Hiding in plain sight, the words that developers use to describe their projects reveal an awful lot about the kind of city they’re trying to create.
It’s a sad fact that the vast majority of contemporary architecture writing is produced by property developers. What is somewhat less sad is the reality that much of this cringeworthy drivel goes largely unnoticed by the public, even as they walk past it every day. But as it hides in plain sight, covering the hoardings that surround construction sites, this development-speak is normalising a warped representation of urban life which obscures developers’ tendency to appropriate a neighbourhood’s cultural value for the purpose of profit.
To give an introductory example of this development-speak, there’s few better sources than Crystal Bennes’ brilliant blog Development Aesthetics. In one of her most recent posts she identifies a hoarding surrounding Fish Island Village, a development by Peabody in Hackney Wick, London, on which is written three words which are ubiquitous in development: “Authentic, Vibrant, Eclectic”. These three words each deserve unpacking.
Authenticity takes time
Authentic comes originally from the Greek word authentikos meaning “original” which is itself connected to the word authentes meaning “acting on one’s own authority” (combining autos “self” hentes “doer” i.e. “self-doer”). Used these days to describe something which is genuine, rather than fake, authenticity is a highly valuable commodity in contemporary society, because it takes a lot of work to produce something truly authentic and this authenticity is hard to replicate quickly. What’s more, possessing authenticity (or authentic things) is a useful way of displaying one’s cultural capital, which has become an increasingly important measure of a person’s worth in post-materialist society (i.e. one in which people have largely transcended basic material concerns like getting enough food to eat). Creating a place that is authentic takes time, but by repeating the word so often in reference to a place you can buy, Peabody is advancing the idea that an authentic place is not something you necessarily need to spend time developing. Instead you can buy it (interestingly, this takes the word quite some distance from its “self-doing” origins).
Vibrant, meanwhile, comes from the Latin vibrantem meaning “to sway”. However, in its modern incarnation, which developed in the 19th century, vibrant suggests colour and vigour as well as motion. This expanded meaning makes “vibrant” a particularly useful word for the developer because value, in the capitalist system, is intrinsically linked to movement and vitality. As Marx explains in Capital, the capitalist system only works in motion, when exchange values stop circulating, value disappears and the system collapses. Put in the context of the present discussion, the value of property disappears in a place which is the opposite of vibrant – bland, colourless, dead. Which is to say that developers spend such a lot of time talking up a place as vibrant, up-and-coming and happening, not because they especially appreciate these qualities, but because they connote value in motion.
Finally, eclectic suggests something which draws on many sources. It comes from Greek eklektos meaning “selective”. As used by Peabody, the word is supposed to suggest that there’s a lot of variety in Fish Island Village. This, too, is valuable to the developer. The problem is that a new development can’t really be eclectic. As with authenticity, it takes time to absorb influences from many sources. Neither a newcomer nor a new development will have had the time to absorb eclectic influences on their own. Assuming Peabody are not simply making an erroneous claim, any eclecticism (or vibrancy, or authenticity) they are referring to would have had to have been poached from the surrounding neighbourhood and its residents.
There’s much more to discuss on this topic, but for now, let’s recap the two main observations that emerge from this short analysis: firstly, the reality of Fish Island Village cannot live up to the ideas contained within the words Peabody are using to describe it; and secondly, Peabody are not prepared to acknowledge the source of the values they claim for the development (i.e. the values of authenticity, vibrancy and eclecticism), or the work that has gone into producing these values, or the people who do that work. Instead, they prefer either to claim that these values exist simply by saying they exist, or to appropriate these values from the people who already live in the neighbourhood.