The Tate Modern privacy ruling could lead to a worrying future for cities | Oliver Wainwright

The landmark decision, that luxury glass-walled flats opposite the museum’s new viewing gallery are being disturbed, could lead to a shift in how public life in cities operates

The verdict is in: people who live in glass houses may throw stones with impunity. After six years of legal battles, the highest court in the land has ruled that the residents of the luxury glass-walled flats opposite Tate Modern’s viewing gallery face an unacceptable level of “constant visual intrusion”. They bought into the dream of living in an overpriced goldfish bowl next to one of the most visited museums in the world, and now they have decided they’ve had quite enough of being looked at, thank you very much.

The unprecedented ruling marks a hugely damaging step for the future of public life in our cities. It suggests that the mere ability of others to look through your windows is enough to have those people banished, that space shut down, and the surrounding urban environment regulated so that nothing may impinge on your own personal bubble. The residents of Neo Bankside enjoy a panorama of the London skyline, replete with telescopes adorning their glass-walled terraces, but it appears they only want their crow’s nest views to work in one direction. With this ruling, the view of just five wealthy flat owners trumps the enjoyment of that very same view by millions of other people a year. The insistence of a few to live without curtains quashes the use of one of the capital’s most thrilling public spaces.

It is a landmark decision that could fundamentally shape the nature of how streets and public spaces are made. The English planning system already has some of the most arcane rules about overlooking distances for new homes, making streets unnecessarily wide and windswept, and blocks placed needlessly far apart. With this ruling, those gaping urban spaces could get wider, and windows could get even smaller, all driven by the paranoia that somebody might be seen inside their home.

It sets an iniquitous precedent, providing an unbridled Nimby’s charter that could unleash a wave of unfounded nuisance claims. Might the residents of Nine Elms, home to that aquarium of high-net-worth individuals, the “sky pool”, suddenly decide that they don’t like being ogled by American diplomats after all, and have the neighbouring US embassy closed? Could the all-powerful bankers in the glass office towers of the Square Mile realise that they’re sick of being peered at by tourists on St Paul’s Cathedral viewing gallery and have the majestic dome shuttered? The ruling suggests that any developer who builds a glass tower next to an open public space might retroactively have that space cleansed of people, so as not to intrude on their residents’ “ordinary use and enjoyment” of their homes.

Tate Modern privacy court caseUndated file photo of the flats opposite the Tate Modern building (left), as owners living in residential flats (right) have lost the latest round of their legal battle with the gallery at the Court of Appeal. PA Photo. Issue date: Tuesday February 12, 2019. The owners of four flats in the Neo Bankside development on London’s South Bank took legal action in a bid to stop “hundreds of thousands of visitors” looking into their homes from the Tate’s viewing platform. See PA story COURTS Tate. Photo credit should read: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

It is ironic that this claim was brought by people living in a complex where the towers are packed so close together that they can already see into each other’s homes anyway. Nor was the Tate’s viewing terrace a secret: the museum’s plans were already well known when the flats went on sale, and the developers of Neo Bankside actively supported the museum’s extension. Commenting on the original planning application, which received permission in 2009, the flats’ developer stated that it “strongly supports the latest proposals, which will increase the attractiveness of the location as a visitor destination and will result in a number of other positive benefits for the area”. The chief selling point of the flats was the proximity to the very attraction that they have now defeated in court. “Brush shoulders with some illustrious arty types,” cooed the Neo Bankside marketing material. Just as long as they don’t have the temerity to look back at you.

The ruling accelerates the long-running phenomenon of new people moving to an area because of particular urban attractions – whether they be pubs, clubs or art galleries – and then relentlessly campaigning to have those very things shut down. It is what destroys cities. The very things that make an area desirable, and prompt the influx of property speculators, are then cast as nuisances to be eradicated. And it doesn’t matter who was there first: as the law has it, if someone knowingly moves to an existing nuisance, it is still a nuisance.

The nuisance trend was set in 2014 by the landmark case of Coventry v Lawrence, when a couple moved into a house next to a racing track, and then realised that living with the constant sound of roaring motorbikes wasn’t what they had in mind. Astonishingly, the new neighbours were granted damages and an injunction against the racing track, which had existed since 1975. Foreshadowing this week’s ruling, the supreme court upheld the decision on appeal, dismissing the track owner’s defence that the new residents “came to the nuisance”. Still, karma can be sweet. The couple may have triumphed in court, but, during the protracted case, their house burnt down.

A simpler solution might have been to buy some earplugs – just as people who live in glass houses might think to invest in net curtains, before they threaten the future of urban public space for everyone.


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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