Migrant City

As Britain hesitantly frames its response to the ongoing refugee crisis, Catherine Slessor celebrates the fertile relationship between immigration and the culture and architecture of London

For nearly 20 years I went out with a Londoner. Born and bred in Streatham, he lived in Pullman Court, Fred Gibberd’s 1936 Modernist masterpiece at the top of Brixton Hill. Described as an early essay in the International Style (Gibberd was a precocious 23 when he designed it), Pullman Court was all svelte lines and Corbusian ambition. It also had shops and a swimming pool for its residents who were the epitome of the aspirational English middle-classes. Yet though my paramour appeared English through and through, he was actually second generation Irish. And within Pullman Court there were others who could claim more exotic origins, flung together though migration, displacement and diaspora. Fellow residents included a young Lew Grade (née Winogradksy), Aden-born Eddy Izzard and Elsa Taterka, who originally taught design at Berlin’s Reimann-Schule in Weimar Germany, and encouraged my Streatham boy to go to art college. He ended up working for Hans Schleger, a key figure in the history of European graphic design and another Jewish refugee who fled to London to escape the Nazis. 

London is a perpetually shifting osmotic mass of peoples and cultures, each leaving their own distinct imprint on the city. Scrape away the outer layers of ‘Londoners’ and you’ll almost always find something else, shaped by complex narratives and fluid identities. Who, then, do we really think we are? And who really cares?

Intensified by the current carnage in Syria, the issue of migration continues to exercise politicians and fuel hysterical headlines. Refugee or ‘economic migrant’, there is a world of difference between the institutional elite on the move, cushioned by well-endowed relocation packages (the Bank of England springs to mind, now run by a Canadian), and the hellish odysseys of people fleeing the implosion of their native country. For them it’s not when, but if they manage to reach land and carve a foothold in a new city as they exchange one chaos for another. Yet this is how it has always been for those running for their lives.

Pullman Court by Federick Gibberd.


The unedifying public and political reaction to the plight of Syrian and other refugees is sadly not new. In the past, London has attempted to keep its sphincter firmly clenched against invasion (‘No Blacks, No Irish’ as the infamous après Windrush sign would have it), but these days you can find the world in one city. There are Poles in Ealing, Nigerians in Peckham and Koreans in New Malden. London’s sphincter is now spectacularly unclenched, exposing it to an intoxicating rush of experiences and perspectives, marinading in a babblesphere of 300 languages. And as anyone who has ever escaped here knows (I’m a refugee from Aberdeen, as it happens, like Annie Lennox and Michael Clark), London cradles and catalyses the outcast. It’s not what or where you were born but what you have it in yourself to be. Yet despite the incontrovertible fact that migrants add to the economic and cultural sum of local life, and that the 2011 census showed that 13% (7.5 million) of the UK’s population was born abroad, Britain still does not define itself as a country of migrants. Unlike France or Australia, it has no permanent museum of immigration to tell the stories and extol the struggles of incomers.

As with art history, so the trajectory of modern British architecture has been defined and undercut by exotic outsiders. Chermayeff, Lubetkin, Goldfinger and, latterly, Moussavi, Adjaye and Hadid, but also the less demonstrative flow of foreign architects and students that eddies around London, quietly enriching contemporary office and college life.

A sign in a London Bed and Breakfast reportly photographed shortly after the Empire Windrush's voyage from the Caribbean to Tilbury 1948


Clockwise from top left: Walter Segal, Farshid Moussavi, Berthold Lubetkin, Ernő Goldfinger, Serge Chermayeff, David Adjaye, Nikolaus Pevsner and Zaha Hadid. All critical figures in the story of British architecture, all migrants from overseas.


The great Walter Segal, whose self-build housing in Lewisham is the subject of an Architecture Foundation film, is another historic example. Swiss-born, he trained in the Modernist ferment of Berlin, leaving in 1936 when he was 29. Though his concept of an economic and egalitarian means of making dwellings was initially slow to take root, it now has a renewed resonance in the context of London’s present housing crisis. Specifically, as an ‘attitude of mind’ rather than a remote theoretical ‘position’, Segal’s self-build system demonstrates a particular way of thinking about architecture, based on a human concern for comfort, utility and adaptability. No-one is excluded from taking part because of their circumstances, lack of capital, income or building skills. In his day, Segal was the only living architect to see his name immortalised in the London A-Z with Segal Close, SE23. Walter’s Way soon followed. Perhaps more people should think about following it.