How can the genealogy of early Modern fortified cities frame questions concerning sovereignty, security and identity in London's contemporary financial districts?
MA Architecture History & Theory Thesis.
Royal College of Art
Supervisor: Francesca Dell'Aglio
Introduction; the threat of war
Wealth production is the prioritised reigning driver of contemporary society as we know it. The historical formation of districts to facilitate finance has created highly secure and iconised nuclei of power within our cities. This contemporary condition is part of a recent history of the neoliberal dogma that has increasingly grown to govern over the last forty years; the principles of which include: privatisation, deregulation, free-market capitalism, minimal government intervention in businesses and reduced public spending on social services. These circumstances are represented archetypally in the financial districts of London of which this text will focus on: the ‘Eastern Cluster’ of the City of London and its younger satellite district: The Canary Wharf Development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
The prolific and recognisable urban typologies of these financial districts; condensed clusters of business-centric towers, has led me to consider the political devices at play in their construction. By using an anachronistic method, this text explores a critical comparison with the theoretical and physical developments of fortified cities of the 16th and 17th Centuries in Europe. With reference to Martha Pollak’s catalogue of the treatises in Military Architecture: Cartography and the representation of the early modern city: A Checklist of Treatises on Fortification in the Newberry Library, this text cross references the key tenets of early Modern fortress urbanism with the contemporary sites of investigation in London. The relevant principles include: the threats of war, strategic urban boundaries and the conception of the ideal city.
As a referential backdrop, this text draws on the concept of biopower in regard to the building of cities being shaped by forces of power. A term coined by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality, biopower describes the ‘numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of entire populations’. Foucault’s definition of biopower chimes with an anachronistic approach due to his acknowledgment of a shift in the 17th Century where the sovereign model of ‘power over life’ evolved into a power structure of two interconnected strands: One focussing on the body serving as the basis for biological processes. The second centred on the extortion of bodies as productive machines and their integration into value economic efficiency. This text wants to highlight that these structures are still prevalent in contemporaneity.
It is important to outline the difference in conception between the two financial districts in question. The City of London’s status as a financial district, while established in the 1600s with the arrival of the Bank of England, grew over a much longer time frame.
None the less, the global centre of finance as we know it today has reached its current state largely due to the acceleration of banking in the 1980s instigated by Margaret Thatcher’s free-market policies supporting the deregulation of the banks and new fibre-optic technology. This seismic shift, otherwise known as the financial ‘Big Bang’ saw digitalised trading propel the UK’s financial sector into the global market. This text positions the last fourty years as the main historical-political timeframe that defines the contemporary financial districts as we know them today.
Canary Wharf on the other hand, the second financial centre of Britain, home to the market-led development of glazed skyscrapers, is the City of London’s 1990s East-End equivalent. Unlike its original counterpart, Canary Wharf grew from a different tradition - it was born out of the abandoned ground and severe unemployment created by the West India dockland’s industrial downfall.
In 1980, while the City of London boomed, the docks at the East End of London came to a close. The place which had once employed and housed hundreds of thousands of dockworkers began to see rocketing unemployment levels due to the industrial shift towards container shipping requiring deeper ports. The local economy had collapsed,
Michel Foucault, Trans. Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality Volume I, (1978, New York), p.140
the land was left dilapidated and over 200,000 people had vacated the borough. While the land had been strategically appropriate for shipping, situated in the River Thames’ peninsula and laced with internal ports; without a use, the area had become undesirable. The area was seen to require a complete overhaul and the government promoted policies for corporate development in the isolated area. As a response to local depravation the government sought private solutions as opposed to a social initiative, and started the Canary Wharf Group project that invested in the financial district on the Isle of Dogs.
I think the value of drawing parallels and contextualising current powerful phenomena with history allows for a critical reading that could otherwise remain intentionally ungraspable. This is similar to Manfredo Tafuri’s critical historical framing method of contemporary situations, known as operative history.
This text aims to reveal the omnipresent yet indistinguishable power structures in the contemporary urban condition of London’s financial districts, that strike semblance with the historical formations of fortified cities. The act of positioning these three narratives of history - early modern fortified cities, the City of London’s Eastern Cluster and Canary Wharf - together in the space of a page aims to frame a history, as Tafuri describes, as “the continual exposure to the unexpected.’ This text does not seek causes, but presents ‘concatenations’, a series of connections that are not resolved conclusions. Furthermore, the purpose of drawing on two competing financial sites within London, that are part of a broader global financial market, aims to highlight a commonality of power structures implemented regardless of place. Nonetheless, I hope that a correlation of tangible similarities across place and time is helpful to form a lens in which to question the formation of urban conditions and their impact on society.
When considering the political context of the development of fortified cities, it is important to acknowledge the pervasive nature of wars in the 16th and 17th Century across Europe and how it became a pre-occupation of European society at large. Dominions within Europe and growing threats from the Ottoman empire were continually fighting to define and enlarge territories at each other’s expense. As Mary Pollak outlines, war was central to the establishment of absolute monarchy effecting the structure of government which in turn formed the early modern European City. A relevant shift away from the practices of war in the middle ages was that battles and sieges were carried out in towns as opposed to open-fields. Thus, war became engaged with actively defending economically and politically important territory that established sovereignty as opposed to being a remote demonstration of strength. The objects of sieges were the municipalities whose citizens dominated the surrounding territory or important trade routes. Fortification became vital for the claim to a nation.
Through a lens of operative history, the dominance of wealth being a targeting factor of warfare has led me to the comparison that London’s financial districts encompass fortified cities meanwhile the market economy can be understood as an equivalent to the sovereign. However, Stephen Metcalf’s description has shifted that perspective slightly. Metcalf outlines the invention of neoliberalism as being beyond just pro-market policy and beyond the prioritisation of finance-capitalism as being our main economic driver. Rather, he suggests, it is an ideology that relies on the premise that competition is the only legitimate organising principle of humanity. By accepting this assumption and establishing that the financial districts are the nuclei of the operations of the ‘universal market’ (or our society), the object of defence becomes the premise of competition; and the immaterial concept of competition in turn becomes the sovereign.
Jack Brown, After thirty years of Canary Wharf, how has it changed the geography of East London?, The City Metric, < (accessed 12.04.19)
Malcolm Oakley, ‘London Docklands, Canary Wharf History’, East London History, < (accessed 12.04.19)
Manfredo Tafuri interviewed by Richard Ingersoll, Trans Richard Ingersoll, ‘There is no Criticism, only History’, Design Book Review, (no. 9, 1986), p.p 8–11 < . (accessed 12.04.19)
Martha Pollak, Military Architecture Cartography and the Representation of the Early Modern City: A Checklist of Treatises on Fortification in the Newberry Library, (Chicago, 1991), p.xii
Stephen Metcalf, ‘Neoliberalism: The idea that changed the world, The Guardian, < (accessed on 12.04.19)
Introduction; The Threat of War
Chapter 1: Tactical Urban Boundaries
Chapter 2: ‘Ideal’ Cities