuelled by Canary Wharf? This is one of the key locations of the Carbon Web, a central node in the direction of capital to exploit new oil & gas fields or open new coal mines, and capital to facilitate the transportation of those fossil fuels from the places of extraction to the places of combustion. How much do these few acres of the Isle of Dogs contribute to the shifting of the Earth’s climate?

Approximately 30% of the capital represented on the London Stock Exchange is locked into fossil fuel companies. It is reasonable to assume that at least 30 % of the offices in Canary Wharf are essentially engaged in the fossil fuel industry. If that industry is set to go out of business in the coming decade or so, as the Carbon Bubble bursts and much of the oil & gas industry becomes stranded assets, what will become of the companies in these offices? What will the impact of a post-fossil fuel economy be on this part of London? Will these towers, like the docks in the 1970s, become almost worthless property? Will they too become stranded assests?

What will be the nature of this place in the world that Platform is attempting to describe in our essay ‘Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’, an installment of the Kilburn Manifesto?

Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman's 'Last of England'
Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s ‘Last of England’


Mika and I walk along the riverbank, heading back upstream, talking of the films that have used the Docklands as their backdrop. Of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) shot in the CWS Mill in Royal Victoria Dock. The towering Ministry of Information Retrieval seems to prophesy One Canada Water. Of Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987), shot at Millennium Mill also in Royal Victoria Dock, which portrays the decline and fall of Britain. And Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Weeks Later (2007), in part filmed at the entrance to Canary Wharf underground – the very plaza in which we’d met. What is it about this part of London, even before the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, that seems to generate thoughts of future decay?

Neoliberal development made use of the foundations of the Imperial London – the very fabric of the West India quaysides. The imperial docks were constructed from the solid ground of the marshes drained by generations of the inhabitants of Stepney. What of the present will be the ruins on which the future is built? What of Canary Wharf will be reused by the generations that come after fossil fuels and neoliberalism?

Abercrombie’s plan was still being realised fourty years after publication, with the completion of the M25 in 1986. Canary Wharf now nearly 35 years old is still being being constructed. What will be the nature of the Isle of Dogs in 2050?

What will be the shape of a city 100% fuelled by renewables?

Might a post neoliberal city be born here too?

Will this necessitate a closer addressing of the colonial history and present of the docklands?

What of this place that was once the common land of Stepney?


Thanks to Mika Minio-Palluelo and Farzana Khan


[1] It is difficult to ascertain definitively the accuracy of this story and would be grateful for any thoughts from readers of this blog.

[2] (see:


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