At first, a slow dark limb knits itself from the earth. Bound with concrete, skewered with rebar. The process of decomposition plays out in reverse; a skeleton lurching out of nothing, assembled into the sloped body of a diseased and obliterating animal, yet somehow gleaming. Rain comes down on the mottled edges of Finsbury Park. Wet and oily, tumbling beads. Is that the quality of the air, beginning to change?
In the opening words of Kafka’s Castle, the narrator, K., glimpses—shielding, I always think, his eyes—the bulk of the castle that dominates the village at its base. K. will not escape this village. Nor will he enter the bounds of the castle. His eye will slide from it forever, its oiled and obscurant carapace;
“It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.”
The castle dominates everything. It is absolute; an incontrovertibly raw fact of the existential plane. “Where the great castle lay.” We do not glimpse its awful wet stone for ourselves, its spindly towers. K looks up “at what seemed to be a void.”
Close to home, but far away
London. A city that grows within a city, and with each encrustation—each growth—the surrounding tissue drops away. Streets of low-rise Victorian railway cottages become framed by a redoubt of shining cladding. A linear mountain of steel and glass. It is an overlay of the city falling away from itself. These dense massifs draw their boundaries with an invisible claw. An impermeable barrier that we can penetrate, though only impersonally, absolutely, and always, kept at arm’s length, pushed firmly, albeit smilingly, away. A team of explorers pass through a skein of oil. An odious barrier inside of which the world is changed. So this is the mournful tesselation of the city. The transplanted “New Ruins” spoken of by Owen Hatherley, with their “gated communities, entertainment hangars and malls crisscrossed by carbon-spilling roads; a vision of a [British] future alienated, blankly-consumerist, class-ridden.”
The development, populated by its so familiar ‘render ghosts’ (purchased from catalogues, dropped in by CAD artists), accompanies a name - and a promise. “A new community for London”. Big grin, devilish eyes. It may as well be a missive from God, informing us of some distant modification in the time-space continuum, a flicker of light witnessed through the lens of a high-powered telescope.
What exactly are the qualities of the castle, and the village that sits beneath it? For starters, the castle is massive, yet its contours and boundaries remain unclear. We know it is large, but that largeness is unquantifiable. Secondly, it is translucent - its form continually shifting, slithering, writhing. Thirdly, we cannot look directly at it. Our eyes slide and bounce from its surface, its skin. And perhaps finally, its borders are both violent and gentle. It is not always clear that we are crossing them.
Dowden, writing on the “place” that Kafka’s castle has occupied in our collective critique of the bureaucratic, observes that the book resists us because of its “parable-like simplicity and unyielding opacity.” Each outpost of the castle remains bossily straight-forward just as it drowns us in the murk of despair. A development is housing. But the silent anthropology of its coming-to-be is often girded and made unclear by the confounding arcana of planning policies, secretive meetings, off-shore finances. We see the castle, the Development, rise before us. But we have no clear idea how it got there - or what it all means.
There is, of course, a voice to this behemoth. Unguent, sloppy, booming down from above. Raining like death. Telford Homes, the inoffensive and almost twee sound of it. For them, City North is a “new London landmark for Finsbury Park.” The copywriters of development cheer themselves. Isn’t this the existential proposition that Wittgenstein so famously rejected? A landmark, and an escape route - for it is only “moments from underground & mainline stations that can transport you to the sights & attractions of central London within minutes.” A landmark built upon a slide, a hole in the Earth.
When developers propose a new project, the greatest consideration is that it should achieve as much square footage as possible (rentable space) to contain the host of individual units that will be tessellated into its void. The outcome has been a gradual diminishing in the size of our homes, while their cost has skyrocketed. Confusingly, minimum standards for dwellings have been critiqued from a number of quarters, and I’m always happy to dismiss those and curse them as the thinking of cranks. The Centre for Cities introduces the malodorous emergence of the “rabbit-hutch home” with one hand, before muddying the waters with the other. “Space standards,” they argue, “mean that many new houses are too big.” As long ago as 2013, the Guardian wrote ambiguously about whether “pocket-sized flats” represented the “future for first-time buyers.”
The chosen will be carried on litters into the sky. The dismal will be crammed into storerooms and warehouses.
Developments such as City North are probably very nice once you walk inside them. Modern fittings and finishings, adequately ok furnishings. New white goods, pleasant views. But this does not excuse them of their ontological horror. They remain a kind of slumped beast, fattened on atomization, empty PR and exclusion.
These are sky-lofts for the vertically ascendant; those city dwellers, “winners” of late capitalism, who will exist increasingly apart in a city whose gulfs and depths and terrors will become distant and removed from them, even while they play a role in feeding this crisis. Vertical, a work of excoriating nonfiction by Stephen Graham, puts this in stark global terms, of how “in recent years the built environment around the world, both above and below ground, has become dramatically more vertical - and more unequal.” The city accelerates away from itself, even as it grows, groans and appears to steady. There are frictions and energies and dynamics which writhe and have seizures beneath the thin skin of the built world. It is pulling itself apart. And we (luckless idiots) set up a temporary home on its fault lines.
A territory of quiet poison
I think of Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel which inspired Tarkovsky’s own Stalker in 1979. As with the book, and the film that followed it, “zones” of poisoned land emerge in the footprint of an indifferent alien power - leaving a mark on the ground that becomes filled with their unknowable trash. The secular developments of modern New London fulfil a similar effect; something alien and obscure dropped down onto the city with as much finesse as a warhead. City North looks abject and aghast, in its towering above the low-rises and system built towers of this busy and metropolitan place.
And in this way, the modern city begins to break up into zones of difference that are both visible and invisible. A Clarendon development moments away from my own flat finds itself girded with powder-blue hoardings whose position continually creeps and shifts; over the past months of lockdown, they swallowed the marketing suite, and then took a bite into the road itself. Re-painted, rebuilt, shifted forward. The hoardings boast a night-lit rendering of the project itself; brown-dark cubes and the lozenges of tiny parks. And at its edges, the streets are sunk in darkness - this is the world unto itself, hermetically sealed, unpenetrated. And beyond its walls, only darkness - and the chillingly unknown. The new community exists, but it cannot be accessed, soiled, penetrated. Not by you, at least.
Once, we held the belief that in order to be “Kafkaesque”, a situation must become obtuse. Impossible and frustrating. But now, we know that it can also imply an act of disappearance, of dire exclusion. Different and alienated realities seem to inhabit the same world, but don’t share a language - and might never make eye contact. Down my road, at the edge of this ‘new world’, the council embark on a battle to obliterate a row of (inhabited) Victorian cottages, so as to open up the view between development and the horizon. Yet again, the new carries with it the ides of evacuation.
So, mud-slicked and anguished, we—occupants of the darkness at the edge of the render—find ourselves at a loss, raging and weeping, unhappy as K. was unhappy, destined to peddle and drift amongst the evaporating materials of the unhappy village. And the castle above us grows, and will not let us in.