The investment cubes… they’re everywhere.

A film trope I’m sure you’ll recognise goes like this: in your generic sci-film, after the introduction of the main character(s), there’s a disaster, following which there’s a fight to survive against some horrific entity. The protagonists make it through, struggling down air conditioning ducts or alleyways, before emerging to discover the true Eldritch Abomination: the baddie they thought they had the measure of is actually 100 times more powerful. They find themselves in an enormous space overlooking massed ranks of cloned soldiers, or pulsating baby alien pods. They’re there at the moment before that huge army is activated or born or whatever, and as they survey the scene, the scale of their challenge is made clear to us.

I was reminded of that while walking from Kilburn High Road to Paddington Station the other day.

That’s right, we’re in extended-metaphor-ville.

It was cold. There was a wind afoot that whips the joy out of life; if anyone was out on the street, they were busy trying to get somewhere else, inside. But all the way down that old roman road, wind whipping through my cheap coat, I revelled in the collisions of built London. There were grandly-proportioned Georgian townhouses whose features I could barely see because the railings had been boarded up. Every now and then, there would be a glimpse of a car, gleaming in a driveway, worth more than my house, but for the most part, these archetypes of British period architecture were behind bars, not for the eyeballs of the likes of me.

On the other side of the street, looking into these moneyed gardens, were monolithic 1970s tower blocks. Big windows, generous views.

I moved through the chi-chi independence of Warwick and Clifton Avenues, before arriving at Little Venice, where the eye is pulled to well-positioned sundecks or glass-clad wheelhouses. On land, the stucco frontages of low-slung mansions met the bramble-scratched towpath. The excellent Apostolic church, Giger-ish and ornate, lent credence to the whole watery Dutch vibe.

It was a busy time for the eyes. Walking in London can feel like there are five different cities coming at you from all directions at once, and you get to be swirled around a little in it all, even in one of its more genteel corners. There is a lot to distract, to intrigue, so many signals to interpret. But you think you know where you are. It’s a London walk, and you have the measure of that beast.

I continued to walk, and headed under the Harrow Road and the M40 flyover, a mere 90 seconds after strolling along the towpath. This, too, was a jarring experience — despite the green splodge of Rembrandt Gardens and some jazzily-coloured underpasses, it’s still a big moment for concrete — but it was fun.

This underpass, however, is the air-conditioning duct of the great spaceship London. I emerged into the Sheldon and Market Square ‘quarter’. And this is where The Other awaits.

Remember that this was a cold, windswept day in November, so there wasn’t a lot of life out there. What was there, though, were enormous glinting grey gridstructures, packed tightly around vast public spaces for The People to commune within and behave in a way, presumably, that meets the standards of the private security guards keeping watch over the space. The People were not there on that day. In time they will, emerging from their investment-pods, enjoy a cooked treat from Pizza Express, Itsu or Zizzi. Other non-franchise options are off-planet.

Market Square is the development that keeps on developing, steel on steroids. It has serious scale: set around an ersatz mooring basin, an echo of the ramshackle life I had passed earlier, it is all public art and cctv blankness. At one point, I literally couldn’t move for interesting sculpture. But the only sound on this day was the hum of generators.

A glass-sided lift trumpeted the words ‘Innovation’, ‘Integrity’ and ‘Inspiration’, stencilled onto the sides of a person-pod in a vibrant letterpress typeface.

The M&S cafe (no tables occupied) had an A-board outside proclaiming “We put the Heart into your coffee’. A promise of warmth and intimacy, pointed at a concrete plaza in which I was the only moving part.

I’d never been here before, but I recognised it all the same. I know, we know, all the marks that meet its mixed-use function, sitting underneath the investment boxes towering up to the sky. They are all of a piece. And they are on the march.

One of the great joys of walking in a city is the sense of liberation you get from being anonymous — that you are not in a part of town you frequent, don’t know anyone who lives there, you could go into any cafe and they wouldn’t ask who you are, wouldn’t care where you’re from — and from not knowing what’s round the corner. Here, though, I felt — I knew — that I was being observed. Cameras are everywhere. I was the only piece on the chessboard. And what a familiar chessboard it is becoming.

It’s an urban feature rubber-stamped by those who make big decisions about what our built environment is going to look like. It is discomforting, repetitive and uninspiring. The worst is that it’s private. You walk down public streets before, without even really recognising it, you’re essentially trespassing. And everything is set up for you to think that both this is an expected occurrence in a city, and that you should mind your manners while you go about consuming the branded products that you, as a guest, should do well to purchase. The battle for individuality and anonymity is going to be all-involving.

Who is the Big Bad driving this stuff through, in charge of this machine? It’s all of us, isn’t it. Or one weaselly little guy. Can’t remember the right trope.



Mostly articles about user research/design/design research. You can ignore the rest, if you want. I just don’t see the point in multiple profiles. It’s all me.

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Will Scott

Mostly articles about user research/design/design research. You can ignore the rest, if you want. I just don’t see the point in multiple profiles. It’s all me.