A City Of Shopkeepers
In the last few years we’ve seen every last square metre of London commoditised and accounted for – they’re done away with the odd bits of greenery and strangely shaped spare spaces left behind for so many years by bombers and developers. One of Londn’s greatest pleasures has always been to be able to turn a corner and find oneself in an unfamiliar, neglected and unnoticed place. Inevitably, times are changing, and Ken Shuttleworth, the designer of the iconic Gherkin, London’s last really attractive building (because nobody I know likes the embarrassing Philishave or the ugly Walkie-Talkie) wants some of the sightlines to his creation protected, just as St Paul’s has protected sightlines, before the next tranche of third-rate ‘icons’ go up.
Sadly it’s too late to protect Tower Green in the Tower of London, one of the few urban places left where you could stand and get an uninterrupted view of unchanged London. Until the 1980s, that is, when office buildings bisected the horizon accompanied by toothless apologies from civil service suits. I distinctly recall one pusillanimous little worm hand-wringingly announcing that you couldn’t put a proper economic value on a view, so it had to go.
Therefore more power to those who adapt old buildings for new uses, and it’s just a shame that it took half a century of destruction by corrupt, incompetent London councils to reach this way of thinking. Which brings me to the customs houses and railway arches of King’s Cross, a classic example of the battle between community and commerce. It must be said that the developers have learned from disasters in other areas (the ruination of Brighton and Paddington, to name but two) to decide that perfectly good buildings might be fit of 21st century use.
However, it’s also dismaying to find out what use they might be put to, after two decades of wrangling over the space. You guessed it – ‘fabulous retail opportunities’, because London hasn’t got enough shops. So the elegant arcades of arches and tunnels will house more tat nobody wants. It was Napoleon who said ‘L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers’, a ghastly little man of course, but he got it right there.
I’m reminded of Jacob Marley’s response to Ebenezer Scrooge, who says he was always so good at business. ‘Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop in the water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’
Just once I’d like to see a public space built that exhibited this comprehensive ocean, that had no balance in an equal amount of ‘retail opportunities’ and ‘luxury loft living’, that was built for the sheer damned thrill of giving something back. This is, of course, embarrassingly naive thinking, although the green bridge planned for the Thames may yet add unconditional beauty to the river, even though its start-point (Temple) would bring hordes to one of the last quiet spots in central London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At least there’d be no room to stick ‘retail opportunities’ on it.