Invisibility as exclusivity: London’s un-signalled premium spaces

16 Aug 2017

London has long been associated with conspicuous luxury and exclusivity. From the Monopoly board’s hierarchy of affluence (somewhat out of date nowadays) to high-end furniture collections named after the poshest of London neighbourhoods, the UK capital’s history at the centre of empire, trade and finance has inevitably made it synonymous with prestigious spaces and prohibitive prices. But this age-old association is being reframed of late, making the coding of exclusivity in the city both more complex and easier to miss. Where exclusive spaces in London have typically been marked – as we’d expect – by actual signs, increasingly they are defined precisely by a lack of signalling and a shortage of information.

Space invaders
Of course, London, like any city, is famous for its open, public spaces – modern day remnants of the medieval commons where citizens had shared access for grazing their livestock. Several still survive as some of London’s biggest green spaces. But for the most part, where manor houses and farms once stood, office blocks and coffee shops now crowd. If you work in London you’ll most likely pass through several modern ‘commons’ on your morning commute without a thought.

However, increasingly these ‘public’ spaces are just as likely to be privately-owned – so-called pseudo-public spaces that look and feel ‘open’ but are under the ownership and control of private corporations. These parks, thoroughfares and large squares are subject to any restrictions the landowners deem appropriate. This makes for a fragile balancing act between the global city’s need for easy, open access – for businesses, for tourists and for traffic management – and, on the other hand, the profit motives of the landowners, which can sometimes bring a subtler form of exclusivism.

Take the protests over encroachment upon that historically public space, the bank of the river Thames. The popular riverside walk is a perfect example of public access and commercial use working in harmony – from boats ferrying people to the theatre in the 16th Century to chain restaurants serving up pre-show dinners on the South Bank today. But it now poses more than a few hindrances to accessibility, such as one ‘public’ terrace which is only accessible through the foyer of a privately-owned building, complete with security guards. Critics’ concerns came to a head in the debate over the (now seemingly ill-fated) Garden Bridge project – a £200 million public-private partnership that, depending on who you talk to – would provide a tranquil haven pushing back at the irresistible spread of the concrete jungle, or a mini police state where politics and free expression would be silenced.

In such high profile cases, the perceived creep of private ownership becomes a premise for purposefully visible acts of ‘trespass’ on what would otherwise be seen as openly accessible land. But for most people, most of the time, the ownership of these spaces makes little difference, especially if they are just passing through. More important is the new framing of public-ness that these controversies seem to illustrate. In short, public-ness and private-ness are no longer opposed, but increasingly understood as overlapping and, economically speaking at least, maybe even mutually dependent. In everyday terms, this means a new form of ‘exclusivity’ that doesn’t involve literal or financial barriers, but the function of ‘openness’ itself being carefully controlled (both aesthetically and culturally) – just in much less visible terms than those look-but-don’t-touch private gardens beyond ornate railings or the turnstiled pristine foyers of corporate buildings.

Inconspicuous consumption
All this is closely related to the process of gentrification, a good definition of which is cultural exclusivity in the name of public-value causes like beautification and regeneration. A common complaint is that it generally goes hand in hand with a loss of truly public space. And undeniably, the phenomenon has seen poorer communities moving out of central London areas, in turn creating an atmosphere of exclusivity and even luxury.

‘Gentrified’ spaces come in many forms – the meaning of the word varying wildly in different types of neighbourhood, as well as across different cities and countries. But most Londoners are now familiar with many apparently tell-tale signs: local boozers turned into micro-brewing fashion hotspots, nostalgic snacks with unthinkable mark-ups; yoga in the park followed by superfood smoothies. Although much maligned for marking divisions between richer newcomers and poorer long-term residents, such developments are nothing if not visible and self-explanatory.

But in the last few years a new symptom of gentrification has emerged that is based precisely on not being visible. A proliferation of speakeasy-style bars and restaurants formed an early signal – venues that claimed a sense of exclusivity by literally having no name, or even having a codename. More recently new drinking holes have appeared that are quite literally disguised. La Bodega Negra – a Mexican restaurant that looks like a sex shop in London’s Soho district – builds an air of exclusivity through store design that marks the space as socially shameful and secretive. Meanwhile the sign above Evans and Peel’s door marks it as a detective agency, and visitors must satisfy the cagey doorkeeper via an intercom before being granted access. Once inside, the menu insists that guests ‘at all times do not draw unwanted attention to our venue’.

In fact, in other contexts discretion has long been an essential aspect of premiumness: think the sleek-lined, James Bond-style hidden gadgetry in high-end cars or the private ‘consultations’ in exclusive jewellers and fashion boutiques. What’s different with these disguised venues is that they don’t just create fictional ‘cover stories’ (usually fairly tongue-in-cheek), but more importantly encode the guest themselves as able to read between the lines, to know an exclusive space when they see one, notable precisely because of the cryptic (non)signification.

A recent study of shop signs in Brooklyn shows how gentrification can be traced in the evolution of shop signs. ‘Vernacular’ displays of text and graphics squeezed on awnings have been replaced by minimalist designs and single word brand-names, mirroring the shift from the necessarily inclusive commercial culture of the mass market to one altogether more exclusive. The same observation could well be made of Brick Lane or Brixton: the emergent semiotics of exclusivity in London framing the absence of explicit signalling in itself as the sign of a premium space.