I read something once about property developers and how they can privatise the public realm with architecture. It was so insightful and profound that, of course, I immediately forgot who wrote it, where I’d seen it, and six of its nine points. But the rest came flooding back to me when I went to Battersea Power Station and its surrounds for the first time since the tube opened there.
First, give the impression of heavy surveillance; cameras and security guards, sure, but also panopticon street layouts, an absence of cut-throughs, alleys or alternative routes. Anyone who doesn’t belong will know immediately that their unbelonging has been noted. Not having any money is, of course, the surest way to not belong.
Next, introduce a sense of precariousness by making pavements and walkways slightly too narrow. Generate alienation with materials that are slide-y or shimmery or somehow forbidding – a lot of marble, raked angles, infinity-fountain water features. Convey, if you can, that cars are more important than people – perhaps with elaborate turning circles, but no zebra crossings.
I had an existing beef with the Battersea development because of its tube station. This will sound like a niche complaint that only a Londoner would be interested in, but stay with it and you’ll find yourself also burdened with violent resentments, wherever you live.
Battersea Power Station tube, along with Nine Elms, is in zone one. Fine. Someone wants to sell a bunch of characterless new builds off-plan to the investment market, of course they have to be in zone one. Except that this completely throws out the geography of south London. The tube map, possibly the finest work of explicatory graphic design the world has ever seen, has been doctored to make much more central places – Kennington, Stockwell – look further out, because they have to be: see, they’re in zone two or on its borders.
So all the signs were there that the development would look like a plastic playground, completely disconnected from the reality of the city, defended against that reality by the strategic stimulation of deep feelings of unease toward any not-rich person who might stumble through it. A dormitory new town for the international super-rich, Mr Z called it. “If I had to live here, I would go full Maoist.”
I was just about to go in for more detail, as I hadn’t been aware he was even partially Maoist, but we were distracted by a burly, milk-fed jogger coming from behind who whistled for him to get out of the way. “Excuse me?” said Mr Z, and the guy swooshed past, grunting, “Thanks.” “No!” Mr Z said. “It wasn’t that kind of ‘Excuse me.’ It was the Oscar Wilde kind, it was the arch, questioning ‘excuse me’ of outrage. As in: ‘Excuse me, could you possibly have just been so rude or did I dream it?’”
The weird thing was, the jogger, even though he was in too much of a blinding hurry to observe any normal human courtesy, wasn’t going that fast. It was power-walking speed. The road stretched out ahead for yards and yards, all the better to watch you on, proles, so we were following him for ages, heckling. “The reason you shouldn’t whistle at humans,” I put in, “is that we’re not dogs.” “I think you might be the rudest man I’ve ever met,” Mr Z crescendoed.
He took no notice. A horrible thought occurred to me. “Do you think he’s wearing headphones and he can’t even hear us?” “Oh God, no. That was my best indignation.” “I didn’t see anything in his ears.” “He probably has the headphones of a high net-worth individual, which are invisible to the naked eye.” “Would it be fun to … chase him?” Turns out I have buried trauma from the jogger who swore at my daughter when she was five. Her crime? Walking at the speed of a five-year-old. Maybe it was the same guy.
“I would,” said Mr Z. “But the pavements look pretty slide-y.”
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist