The London Society aims to provide a platform for the debate on how London ought to develop, and to go with our theme of ‘change’ in 2021, we will have a strand of articles on the blog called “Change: Opinions” – polemical pieces that make a case for a radically changing some aspect of the status quo or of received wisdom.
Jason Sayer is Network Coordinator at the London School of Architecture. He has previously served as Assistant Editor at the Architect’s Newspaper (AN) in New York and has featured in various publications including, The Guardian, Wallpaper*, AN, Metropolis, CityLab, and the Architects’ Journal. Jason highlights the fact that shifts in public opinion have had physical ramifications for cities across the world — and London too must be responsive to its citizens.
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In March 2015, black South African student, Chumani Maxwele, hurled human excrement at a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town's Rondebosch campus. Rhodes, once a mining mogul and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890-96, was a racist who believed that Anglo-Saxons were a superior race. To black South Africans he was a symbol of white, British Imperialism and his statue memorialised, perhaps even celebrated just that. His oversized, domineering figurine literally looked down upon the students below. A month later, after protests, the Rhodes statue was removed — but the #RhodesMustFall movement was far from over.
It is indicative of the globalised, uber-connected, digital world we now live in that the movement in question rapidly spread and has now compelled cities in America and Europe to take down statues of people whose actions brought great suffering to whole populations. Indeed, calls to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes can be traced back to 1950, however, lacking the means to mass communicate, the messages from those protesting struggled to gain momentum.
#RhodesMustFall and the subsequent statues that have fallen in its wake represent a social awakening in the West as a population acknowledges a troubled past. This new public consciousness is not so far from the infamous Mitchell and Webb sketch — ‘are we the baddies?’ — whereby one soldier notices the skull on his helmet and realises that perhaps that they might represent evil. Like Cape Town, London and indeed many other cities formerly involved with the slave trade, are at crossroads, particularly when it comes to representing the views of its populace and even more so when those views pertain to race.
The great paradox of successful cities is that the more they are seen to improve outcomes, the more people will come, from all demographics. Ethnic minorities who, due to decades of systemic racism and financial marginalisation, often gravitate towards cities to pursue a better quality of life, socially and economically. The city must create space for them, too.
For this to be the case though, cities need to respond to forces of change and not just those within its geographical limits, but those which are brewing beyond their borders — vis a vis: Cape Town, the Black Lives Matter movement in cities across the US, and so on. London is capable of this. The National Gallery, a free-to-enter museum, was created in 1824, in part, as a response to what the French did with the Louvre 30 years prior, but chiefly a move to reflect the cultural values of its inhabitants.
More recently, two years after #RhodesMustFall first surfaced on Twitter and just after the Charlottesville protest and terror attack, the American city of Baltimore quietly took down its Confederate statues in the middle of the night. London has finally followed suit …sort of: the ongoing Mayoral Review of London's statues symbolising a tentative step in the right direction.
The removal of slave-owner Robert Milligan’s statue at West India Quay in London’s Docklands, indicates there is a willingness to take action in our capital. Leaders aren’t stopping there, though — and rightfully so. Every statue and monument in London with ties to slavery is under scrutiny. This opens the door for analysis of others, even such as the likes of Winston Churchill, a man who led Britain to victory in World War Two but also whose wartime policies meant up to 3 million Bengalis died of hunger.
Statues, however, are just one method of representation. Authors such as Anna Minton and Samuel Stein are raising further questions regarding who the city is for. Their answer so far is that the city, and London in particular, is just a playground and safety deposit box for the rich, with the poor being increasingly priced out. If that is the case, if cities are purely a storehouse for capital, then signs, symbology and artifacts don’t matter. However, if we want London to be about more than that, then we need something more proactive than a two-year long, meandering Mayoral review.
Beyond addressing the symptoms of change, we must address the forces behind them. The change in opinion of how a city should physically represent its inhabitants and the force of opinion will only continue to grow; it’s up to our leaders to ensure the city moves in the same direction as these forces, not against it them. A litmus test for this aptitude is on the horizon: on the 26th of January this year, four people charged with criminal damage for the removal of an Edward Colston statue appeared in court. The four were granted bail and a trial is scheduled to begin on 13 December. In a census of 10,000 people conducted by BristolLive, more than half did not want to see them prosecuted. One wonders how London, which is more left-leaning than Bristol, would respond. The result of that trial will surely shine a light on the direction Bristol and indeed London are headed.
Image: #RMF Rhodes statue removal (c) Desmond Bowles/ Flickr