“A pop-up mall made from 50 recycled shipping containers is to set up shop in London's Elephant and Castle area after the development was granted planning permission this month.”
Sometimes, the deadpan house style of a news article packs more emotional punch than the most florid purple prose. I read the above in a Retail Bulletin news story in January, and something deep in my soul tweaked. It is a sentence of Platonic perfection; a saga in 29 words that inadvertently tells us everything we need to know about the times we are living in.
The pop-up mall, called Artworks Elephant, will open on the site of the massive, empty Heygate Estate in south London as it undergoes a £1.5 billion, 15-year regeneration project – making the transition from the Heygate Estate to "Elephant Park". Let's get this clear from the outset, as one of the Artworks' many functions is to provide a shiny bauble to distract from what the long-term project is actually doing: the regeneration will replace the Heygate's 1,200 demolished council homes with only 71 new ones (out of nearly 3,000 homes altogether). With private rental being unaffordable for so many, it's pretty head-smackingly obvious that regeneration, in this instance, means social cleansing. London is being purged – every council is privately discussing contingencies of where to send its poorer tenants and their families; will it be Hastings, Derby or Merthyr Tydfil?
But surely, you might object, any use of this site in the interim is better than it being left desolate? As this excellent piece of local journalism on the Southwark Notes blog points out, until it was fenced off by the developers in February 2011, the Artworks site had been a “well-used open space that contained a large expanse of grass, large mature trees and a small kids' playground. On Sundays, it hosted football between different local Latin American teams.” It was exactly the local community space the shipping container shopping mall purports to be. Southwark Council and developers Lend Lease have rejected most of the local residents' detailed proposals for temporary use of other parts of the Heygate: for allotments, a community pond, sport and recreation, gardening and a free outdoor cinema. The Artworks, meanwhile, skipped through the normally lengthy planning application process and into the fenced-off site.
As well as the practical damage Artworks seems to be doing, its horribly zeitgeisty marketing language and aesthetics leave a sour taste in the mouth. Over the last few years I have wondered just why I detest the increasingly ubiquitous "pop-ups" so much. Then I found the Evening Standard's Consumer Affairs Editor Sri Carmichael explaining it for me in a Newsnight report from 2009: “The association people have with pop-up shops is it's a bit edgy, it's a bit street, it's a new, funky business that's trying to start up – so it's created this quirkiness, this sense of novelty among consumers which is obviously very exciting, and that creates a sense of urgency to buy if you think it's not going to be there for very long. And anything that generates excitement amongst consumers in this climate, in the recession, makes them put their hands in their pockets, is exactly what retailers want.”
Edgy, street, funky, quirky – that's not only a full house in arsehole bingo, it also neatly explains how the pop-up serves the needs of late capitalism: it's a lunge to inject coolness and spontaneity into consumerism, in an age when we are finally starting to realise we don't need so much of this junk – and anyway, we really can't afford it. Pop-ups' short-termism and desperation for novelty also speak to the temporal logic of neoliberalism, and its most important form of communication: the press release. In an age of rolling news, depleted news gathering resources, and the churnalism that sees PR stunts often transcribed word for word into newspaper copy, “Something new just opened!” is more eye-catching than, “Something continues to be open!”
We are so very and so easily bored.
To understand pop-ups, you need to look at who uses them (big businesses with tired brands, more often than eager new entrepreneurs), and who's backing them. Self-styled pop-up guru Dan Thomson, author of Pop-ups For Dummies, was praised by David Cameron in his 2011 conference speech, and this should come as no surprise – his is the Big Society Cameron wants. Short-term gains for the people who need them least; and a gloss of fake "community" painted over the cracks rippling through Britain's social structures. Thomson is the man behind the “riot clean-up” after the English riots – smugly displayed good intentions that ignored deep-set social and economic problems, with a dose of hygieno-fascism for good measure. Why address the causes of social unrest when middle-class do-gooders can just sweep the consequences to one side; under the carpet and away from view?
Pop-up rhetoric purports that they give a cheap, easy boost to innovative young inventors, artists and creatives. It remains to be seen who will occupy the Artworks Elephant containers, but as Southwark Notes points out, the rate of £180 per week for a 320sq ft container – approximately £800 per month – contrasts with similar sized artists' studios in south London for £4-600 per month. In any case it's somewhat difficult to see how Artworks' boast of sustainability (because of the re-used shipping containers) fits with an idea whose whole point is that it is short-term.
The final piece of nauseatingly apt semiotics in this scheme comes from the shipping containers themselves. They perfectly convey the direction in which modern capitalism continues to develop: a mass-produced, transitory, transnational, automated, human-erasing beast. Containers destroyed an entire workforce when they first came into common use. The London Docklands collapsed in just a few years in the late 1960s, when the work was moved further east down the Thames, to Tilbury docks in Essex, and the standardisation of global shipping containers ushered in a new phase of global capitalism – it suddenly became ten times as fast to load and unload ships, and was done with far fewer hands (83,000 jobs were lost in the Docklands area in the 1960s).
On a visit to Felixstowe in Suffolk last year, the largest shipping container port in the UK, I was driven around the vast site, weighed down with several layers of laminated ID and security clearance papers – you are never allowed to leave the van, for safety reasons. It was dark, and the giant sci-fi cranes loaded and unloaded the containers around us at an astonishing speed, as they would do throughout the night. Every second can make a difference worth thousands of pounds, but there are scarcely any human beings involved – not once did we see a single soul on foot.
This same speed-driven logic applies to their use in sites like Artworks Elephant: the man who brought the shipping containers to the Heygate is Sam Minionis from a company called My Space Pod. In this video he outlines Dragons' Den-style why shipping containers should be used for basically any construction project: they can be set up within six months, while conventional building takes over 18 months – and using metal boxes instead of, y’know, buildings, saves 10 percent on costs, he estimates. “If you're building hotels, student accommodation, nursing homes, anything that requires a quick income, it's a fantastic product. It's flexible, it's durable, it's demountable and transferable, and that's an incredible advantage. You can take a new building, demount it and transfer it somewhere else. It's a plug and play system.”
These gargantuan Lego blocks flattened global capitalism and erased human labour from industrial history in the process; they are the perfect tool for an economic system only interested in short-term, pop-up solutions. In December, we learned shipping containers are being used to house the homeless in Brighton, address the crisis in affordable housing in London, and according to My Space Pod they can even be used for disaster relief.
And now, argues Minionis, they can be fun, too – plug and play. Use and re-use. Enjoy the whimsical incongruity of buying over-priced semi-precious necklaces while clonking around these faux-authentic haunted coffins of heavy industry. The containers' use in sites like the Heygate is part of neoliberalism's cunning fetishisation of the ruin. As Jon Moses writes of the rust-porn commodification architecture used by restaurant chains like Byron Burger, capitalism has recently learned how to monetise our boredom with corporate gloss: “A ruin is space which stops resetting the clock, allowing time to layer and accumulate in a bionic fusion with nature. We find ruins sublime because they overpower us with the sorts of relationship denied in the corporate landscape: a melancholic hyperawareness of time, through which we are quietly confronted with death.”
How grimly appropriate that in 2014, the people of Elephant & Castle will at last be re-admitted to the formerly public space which once contained 1,200 council homes – and amidst the dilapidated grandeur of the Heygate, they can, instead of living, working and playing in space that once was theirs, visit a pop-up shipping container mall.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @danhancox