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I’ve written about the curious places built in Britain since the 1980s in my book, Iconicon.

One of the most interesting aspects of researching it was seeing these landscapes reflected in the cultural output of our era, be it the empty plazas of Docklands in Bugs (a mid-nineties BBC techno-thriller series), the steel and glass landscape of Milton Keynes standing in for Metropolis in Superman IV, or adverts for erectile dysfunction treatments featuring the Gherkin. Perhaps most fascinating of all have been the ways in which novelists have tackled these strange new landscapes.

Take London’s Docklands (pictured), for example. There are no obvious equivalents to those US novels that so encapsulated life in the glass towers of Wall Street and LA, such as American Psycho, Bright Lights, Big City or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Instead we have Penelope Lively’s 1991 psychogeographic novel City of the Mind. It follows Matthew Halland, an architect working on Docklands, who you might have thought would have been excited by the possibilities presented by this vast project, but instead he seemed weighed down by the cares of history. All around he saw decay amid the resurrection as his team attempted to create a corner of a new city for a new century. For Lively, writing at the moment the first phase of Canary Wharf was due to open, the construction of Docklands was a neat way of linking London’s long past to its tall present.

The sort of people who might work at Docklands were explored to dark effect in J. G. Ballard’s 2003 novel Millennium People, which dissects a particular kind of paranoid, luxury gated community. This is not the brutalist high rise he explored a quarter of a century before. Instead, Chelsea Marina is a shiny new riverside development of the kind so popular as cities began to clean up their act (and waterways) in the late 1990s. The aesthetic may have changed since the mid-seventies, but the violence lurking beneath the civilised veneer is exposed every bit as vividly.

‘... how well do these old and new communities integrate? Is the vibrancy merely the vibration of submerged feelings of entitlement and resentment?’

John Grindrod

Thinking of the postmodern landscapes we’ve constructed kept bringing me back to China Miéville’s 2009 sci-fi detective novel The City & the City. Here two culturally distinct cities – Besźel and Ul Qoma – exist entwined in the same geographical location. Residents of the two cities must learn to unsee the other, the cars, pedestrians, street furniture and buildings of a culture often separated only by the width of a street, the thickness of a wall. Variations on The City & the City haunt the Britain we have built since 1980 – beyond the sectarian parallels of Belfast or Glasgow to places like London’s Docklands or Cardiff Bay, enclaves for the rich built beside and entwined into old working-class settlements. Our versions of Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in stealthier ways too: in the gated estates hidden from main roads behind older housing, or in the gentrified suburbs, where an invasion of house pimpers has extended homes upwards and outwards, and sometimes downwards too. Council estates have been demolished and smaller, more expensive private flats have risen in their place. We train ourselves to unsee what was lost. The resulting disruption is described by estate agents as creating a vibrant urban mix, but how well do these old and new communities integrate? Is the vibrancy merely the vibration of submerged feelings of entitlement and resentment? Our City & the City is still evolving, from the planned and zoned settlements favoured by the modernists to the piecemeal fragments, spectaculars and edge cities built since 1980. And in its icons, of course.

The icons are not, for me, always the big shiny objects the developers might want us to be distracted by. Instead, they are the buildings that most typify the times we’ve been living through: business parks, out of town shopping centres, and, of course, the Barratt or Wimpey home. In David Lodge’s Nice Work from 1988, Marjorie Wilcox is besotted with the en-suite in her new house, so much so that her husband reflects that if a perfume called En-Suite was launched she would undoubtedly wear it. In Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Ruth lives in a brand-new house in a suburb called Eden Grove, which the soon to be she-devil announces is initially clean of resonance. In an equally fantastical tale of haunted suburban women, Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black follows a medium, Alison, pursued by spirit guides into a new house on a new estate. Weldon’s and Mantel’s novels are casually supernatural, showing how these clean new domestic settings are soon polluted by their owners’ ghosts and dark magic. Nothing remains new for long.

Further on the modern domestic front, for a panoramic view of the futuristic new town of Milton Keynes, look no further than Tim Lott’s 2002 novel Rumours of a Hurricane, although ghosts of the older settlements here can be found in Robert Harris’s 1995 spy thriller Enigma, set at Bletchley Park during the war. The two books offer vastly differing glimpses of the same area separated by half a century and make for a rather fascinating double header. While older, poorer housing estates haunt the works of Zadie Smith and James Kelman, it is perhaps John Lanchester’s 2012 novel Capital that captures the more recent hollowing out of cities by gentrifiers and knockers-through, who see their homes as property and investments rather than anything more sentimental or necessary. In Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion (2018) we see the arrival of two of the big architectural icons of our day, the tech campus, or business park, and the new-build estate of private homes that threatens to take the place of an old council estate. Meanwhile in Will Wiles’s 2014 novel The Way Inn, he takes the shiny, cold, immaculate surfaces of a chain hotel as a horror setting, a post-Ballardian nightmare. These novels, like so many that respond to our newly built environment, are satires, the new landscapes we are building used as metaphors for the sorts of lives we are told to aspire to. Which begs the questions: what sort of places will we see being built in our near future, and what aspects of them will inspire the next generation of storytellers?

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John Grindrod
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A captivating exploration of Britain’s most iconic contemporary buildings, from the Barratt home to the Millennium Dome.