September 12, 2014

Amazon moves to Shoreditch


Old Street: the Silicon Roundabout, image via Flickr

Old Street: the Silicon Roundabout, image via Flickr

So Amazon is moving to Shoreditch. Not just moving, but expanding into the area, almost “trebling its head office workforce to 5,000”, the Bookseller reports. We reported in May last year that Amazon was opening an office in Holborn, in central London, while its headquarters would remain in Slough: not anymore. “London to become the new home of Amazon in the UK with all corporate employees to be located in the capital by the summer of 2015,” reads the press release.

Whether or not London wants Amazon is another question. Mayor of London Boris Johnson is unequivocal. He’s so delighted with the news that he is even quoted in the company’s press release. How did that happen? Clearly the mayor and the tax-dodging tech company are on close terms if Boris is now chipping in on their press releases. Johnson said:

Our city is the perfect home for top tech talent and I am very pleased that Amazon have confirmed their intention to create thousands of new jobs at a major new base in east London. We are proving time and again that we have the right places and people to support this vibrant sector.

His statement, stressing job creation and the location of East London as the “base”, or promised-land of tech success (Boris used the term “hub” last time) predictably echoes David Cameron’s speech from 2010 when he evangelized about an “East London Tech City” where the “creativity and energy of Shoreditch” would “help make east London one of the world’s great technology centres”. It’s all gone downhill in Shoreditch since then.

It would be interesting know if the Shoreditch of today, in particular the “Silicon Roundabout”, as the area around Old Street roundabout has been dubbed, is what Cameron envisaged fours year ago in his visionary speech. Surely even Cameron could not have imagined something so ugly?

Old Street, or “East London Tech City”, as we are now expected to call it, is a gigantic mess. Huge glass buildings sprawl across the skyline as you emerge from Old Street station. Around here, entire roads are building sites, as new developments jostle for space, each one a different and more obscene iteration of an architectural idea of “futuristic”.

Recently I stood on the balcony of a friend’s flat in a council block as he pointed out new developments and identified the tech companies that would soon occupy them. The cement structures were almost near enough to touch and when those tech geniuses finally move in, the residents in the block of flats will be close enough to see the content on their screens. Yesterday, Amazon ensured their site would be lighting up thousands of similar screens.

Of course what Shoreditch ends up looking like is beside the point, because it’s the ingenuity and money-making that happens online that really matters. Just like its Californian counterpart, Silicon Valley, Shoreditch and Hackney once allowed for a cheap and alternative lifestyle: some of Shakespeare’s plays were performed here because it was outside of the city’s jurisdiction; the YBAs defined their art scene here in the 80s and 90s; students, musicians and artists still live here, even as the gigantic buildings start to make the place feel overwhelmingly alien.

Amazon does care about its image though, that’s why its moving its corporate operations here. An office in Shoreditch will help government relations (although its already getting phenomenal grants from the government), help grow its business, and make the company seem like an attractive prospect to the young Londoners of East London, and elsewhere. But they’re not fooling anyone.

Amazon can have as big and as shiny an office as it wants but their fulfillment centres in less appealing parts of the country, which have been proven to exploit apparently less important employees, their registered tax address in Luxembourg, and their bullying of companies that stand up to their impossible terms will continue to overshadow their image, however tall and impressive a building they occupy.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.