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.


14 comments on “A City Of Shopkeepers”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Met a group for a walking tour of our city’s [and just try omitting that apostrophe] old warehouse district. The warehouses are mostly restaurants on the ground floor with offices above because they were not huge structures but at the entrance to the area is a small park, just a place to bring children to play on swings and slides and walk the dog. It has a stream flowing through into a basin with a fountain and both stream and basin are accessible to children. There are boulders in the stream so you can cross easily. I heard one lady call to a friend, “You’re on the wrong side of the river!” It opens the area, has access to sun, lots of benches and no retail around it except for the inevitable coffee shop (but not Starbucks). It is a very heavily used spot and very welcome for a number of purposes, including tour meetups. It’s best if these things grow under the stimulous of the local people but a good planner can see real opportunity to meet local unexpressed needs.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Caught! Just got back with a paper cup of Starbucks’ latte, sat down, read Admin’s post and then read Helen’s comment. Nearly expectorated burnt bean broth all over the screen. How did she know… and yes, I threw in an ‘. Did you know Starbucks coffee tastes the way it does because in originally began in the Haight-Ashbury and the roast was to cut through toker’s mouth. That’s the story. Saw a lot of Starbucks coffee shops in Germany, but stuck to German roasts.

  3. Ford says:

    I was in London on Friday; and was surprised by the speed at which the skyline has changed since the last time I was there – just before Christmas, I think? There’s stuff going up, that looks like the kind of building the Thunderbirds have to rescue people from! If you stand on Waterloo Bridge, your view of the Gherkin is obscured by a wedge shaped construction! Ironically, we had just come from Somerset House; where there is an exhibition of huge black and white photos of Hawksmoor’s churches. There could had more information about the churches and Hawskmoor – but, the picture are stunning!

  4. pheeny says:

    Ditto Ford , I thought it was just me …

  5. Ken Murray says:

    Unfortunately we here in NZ will not have the any real choice, as old brick architecture appears destined to be consigned to history. The reality is that most of our historic (and some not that old) architecture is deemed to be high risk in an earthquake. With the cost of bringing these buildings up to code being very high, many will simply be demolished.

    Of course there are some who don’t think this is a bad thing ( certain groups would be more than happy to see such evidence of NZ’s colonial past disappear). Developers too are rubbing their hands and there is some debate as to wether all of these buildings are beyond saving. With some claiming building owners may be overstating the dangers in the hope of demolishing a listed building rather than incurring the costs of strengthening.
    But that as they tell me is progress…

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    Absolutely on the Gherkin, and why could that theme not continue? Indeed more so, drape it in greenery so that in artful clusters leafing vines seem to hang down about it.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Alan, they call it a ‘green wall’ and a new condo tower downtown has done that so that as the growth increases it will appear to spill down (up?) the height of the building. It’s only on the one corner. We have the same period of architecture as you do, Ken, and much the same is happening, mostly to our 100 year old schools. Some were earthquake proofed twenty some years ago but there were quite a lot still to do when we had a couple of small quakes which sent parents into terror (understandably). Parents want the children to be safe, but they don’t want to lose the old schools. We teachers are of mixed feelings because the way budgets are set for new buildings you end up with much less space than in the old ones. One new school does not have a staircase wide enough for two adults to pass without adjustment and I found the hallway claustrophobically narrow. The old schools were built for larger classes, of course. Everything means money.

  8. Ken Murray says:

    Helen – everybody has know about the earthquake risk for decades and kept putting strengthening off because of the cost. Then Christchurch happened… Over one hundred people died when Christchurch’s CTV Building collapsed in the 2011 quake. It appears shoddy building practices during the last building boom in the 80’s played a significant part. Allegedly the engineer in charge of construction had faked his qualifications and had never built anything over two stories! Typically those responsible are long gone, moved on to the next development opportunity. I used to be in the construction industry back then and its the same today. There are always corners cut due to the large profits on offer to developers and everybody wants their share so there is never any accountability.

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    Cheers Helen, I’ll look that one up. :0)

  10. Helen Martin says:

    We hear the same thing here. A number of years ago a new grocery store was having a grand opening and seniors were invited to take advantage of opening specials. As the mayor, a former fire department captain, was speaking he heard a suspicious noise and insisted everyone be moved out of the store. The roof caved in under the weight of the cars parked up there. No one was seriously injured, thanks to the mayor, but several cars were damaged falling partially into the hole. The builder had used a lower grade of steel than that specified. We also have had a rash of “leaky condos” where the outside shell is porous, there isn’t enough roof overhang, and soffits aren’t properly designed. My house was built in 1930 and has been through two quakes, Hurricane Freda and the downpours of this past winter. Not moving unless I have to. We’re on a slope and the basement stays dry, even.

  11. Ken Murray says:

    We have had a long running saga with what is called ‘leaky building syndrome’. Houses were built in the 80s with un-treated timber that then rotted. No one as yet has been held accountable but thousands of houses are now worthless rot-boxes.

    Funny you mention roofs and Hurricanes… We had one here last night! Over 12 hours of mayhem with gusts of 200kph recorded. I’ve just spent the day cleaning up, talking to insurers and arranging for the holes in the roof to be fixed. By the way has anyone seen my daughter’s 12ft trampoline? It was in the garden yesterday, staked to the ground with steel pegs and this morning it has disappeared…

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Great Grief, Ken! I can only just imagine the noise, the rocking, the power flicking then going off, the crash and tinkle of glass over-flexed or struck, but the thought of a 12 ft trampoline, complete with pegs, sailing through the air only to impale itself on the neighbourhood school’s flagpole, defies thought!

  13. Ken Murray says:

    Helen, there are some good news photos on the NZ news sites. Most shocking was the Wellington suburbs like Island Bay which had the sea front totalled. The tarmac was literally shredded! I happened to be walking home during the big 1987 storm in the UK and this was way worse. On a 20min drive into town we counted nearly 100 trees brought down. There was some 30, 000 houses without power too. A least we didn’t have the snow like the South Island that would have been too much.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    The picture of the bowl of hail was interesting. I’m going to make sure my husband sees these because there are some really iconic pictures. By the look of those shots, it’s very similar to what we got in 1962, but yours was probably worse.

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