Byron, Brewdog, and the recuperation of radical aesthetics


'Dirty Burger' rebellion versus the experience and traditions of genuine anti-capitalist space. This week's Friday Essay.

Jonathan Moses
10 May 2013
“Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination. Swear allegiance to the uncompromising revolution.” Since 2007 the craft beer company BrewDog have grown from producing idiosyncratic brews for a niche market to a ten strong franchise with an annual turnover of £14 million. Aside from the beer (“a long overdue antidote against faceless corporate bureaucracy and the bland, soulless beer they industrially produce”) the company’s success is predicated upon a media offensive that has seen founders James Watt and Martin Dickie invent super-strength ales packaged in taxidermied animals, and drive a tank down Camden High Street.

Part of a new wave of bars and restaurants which began in 2007, but whose success has erupted since the financial crisis, BrewDog doesn’t just produce novel beer: it arrives armed with an ideology more akin to the avant-garde than business, replete with a ten point manifesto and a plethora of countercultural missives (“BrewDog beers are the epitome of pure punk [...] We have the same contempt for the mass market beer that the old school punks had for pop culture”). On their website, esoteric proclamations abound like a self-help book for insurrectionists: “never forget you come from a long line of truth seekers, movers and warriors – the outlaw elite. Ride toward anarchy and caramel craziness. Let the sharp bitter finish rip you straight to the tits.” Arise, hop-wielding rebels! Smash the corporate market one franchise at a time!


Similarly, ‘Byron’ – a burger specialist, now owns twenty four London restaurants, as well as recently expanding to Bluewater in Kent and Oxford – all despite only being six years old. Others like ‘Dirty Burger’ in Kentish Town, the MEAT franchise (respectively: Liquor / Market / Mission - alongside a portable MEAT Wagon), and a family of restaurants which began with Polpo in Soho (and now extends to Spuntino on Rupert street) share the approach. All the outlets hold certain commonalities: a gritty, scaled-back aesthetic which can be placed somewhere on a spectrum from urban-chic to shanty town, an emphasis on brand autonomy, risqué simplicity, and an aversion to association with the corporate market.

Visually,  the more extreme examples are illustrative: the entire façade of Byron’s Upper Street outlet has been scrubbed down to artfully expose underlying brickwork amidst degradated plastering, with a battered wood divider separating its ground and first floors. The latter is emblazoned BYRON in graffito reminiscent of old industrial architecture. Inside, exposed lightbulbs and incohesive “reclaimed” furniture complete the style. The effect is ambivalent: declaiming RAW FOOD EXPERIENCE through its grubby, no-nonsense vernacular, yet simultaneously soliciting attention for its stylistic deviance. Likewise, BrewDog brags of redecorating “in the one way BrewDog knows best – with a sledgehammer”. In Nottingham its new bar “rises from the ashes of an abandoned, 100 year-old factory building” whilst BrewDog Birmingham is found “reigning over this great city’s former industrial heartland like a temple of noncomformity”. Reference is made elsewhere to “antique tiles”, “reclaimed metal”, and the “unforgiving edginess” of buildings “stripped back to reveal [their] industrial skeleton [...] completely exposed by an unforgiving wall of glass.”


Crisis of Homogeneity

Although BrewDog and the Polpo family remain independent, the success has not been lost on the mainstream corporate market, who have turned to either buying up or imitating the fashion. Byron was taken over and expanded by the Gondola Group, a conglomerate specialising in the “casual-dining sector”, whose other holdings include the rather less quirky chains Pizza Express, Ask, and Zizzi ( Gondola is in turn owned by the private equity firm Cinven). The trend is apparent elsewhere: café franchise Harris and Hoole found themselves besieged by negative publicity in the past year for playing the indie game whilst concealing the fact they were 49% owned by Tesco. Dirty Burger too is the brainchild of the Soho House Group, who specialise in rich-hipster hangouts ranging from restaurants to hotels and cinemas.

In part the tendency can be explained by a consumer backlash against homogenisation, and a recognition that transforming simple consumption into Genuine Experience™ can be a profitable enterprise. It’s a logical extension of the organic market’s ‘ethical consumerism’,  which trades on the vague sense of being grounded in processes at the human scale, evoking in some way or another the earth from which their ingredients issued. Just as lifestyle choice served as a flawed but logical response to political impotence, so BrewDog offers revolution not just as a PR gimmick, but as a way of absolving our inability to meaningfully change the world under capitalism – a phenomenon pithily summarised by Slavoj Žižek when he observed of Starbucks’s green marketing that “you can remain just a consumerist because your altruistic nature, solidarity with poor, is included in with the price.” The ale makes our rebellion for us – only our presence as customer is required.

More unique to the post-crash wave however is their use of what BrewDog calls “deconstructed” aesthetics – a phenomenon which goes well beyond previous attempts to humanise faceless retail giants (you can, after all, cultivate an independent image without resorting to ruinification). Instead this seems to amount to a concerted attempt to recuperate an allure particular to spaces which consciously reject the logic of capitalist space, audaciously commodifying the very antidote to the alienation latent within the architecture of modernity.


Fetishised Space

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre applies Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism[i] to the built environment. Just as the commodity arrives abstracted from the social relations which brought it into existence,  so Lefebvre notes the trend for buildings to “cover their tracks” through “polishing, staining, facing and plastering", to such an extent that “productive labour is sometimes forgotten altogether”. This 'forgetting’ occurs in the dual sense that all traces of both the labour that creates space, and the inhabitants who ‘produce’ it are expunged, conforming to the “manifest expulsion of time” which for Lefebvre characterises modernity[ii]. Such architecture is unique to societies where the division of labour has utterly alienated workers from the environments they are tasked with constructing – a point made by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice when he remarked:

“We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”[iii]

Ruskin called instead for a ‘living architecture’, arguing that the quality of space was ultimately contingent on the happiness taken in its craft; citing the example of the Gothic – whose intricate and eccentric ornamentation could only be the product of a mind free to create as it wished.

If architecture under capitalism in general has little space for the creative fulfilment of the worker, the trend Lefebvre highlighted suggests an obsession, as new  production materials like steel and glass made it possible, to erase any sign that space might bear a relation to labour altogether. Buildings appear as though by immaculate conception, unburdened by the contamination of the individual. Rather than architecture which ’lives’ as Ruskin would desire, it becomes sterile and paralysed instead.

Fetishised space therefore elicits the paradoxical sense of stasis peculiar to experience within capitalist modernity: an eternal present evacuated from time, itself a corollary of remaking the world at such explosive pace that terminal velocity was inevitable, and amnesia proliferated in the sanitised recycling of culture which has defined postmodernity. Since we in part constitute ourselves within this environment[iv] our subjectivity is transformed concordantly, leaving us trapped, as Emil Cioran memorably put it, “wallowing in the asphyxia of becoming”[v]. The glossy, deracinated aesthetic of much modern architecture – witnessed everywhere from office blocks and studio flats to shops, chain bars, and clubs – is both progenitor and mirror to a hollow centre; a sort of factory for malaise, churning out endless feedback loops of negation. 

If the dominance of the International Style is its clearest architectural expression, the tendency is just as prevalent in the way brands control their environments through trademark design. Take for example the spread of ‘theme pubs’[vi] in the 1990s, the era in which Wetherspoons started properly colonising the industry, and took to mediating the behaviour of their users by imposing a fixed aesthetic code from above. In contrast, say, to the traditional local, such packaged spaces reset the clock to zero at the end of each day’s business in order that the environment remain controlled, predictable, and by extension, marketable. They are totalised spaces, continually erasing you in preparation for the next transient consumer, denying any relationship which might be built beyond whatever can be rented for the tiniest of periods.

Fetishised space. Image: Jon Moses

Dilapidation and Anti-Capitalist Space

It is precisely in contraposition to this that radical spaces, at least in Europe and North America since the 1970s, have constructed themselves, with far left activity – particularly within the anarchist movement – becoming synonymous with the dilapidated architecture of the squatted building and the takeover of derelict industrial estates. Although this has an obvious material genesis (survival outside of capitalism doesn’t bode well if you rent, and neoliberal economic policies did much to abandon ‘unproductive’ urban and industrial infrastructure), there is more than opportunism at work. Here’s David Graeber reflecting on the aesthetics of the alter-globalisation movement:

“One thing that emerges... is the constant preference for places of construction – or, sometimes, destruction – where the ordinary surfaces of life are either being patched together or torn down [...]The idea seems to be, to couch the matter in appropriately Situationist terms, to poke behind the spectacle and hover instead as much as possible around the grimiest, most unlovely places where the spectacle itself is produced; there to create one’s own spectacles, perhaps, but collectively, transparently, in a participatory fashion without the split between backstage and onstage, between workshop and shop floor, that is the original form of all alienation.[vii]

Elsewhere, Graeber observes how the spaces of the anarchist movement produce are “radically different than offices, or domestic spaces, where everything is essentially created for comfort or convenience or efficiency. Such spaces already suggest their use to you. These kind don’t. If they’re meant for anything it’s clearly something other than what they’re being used for.”[viii] Against the alienated, abstract territory of capital, anarchist space attempts to rip away the mask of fetishisation and the authoritarian social practices which sustain it. The defining quality of the space is instead one of democratic flux: with the horizon of possibility left entirely unobscured, time is both exposed and accumulated – resonating with the prefigurative approach (‘build the new world within the shell of the old’) at the heart of anarchist politics.

Another way of thinking about the effect of this is by considering the particular of ruins, from which aesthetics centred around dilapidation draw their appeal. By their nature, ruins are an extreme inversion of the fetishisation process. They don’t just imply a critique of productivity, but resist it. Their majesty is to return, in brutally exposed beauty, the full palimpsest of the labour which produced them. Unlike the commodified environment, a ruin is space which stops resetting the clock, allowing time to layer and accumulate in a bionic fusion with nature. We find ruins sublime because they overpower us with the sorts of relationship denied in the corporate landscape: a melancholic hyperawareness of time, through which we are quietly confronted with death.  

If this goes some way to explaining the sudden emergence of this particular style, it’s nonetheless hard to think the attempt will be entirely successful, divorced as it is from the practices which endow the aesthetic with its critical force and long-term viability. You can no more freeze dilapidation in time and find it meaningful than any other space anesthetised by the demand to consume and depart; and without honest democratisation the lifespan of these pseudo-radical environments is likely limited. I don’t mean to imply by this that the whole enterprise is utterly cynical. It’s nice enough to drink genuinely interesting beer or eat a burger in a place which isn’t doing its best to remind you of the extent to which you don’t belong. More concerning though is how the trend signposts a collapsing together of bohemia and gentrification. Once a question of the latter eventually assimilating the former, it has now become the very means through which ‘urban renewal’ occurs. To witness how desperate the regeneration industry is to find a way to valorise these qualities go visit Fish Island in London’s once beautifully derelict Lea Valley (the new “creative quarter” of the Olympic regeneration site); or play the ‘Vision’ video on the website marketing Battersea Power Station’s redevelopment – a nauseating bit of kitsch utterly appropriate to its task as “folding screen to curtain off death.”

[i] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (1991), 113

[ii] Ibid, 96

[iii] John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice: Volume Two, Section XXI

[iv] “In face of this fetishized abstraction, ‘users’ spontaneously turn themselves, their presence, their ‘lived experience’ and their bodies into abstractions too. Fetishized abstract space  thus gives rise to two practical abstractions: ‘users’ who cannot recognize themselves within it, and a thought which cannot conceive of adopting a critical stance towards it.” Lefebvre, Production of Space, 93

[v] E.M Cioran, The Fall Into Time, (1970), 174

[vi] A more developed critique of theme pubs can be found in the excellent pamphlet ‘Last Orders for the Local? Working class space vs the Market Place’

[vii] David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009), 278-279

[viii] Ibid, 276

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