London’s shopping streets evolve fast. But lately the look of one kind of store seems to be travelling at lightspeed into a realm of fantastical sci-fi-esque décor so far-removed from reality that the city’s growing reputation as a playground for those with money and very little taste is becoming well deserved. I’m talking about estate agents. Their shop fronts. Expanses of pristinely molded white plastic that look like the futuristic nightclub of your 16-year-old self’s (and Buck Rogers’) dreams.
It should come as no surprise that the property business wants to put on a spectacular show. Any house renter or owner knows that a home is their castle, so it’s only logical that the seller of castles should make the sales outlet a fortress. On Mars.
Unlike the fusty dated premises of similar businesses such as the solicitors’ or the bank, where the décor is a reflection of the slightly dull yet necessarily meticulous nature of the work done there, estate agents often have some kind of awkwardly shoehorned-in bar top in the entrance enticing customers to stroll in and share a Diet Coke, talk shop, maybe buy a house.
Providing your gaze can be prized from the giant flat-screen TV relaying 24-hour news (again, why?), then the true heart of the enterprise awaits – row upon row of spotless “hot-desk” work stations accommodating agents who need nothing more than an iPhone, perhaps a pen, a lurid suit and the extensive industry background knowledge that, yes, houses do exist, to get the job done. Come 6pm and the Death Star’s glowing control centre is deserted – a ghost shop.
Apart from the amusing side – that these places look like they’re designed by a mysterious clique of also-ran Hollywood set builders – there’s another reason I find this phenomenon a little uncomfortable. It’s because to know that any time at all is being spent on creating the completely unnecessary spectacle – grossly misjudged – means that sky-high property fees charged to London’s already squeezed residents are being blown out into space too.
Why would you want to do business in a place that feels that way? I think Londoners might instead be drawn to a property service making a show of that rare thing on the high street – a little sanity.
Though not the cause, it’s surely a symptom of an industry, and a city, that is losing touch with what matters – useful services, good ideas, a population that can afford to live well – even among some hilariously bad décor.
Tom Hall is a sub editor and writer for Monocle.