“A good city has industry,” Mark Brearley writes in Made in London – From workshops to Factories, a handsome book co-authored with photographer Carmel King and journalist and curator Clare Dowdy.
It is a treasure trove, a glimpse into a London that is sometimes as much sensed as seen. King’s photographs show the almost luminous beauty and strangeness of the industrial processes taking place in the city’s backstreets and industrial estates, the rich variety of their products and the faces of the people whose lives are wrapped up in these enterprises.
Through these photographs and Dowdy’s interviews and company profiles you can learn about London’s silversmiths and stone-carvers, its brewers, bookbinders and ceremonial tailors, its makers of everything from umbrellas to chocolate truffles to glass eyes.
But Made in London is polemic as well as celebration. Brearley’s extended introduction argues that London needs to nurture not neglect its “city serving economy” of factories and workshops supplying everything from sandwiches and ready-meals to theatrical sets and ceremonial uniforms. These industries, “humdrum and hidden, but essential”, underpin London’s material economy – a counterpoint to the weightlessness of intangibles and traded services.
Brearley is a friend who I met when working for Richard (Lord) Rogers in Mayor Ken Livingstone’s Architecture and Urbanism Unit. He is an angular, usually charming, sometimes abrasive architect, whose interests in industrial estates, urban margins and slack spaces seemed, when I first met him, a world away from Rogers’s urban renaissance visions, though their perspectives actually proved great complements to each other.
Twenty years ago his campaigning could seem eccentric, even quixotic. Manufacturing in London was declining fast as production was dispersed across the UK or even worldwide. Industrial estates were brownfield sites in the making, their “legacy uses” awaiting enlightened developers. Manufacturing employment in London fell from 1.5 million in 1961 to just over 200,000 in 2001, and had halved again by 2017. Earlier this year Centre for London’s Industrial Land Commission found that 25% of the city’s industrial floorspace has been lost in the last two decades alone.
But Brearley persisted, both within the Greater London Authority and after its architecture team was disbanded by Boris Johnson as a freelance campaigner, an urbanism professor at London Metropolitan University and as part-owner of Kaymet – manufacturer of elegant (and pricey) aluminium trays. He has painstakingly assembled an inventory of manufacturing industry in London – numbering almost 4,000 businesses so far – walking the city’s messier streets and meeting the people who still earn their living through making things.
His campaign seems less eccentric now. Manufacturing employment has been growing by 2-3% a year since 2017, and the boom in online shopping has reignited demand for warehouse space in London – so much so that industrial land is becoming as valuable as residential land in some parts of the city. At the same time, while established large-scale industries have continued to leave, a revived interest in the culture of making – from wooden spoon-carving to craft ale-brewing – has inspired a generation of hipster-industrialists, while environmental and geopolitical factors place a premium on local production.
So London manufacturing is on the up. But Made in London also tells a tale of continued conflict and displacement, of “robust businesses, the workers of many minor miracles, confronted by developer and local government hostility, and forced to divert their energies into fighting expulsion from the city”. The book’s introduction points the finger at the city’s planners for trying to consolidate manufacturing into large, protected estates (“strategic industrial land”), and ignoring the potential for everyday industry – workshops, depots and yards – on each of London’s 600 high streets.
Brearley’s tone is characteristically emotive, even spikey, and he is sometimes too ready to assume bad faith motives on the part of local authorities (such as Southwark, which “lords it over” Old Kent Road, where his factory is located), rather than reflecting on the tricky and intrinsically conflicted process of managing land use and urban change. Faced with planning requirements for thousands of new homes and a net increase in industrial floorspace, some London boroughs face a genuine dilemma (even if clever design and management can help).
That said, it’s Brearley’s factory on the frontline, not mine, so he should be allowed his anger. And the passion he has brought to this subject for two decades, reflected in this lovely book, has served London well by shining a light on our city’s hidden workings and on their persistent vulnerability.
Made in London: From Workshops to Factories’is published by Merrell and available here, as well as from the usual outlets.
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