You can tell a lot about a society's top priority from its largest buildings. Renaissance Florence built what was then the world's biggest dome to show the glory of the Catholic Church. The Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu built an enormous palace to show the power of the Communist Party. Throughout British history, we have used architecture to proclaim the power of feudal tyrants, the church and now the wealth of the financial sector. All over London, huge structures are rising up to proclaim the dominance of the financial elite over every aspect of our society.
London has been remade several times in its lifetime to suit contemporary values. In the late 19th century, the urban landscape changed dramatically as advancements in construction technology made building on a new scale possible. This was the heyday of the railway; Kings Cross and Pafddington Stations were built and the rail network was extended even to tiny seaside towns. People's lives were changed by new technology and new buildings, and isolated settlements were now joined in a great, single whole.
At the same time, across the Channel the same technological advancements were being used to build the Eiffel Tower. This was the largest man-made structure of all time when it was finished and it still dominates Paris today, showing how great our aspirations and accomplishments can be.
These urban changes, big and small, were aimed at remaking society entirely. The technological innovations that led to larger buildings, bridges and railways changed the urban landscape and the lives of the people who lived there. This was the birth of the modernist era, where the world could be made better by technology and collective endeavor.
The modernist era also gave us the new high rises and brutalist social housing estates, that were also constructed on a monumental scale. Again, these were a dramatic change to the urban landscape with the aim of improving people's lives through architecture. People believed that architecture could make the world a better place, and people believed in a future in which we all would lead fuller and more prosperous lives.
These plans of improving people through architecture failed, and the social housing that was built has become a symbol or urban decay, alienation, crime, drugs, family breakdown and social ills. Some of this reputation is not entirely deserved and has been propagated by those who are politically opposed to social housing. The valuable bits of social housing were sold off as the public property passed into private hands. Once again, the urban landscape changed from one of public spaces to private spaces. Housing, parks, streets and walkways which were once open to all were quickly closed off as private property.
Today our urban landscape is still changing, but now we do not aim to remake society or to improve people. The landscape is becoming dominated by the symbols of private financial wealth. This is most noticeable in the giant monuments to unrestrained capitalism that dominate the London skyline, and which are the largest objects in our society.
We still build on an epic scale and we still make structures which push the limit of the largest human-made objects. The world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, contains private offices, apartments, a luxury hotel and exclusive shops. We have come along way from the Eiffel Tower and Paddington Station, which showed how technological progress could change the lives of everyone, as these new buildings show how the benefits of recent technology advancements are confined to a privileged few.
Buildings like the Burj Khalifa - or its smaller London cousin, the Shard - are still built with the "monumental style" that the Eiffel Tower has, but they are closed to the public. They have become symbols of a global financial elite that lives in a different world to everyone else, like the medieval fortresses or the Palaces of Communist dictators.
The idea that we can can make the world new, that we can use architecture to improve people's lives and that the future can be better if we work together has been dismissed as so much misguided, wishful thinking. The social housing projects of the interwar and postwar period are looked back on as failures, never to be repeated. The result is the decline of the social housing stock and increased pressure on the private rental market. Now millions of people are forced to live in substandard accommodation and are being exploited by those lucky enough to benefit from the conversion of public space into private space. We urgently need to build more social homes, we need a movement to improve people's lives with architecture and we need to fix the social problems caused by the housing shortage.
Today, rather than building with aspirations to improve people's lives, we push the poor further and further away and enclose more and more of the public land as private space. The only thing we aspire to is to build is huge monuments to financial wealth and oil wealth. We need to aspire to be better before we turn back into a pre-modern society.
The living conditions of the poorest in society are getting worse as our building technology continues to improve. If we do not change, we will live in a world permanently divided between those who live in epic structures like the Burj Khalifa and those who live in slums worse than those of Victorian London.
One of the tenets of modernism was to question the narrative of continuous social progress. We need to question that narrative now as our world changes for the worse. We need to go back to that spirit of optimism about the future that the early modernist period encapsulated. The epic structures of the future, those which push the limits of what humans can achieve, need to be for all, not just a privileged few.