Emptiness and Moral Order
From the Series: Emptiness
My first introduction to empty homes was through the medium of light or, rather, its absence. Many newspaper articles that problematized the emptiness of central London used darkness as both an observable evidence and an abstract metaphor for suggesting a dwindling community in an area bursting with empty mansions. Terms associated with this phenomenon included “ghost squares” and “lights-out London” (Glucksberg 2016, 49). While some articles made use of photographs of partial lighting in apartment blocks to demonstrate the uncertainties of the housing landscape, others accentuated emptiness through dramatic language: “The windows that are dark tonight have, by and large, been dark for months. Welcome to the ghost town of the super-rich” (Herrmann 2014). Cadogan Square, my field site located in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was classified as a ghost square by many such articles. Paradoxically, emptiness proliferated in a place that many considered to be at the center of the world. Here emptiness was the result of concentration of capital and its destructive effects of community rather than the result of withdrawal of capital (Dzenovska 2018) or abandonment and ruination (Stoler 2009).
Light is a guiding metaphor for those observing emptiness in central London. It points to something that is visible—lit windows—in order to evoke and quantify something that is invisible—the absences behind the unlit windows. Overlooking seasonal residence patterns, newspaper articles use light-based descriptions of empty homes to link them with racialized foreign owners or illegal sources of money (Glucksberg 2016). These linkages conjure up emptiness as a disruption of the existing moral order.
However, emptiness in Cadogan Square is not only novel and disruptive, but also familiar and predictable. During my fieldwork, the manager of a nearby gun store that has since closed vehemently refused claims of emptiness that suggested lack of community, instead emphasizing the regularity of the presences and absences of his customers. For him, periodic absence of people was constitutive of the rhythms of community in the area. Regularity, not absence, was the opposite of emptiness. Even as he was opposed to the claims of empty homes, his shop stored guns for a weekly rent for customers who spent many months away from their London residences and did not have the required gun cabinets.
Similarly, the correlation that some neighbors drew between emptiness and lack of Christmas lights in December revealed that emptiness was less about the amount of time spent living in a particular place and more about failing to appropriately demonstrate presence and involvement in the community. Tanvir Hasan, a conservation architect working closely with Cadogan Estate, explained to me that luxury squares in London have historically been imagined as seasonal homes and rarely as permanent residences. In fact, the conservation work is facilitated by the seasonal emptiness of these homes, enabling homes to be periodically repaired and renovated, forming a contrast between the outer facade of the house and its inner emptiness (see Frederiksen, this series). The seasonal absence of owners in Cadogan Square is not only normalized but in fact embedded in the existence and renewal of these homes (see Glucksberg 2016).
Thus, it is not so much emptiness per se that is noteworthy in Chelsea, but rather the fact that there is a perennial shortage of social housing while 10 percent of the homes are listed as second homes (Action on Empty Homes Report 2019). Matt Wilde (2017, 16), writing just after the Grenfell incident in the same borough, attributed the decline in social housing to the increasing number of buy-to-let landlords, cuts to the budget of local authorities, and removal of tenant protection in the private rented sector. The social housing flats that lie empty due to claims of uninhabitability (such as those in the Sutton Estate only a short walk from Cadogan Square) and the shift toward temporary emergency letting lie in stark contrast to the seasonal emptiness of luxury homes in the borough.
Ethnographic research reveals that there are at least two varieties of emptiness in Chelsea: seasonal emptiness that is part of a hegemonic moral order that upholds community and the emptiness of newcomers that is thought to disrupt it. Seasonal emptiness is normalized through cleaning, maintenance, and conservation, while the problem of emptiness is projected onto ethnically and racially marked new homeowners, such as Russians and Arabs. Different kinds of empty homes are weighed against each another in terms of the regularity of their occupancy, in which the disruptive frenzy of “reckless” buyers (a term used by residents and real estate agents to describe the new home buyers who are usually foreign) are pitted against the more traditional aristocratic elites who inhabit Chelsea seasonally. Emptiness is not so much about occupancy but about the right kind of occupancy of a house—legitimacy and predictability are mutually constitutive. Emptiness becomes notable when the traditional seasonal owners/occupants who know the implicit codes of performing presence through light, Christmas decorations, or expected kinds of interest and participation in the community are outnumbered by the new owners/occupants, such as Russian second-home owners or Airbnb tenants, who are seen to disrupt these rhythms.
By focusing on the rhythms and routines that are constitutive of empty homes, this piece argues that seasonality is not only a relevant concept for understanding luxury housing in London, but the very basis on which a moral hierarchy of emptiness is produced. Emptiness operates as both a lens to reveal these moral orders as well as a tool for negotiating with them. The preoccupation with lights and their linkages with emptiness serves to singularize empty properties, in which emptiness is perceived as “bad” thus indicating concentration of the wrong kind of capital. However, there has always been seasonal emptiness woven into the leases of luxury properties and aristocratic estates that manage them. While the tactile metaphor of light reduces emptiness into the binary of presence and absence, seasonality allows emptiness to be seen on a spectrum of occupancy that can be sorted in terms of temporality, punctuality, and predictability.
Action on Empty Homes. 2019. Empty Homes in England 2019. London: Action on Empty Homes.
Dzenovska, Dace. 2018. “Emptiness and Its Futures: Staying and Leaving as Tactics of Life in Latvia.” Focaal 80, no. 1: 16–29.
Glucksberg, Luna. 2016. “A View from the Top: Unpacking Capital Flows and Foreign Investments in Prime London.” City 20, no. 2: 238–55.
Herrmann, Joshi. 2014. “The Ghost Town of the Super-Rich: Kensington and Chelsea's 'Buy-to-Leave' Phenomenon.” Evening Standard, March 21, 2014.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2008. “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 2: 191–219.
Wilde, Matt. 2017. “Embryonic Alternatives amid London’s Housing Crisis.” Anthropology Today 33: 16–19.