Friday Reflections, Volume III

March 26, 2021
Steven McCormack
3 mins
A Grander Reflection

A little different this Friday, for this is a rather grander reflection about our built environment. In short, I am fascinated by property. It is the essence of how a place looks, works and feels. It evolves with us, responding to the prevailing winds of each era. I am unduly influenced, almost hypnotised, by my surroundings.

Through a heady combination of trial, error, luck and blindly following others, I slowly gravitated towards a professional career in real estate. I started as an assistant surveyor in Glasgow just as the Global Financial Crisis erupted, and weathered the Great Recession that followed. In 2015 I arrived in London, a freshly Chartered Surveyor, and supremely confident in my consulting abilities.

I was anchored by a rock solid view of the natural world order. 2008 was a mere bump in the road. Austerity good, councils bad. Markets, rational. There really is no such thing as society.

I jumped at every opportunity, from managing luxury residential renovation, to advising on commercial office transaction. I was soon working for a large American firm, based in the City of London, and a stone’s throw from the Bank of England.

Warehouses for Salvation

The scenario could not have been further away from my own beginnings. I grew up in Dumbarton, Scotland. Whilst nestled amongst beautiful scenery, it is scarred by brutal deindustrialisation. Once home to shipbuilders, distillers and engineers, it had long since been stripped of its manufacturing pride. The town that built the famous Cutty Sark now looked to retail warehouses for salvation.

This environment acted as rocket fuel for my early motivation. I was driven by an utter rejection of industrial skeletons, drab social housing, isolated estates and derelict high streets. I despised the apathy, an acceptance of fate and the lack of ambition. People seemed broken and unwilling to change course. This strength of feeling had single-handedly powered my ambition, shaped my worldview, and helped bring me to the Shining City on the Hill.

The wrenching revelations that followed arrived in that classic, almost cliched manner; first gradually, and then suddenly. The initial wonder at multi million pound apartments became unease with empty investment property. Deference to wealthy client interests gave way to frustration with petty mansion block squabbles.

A Personal Reckoning

The penny finally dropped not long after I arrived in the City. The glitzy facades and looming towers I had so admired from afar were a charade up close. They disguised a hollow, false confidence. A sugary cocktail of easy money, asset inflation and agent ego. I had willingly entered a gilded corporate prison where class, hierarchy and group-think won the day. I did not stay for very long.

In one fell swoop my illusions and self-assurance were shattered. The cherished narrative they once supported had collapsed. The values that I had subscribed to, that had guided my choices, were in fact skewed and completely unsustainable. A personal reckoning was underway. My Soviet style re-education was painful, and necessary.

The Twofold Insight

First, I had taken the wrong cue from my beginnings. I had directed my ire at a specific point on a map, and by extension all those who lived there. It was a basic, and frankly, immature approach. I could no longer use the same fuel for my fire.

Second, I had put the cart before the horse. The inhabitants of central London, Manhattan, or Dubai are not superior beings. The communities of West Dunbartonshire, Teesside or South Wales are not depressed or adrift by choice.

The link is hiding in plain sight. The link is our surroundings.

As Winston Churchill once said of the bombed-out House of Commons, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Now, imagine those communities shaped by industrial skeletons, drab social housing, isolated estates and derelict high streets. It is this realisation, more than any other, that has become the new fuel for my fire.

We must not kid ourselves, however. We cannot just reopen the shipyards, coal mines and mass car factories. We cannot create more university towns and public sector back offices. That was the playbook of the 20th century. The solutions for the 21st century run much deeper than that. We must ask ourselves the hard questions. What type of society do we want? What roles do we value? How do we organise ourselves? Where does power reside? Are we centralised or decentralised? Are we globalist or localist?

The real estate we create will depend on those answers.

Signing out, Steven.

Photo by Alexander London on Unsplash.


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