The Pleasure Of Leaving Things Alone
Growing up in London gets you used to impermanence. Overnight your favourite shop, cafe or pub will simply disappear after being on the same spot for a few hundred years. There has never been much sense of preservation here. For generations architects have frowned upon the idea, as if restoring an old building (or god forbid, reproducing it) is some kind of bourgeois construct designed to undermine their talents.
I thought of this recently when I heard that Joe Allen, the venerable theatre restaurant, had relocated from Soho’s Henrietta Street and rebuilt itself down to the brickwork and the 70s posters in nearby Burleigh Street. It’s American; they know what their customers love about the place and haven’t opted to have the interior redesigned by Belgian mime artists, or worse still, Renzo Piano. The only piano they’re interested in is the one that bangs out showtunes every evening.
I’ve been going there forever – and used to frequent the identical sister joints in New York and LA. Its post-theatre buzz is still wonderful. The food isn’t special but it’s good and reliable and makes you happy. I like to know that the place is there, untouched. It’s not an age thing; I always felt that way, and others do to.
Which brings us to Poland. When Gdansk was bombed flat, street plans for the port city were resurrected and the old buildings were reconstructed brick by brick. The result is stunning – not ersatz, as some architects will try to tell you, but simply how it looked before explosives accidentally flattened it. So why didn’t that happen in London after the war?
Obviously not everything deserved to be saved (and probably not the oversized Euston arch) but why wasn’t the best architecture replaced? Why lose a graceful Victorian building to a concrete box? The greater good was subsumed by private greed. Londoners could have gained a sense of continuity with vanished neighbourhoods restored, and it would have sent out a message about the capital’s indestructibility. Instead we became unwilling victims to a host of new buildings so ugly you’d think the French had designed them.
For many years Sir John Betjeman contributed to ‘Nooks & Corners of the New Barbarism’, the Private Eye column that names and shames the dodgy councillors and property men who benefit from the destruction of British cities. Now he is venerated with a lovely statue in St pancras Station (after drawing so much contempt from fashionable architects) as the saviour of so many beautiful buildings, including the station itself.
Of course cities like London must move on – but they can’t be left to the mercy of star architects plonking Dubai-style glass willies about. Crossrail, the railway line designed to reduce overcrowding on lateral tube-lines, is currently decimating parts of the city.
Boris Johnson approved as many of these eyesores as he could get away with while he was our mayor, and nearly squandered a fortune on the Garden Bridge To Nowhere, complete with tourist centre, on the last unspoilt stretch of the Thames Embankment. Last week I walked past the building in which I spent every Friday afternoon as a child, Moorfields Eye Hospital. Its ugly/beautiful red brick facade is now lost behind the hilariously inept arse-shaped flats of Old Street roundabout.
But what would we have kept if we could? The beautiful old No.1 Poultry building instead of the Lego tower that nows stands there? The walkways of Shad Thames? St Giles Circus? Paternoster Square? Camden High Street? Old Soho? Perhaps none of those – or perhaps just a few familiar buildings that make us feel that the real London – whatever that is now – still endures.
Perhaps a brave new London will rise like Tokyo, with its individuality and human mess preserved at ground level while upper floors hold offices. I’d love to come back in a century and take a stroll around the old neighbourhood.