Sex and the City: Welcome to MIPIM, the World’s Biggest Property Fair

Once a year, 20,000 sweaty men meet to engage in the ever-evolving ecosystem of money, power, politics, and land.

by Pete Rachman
01 April 2016, 7:00am

On the first day someone lost control of an enormous motor yacht in Cannes harbour – smashing fibreglass all over the place. Roars of laughter erupted. The kind of awkward laughter disguised as the bonhomie you hear in a pub when someone breaks a glass. Basic bastard laughter.

In the third week of March, the world's largest property fair, MIPIM (Marché International des Professionnels de l'Immobilier) took place in Cannes. The romantically named Grand Palais de Festivals was filled with 20,000 sweaty men making deals. At MIPIM it's not that everything is for sale, it's that everywhere is for sale.

MIPIM is where property sharks from around the world meet to engage in the ever-evolving ecosystem of money, power, politics, and land. The emperors of the stuffed brown envelope, the friends of Mandelson, the corpulent Jabba the Hutts nudging housing towards a more perfect financialisation are at their densest at the Cannes conference. It's where investors, developers, planners, regions and cities, as well as those further down the food chain – sewer engineers and architects – get together to network and drink, most importantly, swap business cards. A Ballardian fever-dream unfolded as the delegates whip themselves into gear, and as the nights progress it was escorts' cards that were being handed out.

What MIPIM boils down to is a market for square metres of habitable area, stretches of the world's surface. Land owners (often councils in the UK) looking for investment by selling to developers. But the vendors are more often selling a dream. Something like those cheesy property videos but for four days, real time, with yachts.

At one stand, someone was selling off Czech ex-military land and giving away mini-Moet; at another, Sunderland and South Tyneside was going with a weird Alice in Wonderland theme.

Whole cities were selling themselves. "Let's Talk Belfast" demanded one branded shipping container on the edge of the site, which unfortunately can't help but prompt the response, "Let's not". The Lille region is simply "Amazing". Birmingham "Today, Tomorrow, Beyond". Whatever that means. "Harrow – Why Harrow? Why now?"

This is a model of a real building in Bursa

The Turkish municipality of Bursa went for the all-time solid favourite: "Bursa – The Place To Be". The various stands are an incongruous collision of the parochial and the worldly. As the architectural models of the future blend in with the added attractions of free stuff and alcohol, it becomes hard to work out what is real and what is speculative, what is solid and what is pure hype.

Down in "the bunker" I found people who call Basingstoke: Amazingstoke and Walthamstow: Awsomestow. If you are looking for answer for why things like Vibe in Dalston exist – the roots are somewhere here in MIPIM, the hysterical marketing of place, the ever more extreme distance between occupier and owner.

Over at the London stand, Ed Lister (Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning, GLA) boasted: "There is nothing in London that is sacrosanct as far as development is concerned". A chilling prospect.

MIPIM was also the place for earnest, if misguided attempts at changing things. In an unexpectedly surreal twist, Bobby Zamora and Rio Ferdinand popped in to launch "Legacy", an affordable housing model with Brandon Lewis Housing and Planning Minister (a private landlord, of course). They were joined by Cllr James Jamieson (Con. leader of Central Bedfordshire Council) and Renos Booth (Fund Manager).

According to the blurb, this will be "a private sector investment initiative that aims to deliver an integrated, long term approach to the building of social and key-worker housing, alongside the creation of new communities. The Legacy Foundation is a charity set up by footballers Rio Ferdinand, Mark Noble, Harry Kane, and Bobby Zamora, to provide onsite community, sporting and youth facilities. They will work alongside McLaren, which is acting as the development partner."

In other words, a sticking plaster over the gaping hole of the housing crisis. A hole that many in the industry know can only be filled by a massive government-backed house-building scheme which has council or housing association tenancy at its heart, and probably not by a few footballers. There was a rumour circulating the that the team that brought the footballers over to Cannes had been scammed and lost out on their rented apartment, meaning Harry Kane ended up sleeping on some property executive's sofa.

The London stand de-camped to the Manchester bar after dark. With the stale stench of status anxiety in the air, and the sea of Just for Men, it was unsurprising that some of the more unpleasant manifestations of misogyny appeared. Tamsie Thomson, director of the London Festival of Architecture, told me that at after some point in the night it was hard to walk through any room at MIPIM and not get groped by a leering stranger.

It wasn't just crepuscular creeps though. The disparity was everywhere. In most places at MIPIM, the only women in the room are serving drinks. Construction companies seem to really go for young hostesses, real estate agents tend toward the more matronly assistant. A friend and I overheard a chat-up line from one industry hard-on: "You're cute. What's your built environment portfolio look like?'

MIPIM is a busy time for the sex trade in Cannes. Sex workers use social media marketing campaigns and were using the hashtag #mipim2016 on Twitter to pick up business. On Friday night negotiations with customers over price were being conducted openly on La Croisette, and plenty of punters had delegates passes dangling around their necks.

A kind of moral vacuum forms when everything is for sale. All this stuff delivered and hastily assembled in the Palais becomes interchangeable, transmutable, equivalent. Canapés, land, buildings, people.

There is an air of vice at MIPIM. You can see local council executives, fists full of cigars being chatted up by developers. There was a rumour about prostitutes being bussed in from the UK but being turned away by French police because they wanted to protect the business of the local sex workers. There are certainly men walking off with prostitutes from the bars that surround the Palais, but talk to people, and you realised that there was actually an urgent need to exaggerate the sordidness. Everywhere were dull people, willing their lives to be a bit more glamorous. LinkedIn natives, trying to talk in Twitter. People actually wanted to talk up the sex work: to add a frisson. Perhaps the darkest thing happening at MIPIM was the tangible desperation of grown men. Evil isn't just banal, it's embarrassing.

MIPIM is where "place" tries to sweet-talk money. Who knows if money is listening? "A year's worth of business in four intensive days," says the MIPIM web promo. An efficient way of getting your lifetime supply of assholes.

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