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Environment / Climate change

In London, cranes can be as significant as what they build – or destroy

London can easily give the intoxicating impression that its landscape is constantly changing. And there is one material symbol of this change that no one can miss when walking along the Thames: the capital’s infamous construction cranes.

We live in a time when building innovation focuses on showing off how to reach extreme heights and how can some materials be ‘resilient’ to that height: an era in which skyscrapers are mass-produced. The geographer Andrew Harris has coined the term ‘volumetric urbanisms’ to describe how classic urban geography processes, such as urban sprawl, displacement, enclaves, and so on, can correlate with vertical urbanisms.

What can be seen in Greater London is the switch from one type of verticality to another. Vertical mass housing à la Corbusier is neglected and is literally crumbling down; meanwhile, mega ‘regeneration’ housing projects – realising young execs’ dreams of private gyms, concierges and mahogany – are popping up everywhere. This is where the cranes gain a whole new meaning.

Vertical politics and the neoliberal construction site

The thing to remember about cranes is that they do not operate for just any type of infrastructure projects, but for only the ones that could, in any medium-sized city, be qualified as ‘colossal’. The consultancy Deloitte, in its biannual London Crane Survey, records crane locations as a proxy for the city’s economic growth, in several sectors: London’s forest of cranes grows as exponentially as the dividend pay-outs transnational company shareholders accumulate as they dispossess the lower classes of their homes.


In September 2006, a tower crane collapsed in a Battersea housing development site, killing its driver and a passer-by. In the construction sector, this drove debates over the dangerousness of these machines.

But Battersea’s cranes have also attained a symbolic meaning, linked to the start of the Battersea Power Station mega housing project: a 2013 Evening Standard report, for instance, was titled “Power to the people: a last lingering look at Battersea before the cranes move in”. Paradoxically enough, tower cranes that were used in the former power station will be restored and reconstructed as a ‘heritage feature’ when the estate opens

The way cranes are operated in the setting of large urban projects is also embedded in neoliberal logic on the organisational side. Carillion is a UK construction firm specialised in crane-built infrastructure, that over the last few years relied more and more on very large public-private partnerships. While its directors were increasing their bonuses, thousands of jobs were jeopardised, and when the company went into liquidation in January 2017, several projects were temporarily deserted.

The image that most media captured from this bitter event was of the massive Carillion signs being removed from cranes. This made the situation vastly  more dramatic: with this symbol, the whole process of outsourcing was called into question.

How to gaze at cranes

The Colourblock Cranes project. Image: Diamond Geezer/Flickr/creative commons.

There are several ways of looking at the image above. ‘Colourblock Cranes’ was commissioned by the Upper Riverside development project – one of the seven ‘new neighbourhoods’ in the Greenwich area, a former industrial zone.

Morag Myerscough, the artist responsible for Colourblock Cranes, has said of the project:

“When I travel I collect images of temporary scaffold-clad structures, and for many years I have been fascinated by cranes. So to be asked to colour a group of cranes came at the perfect time. Cranes are so skeletal, standing elegantly, moving and sometimes even dancing around in the sky.”

The dance of cranes in the London skyline is almost mystical, hypnotic; it is a pitfall for those who are passionate about cities and progress. Gentrifiers tend to seek moral redemption in their acts: the ruling classes think they are bringing about ‘positive social mixity’ in the places to which they are moving. They are more likely to move to places that have adopted a ‘sustainable’ mode of living (or at least those which are advertised as such), or where ‘creativity’ plays a role: media and arts might seem, prima facie, less ‘violent’ than the financial sector.

My guess is that the latter is the reason why Colourblock Cranes was commissioned in Greenwich; cranes are seen a reassuring entity in that context. They are a flagship feature of “industrial luxury” discourses – I have genuinely seen this expression on an advert for a construction site in North London – and merely set the scene for more fetishisation of working class material.

All in all, this is another, relatively hidden, example of artwashing.

“I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.”

Solange, on her song ‘Cranes in the Sky’

At a time where people are homeless and homes are people-less, Solange provides a convincing vision of the types of effect that cranes can trigger on oppressed communities. Anxiety, dispossession, ostracisation – the neoliberal city makes these emerge out of power structures, objects, and landscapes.

The (un)reachable high-rise. Image: Freaktography/Flickr/creative commons.

Urban explorers (or ‘place hackers’) such as Bradley Garrett play with legal boundaries and crane-like unachieved space because they feel the need to re-appropriate them, or the feeling of height, or the view. (None of these things are free nowadays.) Cranes can indeed be climbed, like universities can be occupied, like strikes can actually work. It is a message of hope: as urban citizens, we should be aware that landscapes should not be considered as static.

Whilst cranes bring apparent motion to the skies over the course of the day, human bodies and spirits add noticeable momentum to the landscape. Entire regeneration projects can effectively be stopped, as it happened a few months ago in the borough of Haringey, where resident associations single-handedly put an end to the privatisation of public housing and services in their neighbourhood. But only if we are involved enough – if community potential is translated into exploration, collaboration, and political effort.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.