Remaking London: An Interview With Ben Campkin / by Tom Oliver Payne


London is in constant in flux. As the city’s economic and social structures change, so too do its neighbourhoods. With the most recent wave of gentrification pushing through the south and east, we are witnessing regeneration schemes play out at a range of scales. With this, we are also observing the tensions associated with such schemes. The sanitisation associated with renewal creates winners and losers.

The processes are far from simple. The benefits of new development can be far reaching, but so too are other impacts: the displacement of homes, jobs and community character, or ‘spirit’. Additionally, the public is fed images and rhetoric from the media, politicians and developers, which create myths of why places need to change in certain ways. How can we possibly begin to unravel the complexity of regeneration in London? According to Ben Campkinwe can begin by looking into its history.

Ben Campkin is the Director of UCL’s cross-disciplinary Urban Laboratory and Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture. In his new book Remaking London, Campkin focuses on contemporary regeneration areas, places that have been key to the capital’s modern identity but that are now being drastically reconfigured. Rather than simply analysing these tensions in the current political climate, he discusses them in relation to the context of their historical urbanisation.

Campkin shows us that these places are not only the product of contemporary decision making. Their distinct characteristics have evolved through complex histories – public perception, ideas of decline and social stigmas are generated through the media, film, cinema, advertising and many other cultural forms.

Beautifully written, Remaking London provides a powerful critique of the contradictions of contemporary schemes, refreshingly ‘un-academic’ in tone, yet carefully researched. Exposing the myths of regeneration, it’s a remarkable read for anyone interested in the truly complex city that is London.

Sitting down with Ben, I was able to ask him a few questions about the book, his research and of course, London.

Tom Payne:Remaking London focuses on five key areas across the city: Somers Town, Elephant and Castle, Kings Cross, Shoreditch and Hackney Wick. How and why were these sites chosen?

When you look at any of the large regeneration sites in London, they require you to understand the structures through which earlier urbanisation took place."

Ben Campkin: I wanted to take large-scale contested regeneration sites – places that were central to the functioning of the modern city, that were subject to repeated ‘improvement’ campaigns, and that were subject to drastic reconfiguration as part of the city’s most recent reconfiguration. I wanted to take a broad cultural and historical approach to thinking about these sites. That came from a frustration with the fact that the political and policy-oriented discourses about regeneration tended to be glossy, short-termist and ahistorical, and that in practice contemporary renewal often seems to obliterate the history of specific places and communities in favour of anodyne heritage. When you look at any of the large regeneration sites in London, they require you to understand the structures through which earlier urbanization took place.

Tom Payne: You’ve done some in depth historical research in areas across London. How long has it taken you to research the book and what have been some of the challenges?

Ben Campkin: I started thinking about this project, and Kings Cross specifically in 2001. But that is not to say that I’ve been working on it solidly since then. The book has developed in tandem with some of the regeneration projects it explores. Various chapters have had different iterations along the way, and there have been related projects – such as theoretical work on how the anthropologistMary Douglas’s ideas about pollution, or ideas from psychoanalytic theory, or recent discussions of urban nature in geography, might help us to understand the way ‘dirt’ features in regeneration debates.

Kings Cross is currently experiencing rapid change. Image: Ben Campkin.

Tom Payne:Tell me about inspiration for the book and how it relates to your research interests?

Ben Campkin: I have an academic background in archaeology, art history, architectural history and urban studies. All of these disciplines look at architecture and cities, but in different ways. I started off thinking about the theme of ‘dirt’ and ruins. You can see how that obviously comes from archaeology where you’re digging around in dirt and tracing the foundations of buildings. This went on to shape my interest in the material and metaphorical roles of dirt and degradation in cities; and the ways that their transformations are driven by ideas and images of decline.

we have to consider the ethics of how poverty and material degradation are represented often in relation to each other.

This often happens in quite contradictory ways. For example, you might see a local authority emphasising conditions of decline in order to drive change. Within this, across different media, we have to consider the ethics of how poverty and material degradation are represented often in relation to each other.

This also brings me into my interest in the age-old debate of how orderly or not cities should be. The tension between wanting to create somewhere that’s liveable and not wanting to create somewhere that’s sanitised.

Aylesbury Estate, S17, London. Image: Flickr/Nicobobinus

The fact that Campkin’s research is so highly embedded in urban history, makes this book incredibly relevant today. Not too many years ago we saw images on our televisions of Tony Blair discussing the Aylesbury Estate, the “sprawling landscape [that is] like visiting hell’s waiting room” and its residents as “the poorest people in our country [who] have been forgotten by government”.

It is easy to become swayed by the language and metaphors that politicians and the media utilise to approach urban issues. Campkin has explained that this is not too different from what he has referred to, drawing on Keith Gandal’s work on nineteenth-century housing, as the ‘spectacle’ of slum clearance programmes in the past – more recently we see a ‘sink estate spectacle’ at work. By critiquing the use of such rhetoric, Campkin addresses the way in which language and images shape the way we imagine cities.

Remaking London is a wonderfully captivating and informative discussion of regeneration in London. Exploring the use of language, imagery and media across a historical timeline the book pulls apart myths of regeneration, giving the reader new perspectives on the places around them. A fantastic read for anyone interested in urban spaces. Be sure to pick up a copy.