A City Of Shopkeepers 2

London, Observatory

11No sooner was the ink drying on the piece below when the argument for and against sightlines in London cropped up on America’s NPR. This time Paul Finch, a critic at Architects’ Journal, is concerned by what he says is the implication that instead of just preserving views of the Tower of London, UNESCO is urging the city to protect what visitors see from it. 
 “The idea that we’re going to start protecting views from these historic monuments and places is a form of madness,” says Finch. ‘There is a danger of ending up with great swaths of a city, which cannot accommodate taller buildings.’

This is the kind of  sophistry we’ve come to expect from egotistical corduroy-clad architectural critics desperate to put their personal stamp on a two thousand year-old city. UNESCO does not protect great swathes of London – there are in fact only two sites, with two others outside of the centre, Kew and Greenwich. Some of us have memories long enough to recall London’s architects championing other disasters. But then we have Ed Lister, the deputy mayor in Boris’s office, weighing in.

‘UNESCO is taking a very, very black-and white-position, and I’m afraid life’s not like that,” says Lister. ‘You cannot allow development to be stalled in a city like this. London’s grown by 600,000 people in just the last five years. And we will be over 9 million people before New York. That’s the pressure that the city’s under.’ London is not under pressure by business to build skyscrapers within a couple of miles of St Paul’s when it could just as easily put them in the area designated for big business in the 1980s – Canary Wharf.

Just as the promotional video for King’s Cross features someone banging on about the fabulous retail opportunities of the area’s unique Victorian arches without a hint of irony (and to be fair, they’re at least fairly hidden away) Lister is pandering to pressure from financiers rather than maintaining any sense of the City itself. London is unique in that it does not ring-fence an ‘old town’ as Paris, Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam and virtually every other European city does. That this freedom has never been abused before is understood; it’s a very British approach. But now it seems the gloves are off. And the epitaphs of these people will read that they handed money to London’s rich, rather than improving the lives of its residents.

7 comments on “A City Of Shopkeepers 2”

  1. Alan Morgan says:

    Absolutely again, with the previous post. Stick the ugly in Canary Wharf where it was intended. But even there and again once more even these upright droids could be made things of beauty with theme and majesty, greenery and delight. Then places between dotted with little parks, it could be a wonderful thing as opposed to just another display of what happens when sand meets soda and a little lime. I’m taking my eldest around London in a few weeks and I’ll feel like my Granda did when he showed it all to me – how what used to be there (whilst not perhaps destroyed) is now entirely hidden. I truly love London but it is now as much by wish as situation somewhere to visit.

    There was certainly a lot of ugly around in decades now gone but at least it didn’t absolutely demand the eye.

  2. pheeny says:

    I would question what whether we actually need all these skyscrapers and “retail opportunities”

    If we are going to build at all it seems to me that what is urgently required is decent affordable housing – not vacant office space and yet another branch of Starbucks/Accesorise/Tesco’s

  3. Martha Ullard says:

    Big buildings – more people and goods need access – more traffic on the roads and passengers on transport. If the buildings are offices, they exist to aggregate large numbers of people in one place. We are on the cusp of wide take-up of technologies for distributed working that make this largely obsolete. In a decade or so, there will be some big empty buildings in London

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    I’d say Martha above is absolutely right.
    Sightlines are very important: they impact the residents’ mental state. It’s good to have a view, a sense of distance and proportion, perspective, a bit of direct sunlight, and a jumble of the old with the new.
    New York City has just managed to preserve most of its residents sanity and health because of its green and long Central Park, the lungs of the City, and the open spaces provided by its surrounding rivers and the fact that it is not all tall buildings.
    Between the famous skyscrapers a person feels ant small and the wall of overwhelming sound that echoes between the huge buildings is muffling and numbing, it is hard hear, hard think and very depersonalizing.
    I’m with UNESCO; protect those historic views. There is more to life than the building of hives and the addictive act of shopping.

  5. andrea yang says:

    Without the bus in the photo i would have guessed I was looking at a Shanghai…. I doubt I would recognize the London I knew and loved in the early 1980s. I think Martha has a good point about new technologies changing work flow and the need for monstrous buildings.

  6. Vivienne Cox says:

    Didn’t the rot set in when people no longer commissioned buildings for themselves, but as business rental opportunities? A company wanting a headquarters building used to want to project their strengths: so we have the Lever Building, Daily Express in Fleet Street and so on. I think we already have plenty of empty office space in London. Don’t even think about the mile high suggestion of the Saudi chap.

    A bit of coherence would help – frankly London’s skyline is a total hotchpotch. Try viewing from Hampstead Heath, just east of Kenwood.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    People say that they should be able to have anything they want on their own property. The problem is that it’s everyone else who looks at it. That’s how you end up with a ‘hodgepodge’ view. The other extreme is where government determines the building size and shape and we all know what we get then. What is the median and how do we arrive at it? You have to start by acknowledging that you’re not going to please everyone, and certainly not at first. London was doing some interesting things and there are some very nice buildings, some of them coming down because they’re Arts and Crafts, Art Moderne and ‘old fashioned’. I like that needle swirl in the middle of the picture to the left of the Gherkin but I suspect it’s only the upper part that has that free wheeling shape so you have to be able to see it to appreciate it.

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