A King’s Cross Walking Tour in Ten Acts
with MOULD members, Anthony Powis, Jeremy Till, and Becca Voelcker.
for London Festival of Architecture
11th June, 2022
How is architecture fundamentally linked to acts of extraction? What forms of extraction can we observe in the built environment today? In this event, we will take you on a walk around Kings Cross starting at Granary Square, using everyday objects and spaces to elaborate on a set of ideas about extractive capitalism and its consequences: climate and ecological breakdown. Extraction is both material and immaterial: knowledge, labour, and capital are extracted as much as materials and energy. Spinning out stories that touch on all these aspects of extraction, we will not only be critical about the ways in which the built environment reflects extractivist processes, but also consider possibilities for other ways to act in the face of the climate emergency.
The following are notes for the short talks we did at 10 sites of extraction.
Anthony Powis (AP):
Acts of extraction are acts of appropriation. The appropriation might be of materials, energy, food, labour, knowledge, attention… What is common to these acts of extraction is that they are often unaccountable, they operate through and maintain uneven relations of power that subjugate and suppress people and nature in service of others.
Extraction is a – if not the – core feature of late capitalism. It is an act, but also an ideology. A way of thinking and being in the world.
In Architecture after Architecture, the research project that the three of us are engaged in, along with colleagues in Braunschweig and Berlin, we understand climate breakdown to be a product not only of the material relations of extraction, but of an ideology of extractivism.
What we’re going to do today is explore extractivism through a series of buildings, sites, and stories in this area, to elaborate on different forms of extraction that are evident in the built environment, and how the city and society we are in depends on them. Or, as we say in the poster we’ve brought with us today – how the capitalist city is addicted to extraction.
We work in the building behind me. It is called the Granary Building, named because – before it became a library and offices for Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design – it was used to store grain.
We’re standing on what was the edge of London in the 19th century. This building was completed in 1850 by Lewis Cubitt who was also the architect of King’s Cross railway station. Wheat would arrive from Lincolnshire, be moved using cranes powered by horses and later by hydraulic balances, and loaded onto carts for transport into London – the store could hold 5000 tons of grain, enough for 9 million loaves of bread.
The Granary Building tells us something of the of the relationship between the city and the country. As Barnabas Calder describes very well in his recent book, cities only became possible with the development of agricultural surpluses, meaning that instead of needing a certain amount of land around you for growing food, you could extract surplus from rural hinterlands and, with transport such as rail and canal, quickly move it to cities where a greater concentration of people could live.
The city we live in today is only possible through these forms of extractive accumulation, which this is a very material example of subjugating the hinterland.
Nowadays, instead of these great edifices, the city disguises extraction, operating not so much as an easily readable system of material movements, but behind an opaque veneer.
Central Saint Martins, Google, Universal Music
Becca Voelcker (BV)
After its industrial chapter, this area was intended to be redeveloped as a financial area. But post-2008 financial crash, it was rebranded as a creative district. Its ‘industry’ now is culture. We’re standing outside the art school, Central Saint Martins. CSM’s relocation here was intentionally used as a magnet for other cultural tenants.
Two other giant buildings, and tenants, in the area are Google, and United Music. Cultural Capital and Data Capitalism are closely related, in the sense that ‘content’ is produced – be that art or music or emails or memes or Google searches – and then shared, copyrighted, reproduced, sold and bought and traded.
A musician friend of mine – coincidentally, he’s represented by Universal Music – wrote a song called ‘Slave,’ which criticises the way the record industry uses the term Master Copy to describe an original track. This master/slave language reproduces a colonial capitalist metaphor. And it’s not just a matter of language — corporations like Universal extract a vast amount of money from artists by acting as middle-men in the music industry.
Across the street: the new Google headquarters. If Google was a country, it would be richer than Australia, or Spain, or Mexico.
To adapt a well-known phrase, it might seem easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Google, so ubiquitous is its provision of email, phone, calendar, internet search engines, storage, backups, apps, and more. Yes, it’s useful. But it’s centred around the capture and commodification of our personal data. Its core purpose is to profit on data, and this is a form of surveillance capitalism. As the writer Shoshana Zuboff says, surveillance capitalism claims human experience as free raw material to commodify.
When I set up my first email account in 2007, I hesitated to type my full name into the computer. Now I wonder what Google and other big data companies don’t know about me.
I wanted to bring you here to think about this new form of extraction. It’s no longer the extraction of coal, but personal data. Although let’s not forget, coal and rare earth minerals like coltan are still extracted with extreme violence to poor people and damage to the earth, to build the hardware that supposedly ‘virtual’ technology requires. Extraction continues to be a core feature of late capitalism, whether its mining coltan, or mining and financialising data.
Coal Drops Yard
Jeremy Till (JT)
Coal Drops Yard shopping centre was designed by Thomas Heatherwick. The building is a refurbishment of historic coal drop buildings. It combines a moment of spectacle with the banal and inoffensive. And it hides its own production and materiality.
Built in 1850, the historic coal drop buildings were originally used as a coal distribution and storage facility. A thousand tons of coal were brought here on trains each day. It later became warehousing, a nightclub and offices. From the 1980s, illegal raves and a major fire took their toll on the structures.
As with all buildings, this one is a site of extraction, and in particular of carbon. In 2018, the building and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 11% of which resulted from manufacturing building materials and products such as steel, cement and glass. Cement production alone contributes to 5.5% of the world’s CO2 production.
In one way, this building is an exemplary antidote to this excessive extraction and use of materials, since it is a refurbishment that uses existing built material, and many people argue that we need to shift architecture from simply being about the production of the new and into a concentration on retrofit and refurbishment, because that will reduce the carbon load.
But retrofit values present a challenge to architectural values, in that architects generally define their identity through the production and display of the new, and retrofit does not provide this opportunity. This tension is played out here at Coal Drops Yard. It’s clear that retrofit alone was not enough, and the developers (and designers) needed an architectural spectacle to attract consumers. So we get this excessive architectural display of the roof, which is called the Kissing Roof for the way the two roofs touch in the middle.
That roof looks light, but the material support it requires to present that spectacular appearance is far from light, and so environmentally lets down all the good work done in retrofitting underneath. . Some 354 mini piles, 450mm in diameter, were driven to depths up to 25m beneath the two buildings. Additionally 1,000m of underpinning was installed across both Victorian buildings. Including both the internal steelwork and the kissing roof, the steel contractor Severfield installed 1,350 tonnes of steel on the project, which amounts to 2700 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is quite clearly excessive, and so extractivist, form.
These are the King’s Cross gasholders. They describe an explicit relation between extraction and the climate emergency because these monumental Victorian structures represent the city’s reliance on fossil fuels, a form of extracted energy.
They were actually relocated from over there across the canal, when the HS1 railway line was built.
Coal – coal gas – lit the street lights of Victorian London.
So, again, the city as we know it was only possible because of the ability first to concentrate energy in this small unit of coal gas, and second to store and transport it.
If these gasholders were filled with natural gas – a much purer form of fossil energy than coal gas, they would be worth tens of thousands of pounds. Just this space could store tens of thousands of pounds. But when the developers of this estate came to redevelop it, they found something even more valuable to store inside… London flats.
The gasholders’ volume now holds assets worth over £200 million.
Less than 25% of London property exchanges are conducted between people domiciled here. Buying property has become a way for people to offshore international wealth. This dominance of the housing market makes home ownership prohibitively difficult for Londoners, particularly women and people of colour whose incomes are lower on average.
Architecture as the financialisaton of space through property has shifted the city from a place of production to a store of capital – this is not housing we’re looking at but banking.
If it was revolutionary to be able to squeeze such energy into this unit of coal and gas, it was even more revolutionary for the city to be able to squeeze such capital into such a small amount of space.
King’s Cross/ Argent Property Developer
As Kath Shonfield has written, public space is the lived experience of democracy.
What happens when public space is privatised? Where can people practice democracy and protest? During the Occupy protests, protesters had nowhere to occupy, expelled from the privatised spaces of the city. Trafalgar Square is one of the few public spaces remaining in London, one of the few available sites of protest.
London and other cities have seen a huge rise in POPS – privately owned public spaces – which are not subject to ordinary local authority by-laws but are governed by restrictions drawn by the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies. The people in red hats here are employees of one such company.
I’ve got a couple of stories about King’s Cross as a POPS. When staff at Central Saint Martins gathered to strike here a few years ago, these security personnel – very gently, but firmly, unremittingly – pushed the strikers out of the Granary Sqaure and across the road to the pavement which was where public space began. In other words, the strikers were evicted from the premises, premises that look public but in fact are far from public, or democratic.
The second story concerning POPS is somewhat more optimistic. Some years ago, on the first hot day of sunshine, the fountains in Granary Square were switched on and many, many families gathered to play there. The space was like a free beach. When I saw all the children playing, I thought ‘oh no, these children and families are going to be asked to leave’ because privately owned spaces are so often hostile to poor people and people who use space without spending money there. But to my happy surprise, deckchairs were provided instead.
On a less positive note, we had an issue with facial recognition technology being used here a few years ago by Argent and its security contractor. When its use was challenged, Argent initially claimed that facial recognition was used to “ensure public safety” and was one of “a number of detection and tracking methods”. Two days later they backed down and withdrew it, though the fate of the database they had built up is less clear, as is the question of whether the London Metropolitan Police had access to this database.
Camley Street Natural Park
This site was once a coal drop for King’s Cross. It was overgrown and had become a habitat for animals and insects and wild plants. London Wildlife Trust ran a campaign to save the site from development and create a nature reserve. The reserve opened in 1985, and last year it was refurbished. Today it contains reed-beds, ponds, a wildflower meadow, and wetlands, as well as an education centre and cafe.
We wanted to bring you here because the nature reserve is an interesting example of how cities can cultivate nature amidst other construction projects, or rather, cities construct nature as another project. This isn’t a criticism. If we map aspects of capitalism in the urban space, as we’re trying today in this walk, then nature reserves are interesting sites to visit. Reserves are at once ‘wild’ and contained, helpful for more-than-human species, and helpful for very human interests such as leisure, gentrification, and increasing property prices.
The urban nature reserve is an example of how capitalism uses nature, both as a tap to extract recreational enjoyment or inflated land values, and a sink to absorb waste – the reed-beds, for example, help remove pollution from the canal, and the trees help reduce heat and increase air quality. Again, these are very valuable functions — but it’s important to overcome a false separation of nature and culture, wild and human, that so often obscures conversations about the economy and the environment.
The more a city becomes urbanised, the more pressure on these spaces to perform ecological and social functions. Nature reserves like this one are having to perform a big role now, performing the natural world, when the natural world is being damaged.
This reserve is lovely, but it’s also a mask and distraction from a much bigger issue of habitat loss. Putting a fence around a bit of so-called Nature allows us to imagine that what’s outside of that fence is not connected with nature or natural resources. In fact, everything we do requires nature, connects us with nature, depends on its resources, be they water or fossil fuels. But so much of the city erases this dependency which should be a relation of solidarity.
Under the pavement, a river
The river Fleet runs underneath us, along Pancras Way, from Old St Pancras Churchyard. But you wouldn’t know it today, as the road is paved over it. The burial of rivers is indicative of extractive ideology. Expulsion is part and parcel of this ideology, and relates to what Becca was saying about the artificial separation of nature from the rest of the city. Modernity’s love of urbanism means that elements such as rivers are not counted as part of the city, and are therefore excluded.
As we walked past Camley Street Nature Reserve, you might have noticed some planters on the side of the road. These are actually SuDS, or Sustainable drainage systems, that help address flooding risks by managing surface water runoff in a way that mimics natural processes, slowing down the flow. As climate change means that we experience rainfall in far shorter, more concentrated periods of time, managing runoff and preventing flooding is very important. Paving over rivers with tarmac exacerbates the risk of flooding, whereas SuDS help soak and slow the flow.
Colonial history at 17-24 Cranleigh St. Somers Town
London doesn’t just rely on its immediate hinterlands, but on global territories, its colonies. Colonialism is a form of extraction, an appropriation of labour, natural resources, identity, culture, the right to self-determination. Colonialism isn’t just a form of extraction, it’s the original method by which Britain secured its global power. The legacy of colonialism can be traced in houses such as this one, a block of flats on Cranleigh Street in Somers Town.
The writer and activist George Padmore lived in this building. Padmore moved to London from Trinidad, via the United States and the USSR. Padmore used education, activism and writing to expose colonial capitalism and its racist violence. He created networks between workers in Britain (workers here in Somers Town, for example) and labourers in African countries including Ghana. This was a form of consciousness-raising to create solidarity.
Padmore lived here between 1941 and 1957. His home became a meeting place for leftist thinkers, Pan-Africanists, and anti-colonial activists. The historian C.L.R James, also from Trinidad and based in London, was a close friend.
Padmore was instrumental in the formation of Ghana – formerly the Gold Coast – as the first post-colonial, self-governed African state, with Kwame Nkrumah as its first president. Ten years before this, Nkrumah arrived in London to study law and Padmore met him at the station and offered him a place to stay here. This was the start of a long friendship.
Padmore’s legacy is in making 400 years of colonialism visible, challenging it, and helping create self-governed states in its place.
On the next stop on our walk, I’ll pick up on this area’s legacy of anti-racism and worker solidarity.
71 Tonbridge St and Holy Cross Church
King’s Cross Women’s Centre was founded here on Tonbridge Street in 1975. The centre occupied an official squat, leased at a token rent. King’s Cross was London’s Red-Light District. In the 1980s, the link between widespread poverty and prostitution was such that sex workers became known as Thatcher’s Girls. Why here? King’s Cross was where hundreds of women from northern Britain arrived by train, migrating to the city to earn money.
Every year hundreds of women came to the Centre for help, or to volunteer, or both. The Centre became a sanctuary and place of solidarity, at a time when the police routinely arrested women sex workers (and not their male clients). A disproportionate number of the sex workers arrested were people of colour. The English Collective of Prostitutes occupied Holy Cross Church, at the end of the street, for 12 days in 1982 to protest police brutality and racism.
The Centre also organised conferences, publications, and focus-groups to address intersectional forms of oppression that women faced, including racism, disability discrimination, domestic violence and rape, and poverty.
In 1995 the street was redeveloped, and, despite months of local protest and legal action, the Centre was evicted. The Centre is now called Crossroads and continues its work from premises in Kentish Town.
I wanted to bring you here because if we talk about extractive capitalism, we must talk about gender and race, and how women and people of colour are disproportionately exploited by a system that privileges white, able-bodied men. If we look at ‘industry’ in King’s Cross, we can’t just look at the industrial mining history in Coal Drops Yard, or at big data at Google. We must look at the very human stories of slavery and sex work. These are hidden ‘industries’ serving the white supremacist patriarchal form of capitalism upon which London is built and continues to profit.
The British Library is open to everyone, for free, and as such represents a space of shared knowledge and learning. I have spent many a happy hour here amongst people reading football league tables, books by Michel Foucault, and much else.
But as Foucault famously said, knowledge is power. What kinds of knowledge and therefore power, are housed in this library and archive? Approaching this question brings us to colonial history.
The library centres around the collection of George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820, and contains books printed mainly in Britain, Europe and North America from the mid-15th to the early 19th centuries. The core of this library, then, is a Eurocentric corpus of knowledge tied to colonial and modernist projects of power, control, and extractivism. The library thus spatialises a particular form of knowledge.
Where are other ways of knowing, being and doing, other epistemologies? It is precisely these other kinds of knowledge that might help us face the climate emergency. We cannot ‘fix’ the emergency using the same tools and ways of thinking that created it – the tools and thinking of the modern, extractivist, project. The systemic changes that the emergency demands extend to the knowledges we use to address it.
I want to read you a short quote from a book by the Portuguese writer Boaventura de Sousa Santos, called The End of the Cognitive Empire, which relates to this idea of knowledge, power, and extractivism:
‘modern social sciences rely on methodologies that extract information from research objects in very much the same way as mining industries extract minerals and oil from nature. The epistemologies of the South, on the contrary, by relying on knowing-with rather than knowing-about, that is, by relying on the cocreation of knowledge among cognitive subjects, must offer some guidelines as to the methodologies that can carry out such tasks successfully.
The colonialist nature of the methodologies developed by the abyssal modern sciences resides in the fact that they are all designed according to the logic of extractivism.‘The End of the Cognitive Empire
What our research project, Architecture after Architecture, is interested in proposing is an alternative, post-extractive future where knowledge is cocreated and where ‘growth’ or ‘progress’ aren’t tied to economic measurements of GDP, but to social and ecological flourishing.
The Story Garden
We hope we’ve offered some new ways of looking at buildings and spaces around you in the city today. We’re ending here in The Story Garden, which we invite you to explore as a potential post-extractive space where different kinds of knowledge are shared in gardening workshops and other kinds of activities designed for local people, old and young. If you’d like to read more about some of the ideas we’ve shared today, please take a look at our pamphlets or listen to their audio versions, on CARE, CLIMATE, EXTRACTION, and FUTURES.