Economics for Beginners Part II: Empty Buildings
I spent Sunday walking round an empty office block in North East London. Warm sunlight spilt onto coarse blue carpet. Male and female figures stood redundant on the toilet doors. Small square windows in well varnished doors offered glimpses into empty rooms with pale magnolia walls and only the occasional fallen roof tile for furniture. Warning signs hung over phantom fire extinguishers. Plug sockets sat empty. Strip lights unlit.
The owners have been trying to lease it for over six months – 4,000 square feet just longing for the feel of office chairs and well ordered desks; the gentle, reassuring purr of a sleeping photocopier.
Cycling through the city, gazing up at half finished buildings, I realise they look different. Suddenly so nervous looking; as anxious as the crowd of smartly dressed and exhausted people filing past on their way towards London Bridge Station. All scaffolding and computer generated images of their future glory, the buildings look like half-ready prom dates caught in the act of changing, informed that no one’s coming to collect them. Suddenly they’re an embarrassment. Almost so very grand. Almost so very tall. A material reminder of how close to the sun everyone wanted to get, wilfully oblivious to what would happen when they all started to melt.
What’s to become of all these places? Who needs several hundred acres of over-designed high rise office space, built of nothing but reinforced glass and the doomed hope that no one will notice quite how much everyone’s bluffing?
I remember visiting Potsdam last year, staying with a guy called Max who had been a teenager when the wall came down. We walked drunkenly through the streets late at night and he told me how people had disappeared over the wall into the West, leaving behind a ghost town of Eastern Bloc apartments, all concrete and linoleum. Then as the flood continued East to West a trickle began in the other direction, people looking to make space for themselves; room to do what they wanted. He told me how they squatted in the empty buildings, made venues, put on shows. Now in the new Germany many of these places, like Fabric in Potsdam, have progressed to respectability, re-housed in purpose built centres.
Perhaps something similar will happen over here. Buildings with no companies left to fill them will be overrun by people who at one time never would have got past the Securicor guy at the door. Underground bars with achingly inconspicuous entrances will appear where before there were only Apple Macs and angle poise lamps as far as the eye could see. Theatres and nightclubs and cinemas will fill the low ceilinged, glass walled towers of the Docklands. Warehouses in Hackney Wick will be scorned in favour of high rises in EC1 and at night drunken revellers will gaze tranquilly up at the stars from the roof terraces that only a couple of years previously they didn’t even know existed.
Perhaps. Though probably not. Wild flights of bohemian fantasy aside I simply don’t have the economics to imagine a world physically transformed by the invisible numbers and plummeting line graphs that are currently emblazoned across all of the broadsheet newspapers. I don’t like to wave my ignorance around like a badge of honour (that’s what we have Sun journalists for) but at this stage I simply can’t figure out how extraordinary or otherwise any change is going to be. Are we talking a slew of unemployed bankers and expensive bread for everybody else? Or are we really in Sodom and Gomorrah territory – panic on the streets of London. Wheelbarrows of cash carted away from derelict branches of the Norwich Union. Ration cues standing forlornly in the snow outside Waitrose. Former bankers hired to carry red balloons around the streets of London, scaring away the pigeons. At the moment I feel like I’m sitting waiting with detached curiosity for something that the doctor keeps trying to warn me is really, really going to hurt.
We’re moving in to the office in North East London in a couple of weeks. We’ve put down a deposit. We’re just waiting for them to fit a shower and a bath in the toilet cubicles.