How London’s Architecture Found A Future
After WWII, London took a strange turn. Sick of the past, of rubble and dirt and old, it launched an offensive on the future. Unlike other cities such that had sustained massive bomb damage, such as Gdansk, which restored itself down to the last brick, London opted for as-yet untried modernism. The NHS began, modern flats were built, any building with bomb damage was torn down instead of being patched up, every church steeple with a crack in it was demolished and the Festival of Britain showcased a new kind of design.
There was only one thing wrong with this.
London was broke, and the designs for the festival were terrible.
To my mind they still look desperately ropey, all atoms and rods and strings, with only the Royal Festival Hall proving to be of lasting merit. The new modern look didn’t really catch on outside of fabric patterns, and wholesale demolition of the past continued for the next four decades. A great many catastrophic mistakes were made, from the collapsing flats of Ronan Point to the filling in of canals for extra roads.
In their seminal study ‘Goodbye London’, Christopher Booker and Candida Lycett Green catalogued the scale of destruction as thousands of planning proposals were railroaded through, resulting in the demolition of entire Georgian terraces and Victorian streets. It can be argued, something had to be done in order to modernise a city that had been patched together for more than two thousand years, but it shouldn’t have been about nostalgia, but useful purpose. Much of what was torn down could have been re-used. Instead, a lot of sleazy developers got into bed with councils to make a fortune.
The eighties brought a mini-boom in a hideous style known as Miami Toytown. Mrs Thatcher approved the tarting up of a few tube stations without fixing the infrastructure, the worst being the comedy-cladding of Leicester Square and Eduardo Palloazzi’s bilious (and never finished) Tottenham Court Road station.
By the start of the new century developers and owners had fought each other to a standstill, and with this came the realisation that only grand designs might change the face of the city. When the Post Office Tower (as it was then called) opened, its revolving restaurant was tiny. Nothing built in London was big enough to cope with the increasing population.
When Bazalgette planned London’s sewage network in the 19th century his calculations allowed a generous level of sewage production for every Londoner. At the last minute, deciding that he would only do the job once, he doubled the figures. If he hadn’t, London’s sewage system would have burst soon after the mass construction of tower blocks in the 1960s. We needed to think like that about architecture.
London had to be equipped to deal with its rising population, soon to be heading for 9 million.
Although one still sees Victorian terraces from airplane windows, it’s becoming noticeable that London is slipping its moorings from the past. I live in one of the areas of greatest change. This week I visited a purpose-built pub and restaurant on the canal, the Lighterman, and judging from its second night it’s an instant success, typifying the new London look – slick, sleek and modern, stripped-back and – crucially – able to cope with large numbers of people.
One appealing development has been the incorporation of old into new, creating new spaces. The development behind London’s stations is notable for the decent number of green spaces it has. But it’s not all good news. As with New York, if you’re not a wage earner much of the city is no longer interested in you. Prices are stratospheric and at certain crossing points the overcrowding is palpable. Moreover, many spaces seem designed only for high earners.
The height of this arrogance are the outrageously expensive and mediocre dining experiences of The Shard, an immense f*ck-you of a building known to locals as the Eye of Sauron. Many more are appearing like the Sky Pod here, sold on the promise of a public garden, a sad bit of greenery you have to book and pay for before entering. The Garden Bridge promises to be the same ‘experience’.
The funny thing is that what tourists most want to see is the traditional old London that is now only preserved in a handful of visitor-friendly spot (the average cost to a family of visiting a London attraction is around £100, making any trip expensive). But stepping behind the shiny facade, there’s still much to discover in the overlooked backstreets. Beyond the glamorous new destination that King’s Cross has become is King’s Cross Village, the older part of the area where local shopkeepers still wave as you pass.
So long as they remain, London retains its character. This splitting of London into old and new areas for working and living could well become the defining characteristic of the city, and its saving grace. The next five years will tell us whether residents have already fallen out of love with the idea of ‘luxury loft living’ complete with astronomical service charges.