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Ian Martin: 'Let’s renationalise air'

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The AJ’s columnist Ian Martin has made a stinging attack on the relentless privatisation of London’s air, space and skyline

In an article published in The Guardian earlier this week, the comedy writer claims the capital had been handed over to corporate fat cats who had ‘monetised thin air’, bought the planners and turned London into a giant gated community.

Among his targets is Renzo Piano’s Shard skyscraper at London Bridge. Martin, a regular contributor to the newspapers says: ‘Piano, calls [the Shard] “a vertical city”? Really? It’s not Milton bloody Keynes, is it? A city must contain members of the public.’

He also describes the 1980s Broadgate office campus, designed by Peter Foggo at Arup, as a dangerously successful model for how to ‘choke as much value out of a site as possible’.

Martin adds: ‘It looks pretty good, which is why the architectural historians want to save it. But it has nothing to do with us, does it? It’s privatised space and air. Broadgate became a template for capitalism.’


The writer mourns the loss of some of the Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road underground station too - describing them as ‘not just 1,000m² of charming, optimistic art, but as 1,000m² of commercial retardant’.

He says: ‘The Paolozzi mosaics went up as decorative art, just as privatisation was about to explode like a dirty bomb all over the public realm. What survives at Tottenham Court Road station is a brave, forlorn little seawall set against a stormtide of corporate advertising.’

In the article, which praises the Southbank redevelopment as ‘something amazing [built] for us’, he goes on to question the subsequent privatisation of the architectural profession in the early 80s.

He said: ‘[Suddenly] architecture, like everything else, was privatised. The 1980s saw deregulation, not only of the financial markets, but also of the professions. The number of local-authority architects plummeted under a regime of cuts; the harsh winter of recession in 1990 finished them off. From now on, space and air would be shaped and primped by the private sector.’

In a nod to the AJ’s Skyline campaign, Martin also lampoons the latest wave of skyscrapers which have emerged - and are yet to come - across the capital.

He says: ‘Just look at London’s privatised skyline. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cartoonishly tragic. This one looks like a Nespresso machine. And that one, a cigar, is it? Potato? Full nappy? The utter capitulation of London’s planning system in the face of serious money is detectable right there in that infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air. Public access? Yeah, we’ll definitely put a public park at the top (by appointment only).’

Martin concludes: ‘Imagine the London skyline repurposed as a collective landscape. A skyline where form no longer follows function, but where change of use might confer beauty.

‘Maybe we can stop everything heading for a privatised wilderness. Let’s renationalise air.’

Ian Martin is a long-term AJ contributing editor and comedy writer whose television credits include The Thick of It, Veep and Time Trumpet. @IanMartin

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Ian Martin's Guardian article was great. MIPIM is coming up which I attended on numerous occasions, thankfully no more as the thought of it makes me shudder. I have a strong sense that a significant proportion of the profession has been swallowed whole by the property industry. Maybe that's always been the case and I'm being naive, buts its very depressing.

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