Distinction and Display in Surbiton

February 15, 2011

My train shuttled into Surbiton, the “capital of suburbia” as claimed by its website, greeted by a low afternoon sun peering over the impressive white edifice of the station architecture. The journey was shorter than I had expected, and the relationship of this site to the centre was hard to remove from my mind as I began to stroll. Once through the passenger barriers, to the outside, it was clear that the station was not alone in its flamboyance in an area of pronounced visual distinction.

The shops upon the high street, itself currently in a state of road renovation, were a blended mixture of upmarket furnishing showrooms and jewelers, common chain brands of clothes, food and coffee, the inescapable charity shop, the occasional 99p store (which frequently find themselves inhabiting the shell of the now extinct Woolworths chain), banks with unashamed high-society accoutrement, grandiose public houses and individual franchises of fluctuating success. Nearly all were melded into the constructs of the past, the buildings sustaining themselves over time through the continual desire for their commercial floorspace and their exterior decor.

Though there was still the face of change here and there, in the high street and out, the example of business providing a medium for the materialisation of impermanent demand. Consumer taste would dictate what should remain or dissipate into dead practice, or even sow the seeds for the spawning of new entities that would hope to tempt the strolling patron – the brash and high-modern designs of the Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, solidifying their spots as profitable ventures and advertising their recent addition to the area. Amongst these growths were the ruins of transition. The empty plot upon the main promenade, for reasons unknown, the only meaning conveyed done so through a sign upon a wire-mesh fence proclaiming status of demolition, the danger present and whom was performing the act, not far from the ghostly void of a store with nothing to sell, stating to all that not all here shall be so fortunate in money nor will these structures stand forever.

Branching out into the residential areas interspersed with business, landmark and public greens only served to continue to advertise a character I had not wanted to carelessly ascribe to the suburb upon my arrival. The buildings presented a desire for a recognition of a certain “taste” to borrow from Bourdieu. The Art-Deco and 19th century townhouses saw their 20th century contemporaries chase their aesthetic position,  the striking monolith of the station, the preened front-gardens of the mock-Tudor terraces, lavish embellishments to the Victorian homes and the church-come-flats across the way from an opulent cocktail bar all communicating expensive comfort. It is not at all a leap in judgment to notice the preoccupation with outward appearance, as if a lack in a certain je ne sais quoi would amount to spurn. That to maintain a place in Surbiton, both home and business required a complicated employment of symbols to keep up with public expectations.

What was not apparent however was why this method of distinction was so prevalent. A dip into the history of architectural preservation in the area is a must, for decisions taken by authorities to perpetuate a semi- historic appearance would serve to attract only those with the wealth necessary to make a locally listed building their own. Or it may be an even more intricate web of beliefs and actions bound up in history, a prior site of a middle-class proving ground providing a stage for the present performance of the well-to-do.

But regardless of these visual fineries that Surbiton did exhibit, another aspect that seemed to assign it a unique status in opposition to other suburbs I have so far encountered as part of these project, which was that of the people and their own actions. This was a sensation of “openness” from the locals: idle conversation between folk was smooth and overt, such as the woman with her two children in a cafe of home-made cakes, pastries and complicated meals making jokes with me about the perfect nature of the dessert I was about to purchase. Or the wife-barista and who cheerfully chattered about her establishment co-owned with her husband-cook to me, alongside caring for their smiling young daughter whom sat happily behind the store counter waving to customers from her high chair.

There was a sense that those who find themselves in Surbiton, as it is not the most pronounced “through-way” for access to London, do so because they are living close-by. A residence that would be prolonged, if not permanent, that somehow those in the area view themselves as part of the same process with little need to fear the stranger or the anonymous “other”. I know for certain I feel these answered questions drawing me back to dig deeper into the preened earth of welcoming greetings, pastry-talk and exclusive housing… to find the source of the “face-making” of both person and property that has forced Surbiton’s hooks into my eager mind. One glance is not enough; and first impressions are so often little more than the judging of a cover.

Images from our trip can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/burbsblogger/sets/72157625967885100/with/5412789095/

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