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Interview with Anna Minton: Reading the Neoliberal City

There is a real urgency to put politics at the forefront of architecture and understand how neoliberal policies like privatisation, financialisation and wealth polarisation impact our cities

This September the University of East London’s School of Architecture will open its doors to a brand new master’s research programme: ‘Reading the Neoliberal City’. Jack Self interviewed course director Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, and asked her why this programme is needed right now

Anna Minton The state of London today is extreme. Through one lens we are witnessing the destruction of dozens of council estates all around the city, while simultaneously we see their replacement with investor spaces, mostly luxury apartments, half of which will remain empty. Property has become a focus for speculation, and it is now just another financial product in a crazy financial marketplace. We’ve never before witnessed such a drastic moment for London’s development — I call it the Boris boom.

It’s not just a process affecting London, of course, and while our Docklands campus is a perfect site for investigating and examining these processes, they’re nonetheless actions that are going on all over the world. The ambition is to focus on a specific site, such as the Docklands or London more widely, but also to examine and compare this condition with cities all around the world. There is a real urgency to understand what it means to live under a neoliberal economy. This course essentially shows how that economy plays out in the physical environment, and how those economic and political priorities are manifest spatially.

I also don’t think anyone is providing a critical centre for this type of work. There are other courses where perhaps one strand will investigate themes like the privatisation of public space or property markets, but as far as I know there isn’t an entire course based solely on this subject. While we will focus on a critique of the neoliberal city, I also want to allow scope for a discussion of political alternatives.

Another relevant theme is the health of our democracy. Are there directions it might be fruitful to pursue, in terms of participatory democratic structures? Moreover, how will those structures be executed in the physical environment? I don’t want to be critical of other courses, but I do think there is a lack of critical thinking in this field at the moment, and some of the traditional places where cities are investigated no longer have a reputation for conducting that much critique. This is certainly part of the desire to dedicate an entire course to this field alone.

‘There is a real urgency to understand what it means to live under a neoliberal economy’

Jack Self The title of the course is ‘reading the neoliberal city’ and I’m very interested in this idea of ‘reading’ as a means of analysing and making visible otherwise invisible processes. I also want to tie that in with the medium of the work. In the brief you talk about making use of different media, including filmmaking and photography. How does the idea of different modes of analysis contribute to this idea of ‘reading?’

AM The first definition of reading is the impetus for why I wanted to call it ‘reading the neoliberal city’, and that comes from the fact that so much of the language used by neoliberal policymakers is utterly impenetrable and outright Orwellian. Just about every term in this field means the opposite of what it should mean. ‘Affordable housing’, on the lips of politicians today, actually means totally unaffordable housing. The definition is 80 per cent of market rent — how can that be affordable? The term ‘regeneration’, which is a kind of catch-all term for contemporary development, what does that actually mean? When you unpick it, regeneration over the last 10 years has involved this very privatised exclusionary model of development. What does ‘sustainability’ really mean? In fact, it’s a rhetorical device for a whole host of meanings that are the exact opposite of the conceptions of social justice it was conceived to express.

This is not to mention all the jargon, like a Section 106, and various other incomprehensible names for policies; very few people know what they really mean. If you take any contemporary domestic policy area you will find it has become riddled with acronyms, words and phrases that sound very warm and positive. However on investigation you will find they mean the opposite of their original intention. In the field of architecture, planning, urban development, property and regeneration, this is particularly pronounced, and it’s a huge barrier to understanding. A huge part of my own work has really just been striving to explain what is actually going on, because this language is a smokescreen. When I wanted to use the term ‘reading the neoliberal city’ I am literally hoping to help people read and understand the processes behind these rhetorical words and phrases.

‘The contemporary domestic policy area has become riddled with acronyms, words and phrases that sound very warm and positive’

JS There’s an interesting subset of categories you’ve combined in the subtitle for the course: ‘urban space, property markets, architectural form and social justice’. It’s perhaps obvious why architectural form and urban space might interest architects. However, given the context in which they appear, what does architectural form mean in that sentence? And what is its relation to those other categories?

AM The subject matter crosses a wide range of disciplines, and therefore the work will necessarily be quite self-consciously interdisciplinary. It is as important to examine property, planning, regeneration and architecture as much as it is criminology, psychology or sociology. It would be fantastic if we were able to attract students from subjects like economic geography, or those I’ve mentioned. Nonetheless, the programme is sited within an architectural school, and my interest in this master’s as an architectural course is really to put politics into architecture as much as possible. Architecture is political by its very nature, just like art. You can’t have apolitical architecture, although increasingly the practice is being depoliticised. There are a lot of architects who are thoughtful, scholarly people who have a big problem with that depoliticisation, and I hope they will be attracted to the course – whether it’s recent graduates, or whether it’s mid-career professionals who come up against these processes in the course of their work. Equally, some of the other related disciplines such as planning have been utterly depoliticised, but in my experience it is architects much more than planners who really want to grapple with these issues.

Reading the Neoliberal City

This September the University of East London’s School of Architecture will open its doors to a brand new master’s research programme. Titled ‘Reading the Neoliberal City’, it aims to put politics at the forefront of architecture, and it will examine the impact of neoliberal policies like privatisation, financialisation and wealth polarisation on cities over the last several decades.

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