The Pleasure Of Leaving Things Alone

London

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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.

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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.

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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.

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14 comments on “The Pleasure Of Leaving Things Alone”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    I recently revisited an old stamping ground around the Horseferry Road. A wonderful Art Deco pub, the Paviours Arms, is now offices, while my favourite little backstreet boozer, the Old Rose, has become flats. The greasy spoon often frequented by the then PM John Major has morphed into a Pret a Manger. At least the triple carbuncle of Marsham Towers has been demolished: apparently Baroness Young commented that “the best thing about working there is that when one looks out of the window, one can’t see the place…” The replacement Home Office building contrives, via mirrored windows and sun shades, to be several blocks of nothingness, which I suppose is an improvement.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Chris, you have expressed my own thoughts and opinions exactly.

    We sometimes visit Vienna, a city that spent several post war decades re-creating the buildings lost to WWII. The old architecture is wonderful and has in no way stopped the residents being as forward looking as anywhere else.

  3. Ken Mann says:

    Blocks of nothing describes the interior pretty well too.

  4. brooke says:

    The downright ugliness of it all…I often wonder how much the “architecture” contributes to emotional illness among residents and city workers.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Another city which decided to rebuild is Ypres. Their medieval Cloth Hall was bombed almost to oblivion in WWI but now looks as good as old. It’s about twice the size of St Pancras

  6. Jan says:

    Mr. Ronaldson I had a bit of a toddle round Horseferry Road earlier this year and noted Old Rose was gone.

    Was the Art Deco pub u mention just behind that little park next to the old hospital which was derelict for years- now flats – and practically opposite Horseferry Road Mags now err..flats?

  7. David Ronaldson says:

    Jan, yes that’s the one – much better on the inside than it looked from the street

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I have a strong suspicion that the frankly hideous towers used by the then Department Of The Environment, with no sense of irony whatsoever, (keeping Britain’s past beautiful, whilst operating from the shittest office block in London) were thrown up quickly to conceal the now demolished, and no more beautiful, but far more interesting, Government citadel known as ‘The Rotundas’.

  9. Jan says:

    Cheers David. I was surprised how many changes there were around there. There’s a fair bit of old money in the roads between Palace of Westminster, the Abbey and Horseferry road but beyond that and into Pimlico everything seems up for grabs.

  10. Jan says:

    Do you know Ian I nearly mentioned the Rotunda in my earlier post and then left it alone. They had a helluva job demolishing the shelter it took them ages. The offices came down easily but not the sub sub basement.

    The tunnels go inform miles. You used to be able to look through grating near Queen E2
    Conference centre and see the tunnelling beneath. The older works go right up I b to Trafalgar square.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I’d heard that, Jan, but really, tunnels under office buildings? ( with eyes wide open in innocent awe.) What will they think of next?

  12. David Ronaldson says:

    The Jubilee Line construction stalled at Parliament Square for ages: anyone would think there was additional underground building going on…

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I believe that the Rotundas marked one of the extremities of the Whitehall Tunnel system. Two access points to it are in the BT building in Craigs Court, just off Whitehall, and the anonymous door adjacent to the ICA. Last time I was there, a policeman tried to stop me photographing it, for some reason.(guess). The proximity of tunnels under that area is well known – back in the 1980’s, the German ‘Metal-bashing’ group, Einstürzende Neubauten, were playing a gig in the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts). They used power tools in their performances, including heavy road-mending equipment. They had a pneumatic drill, with which they told the audience they were going to dig through the floor into the tunnels beneath, and actually ripped the floor up before they were silenced, and they were cordially invited to leave, never to return.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    It’s astonishing how many hidden things there are in public structures. We can’t have people drilling through into tunnels no one is supposed to know about, can we? We can’t tell you why you can’t photograph or drill because you’re not supposed to know about the thing we’re protecting. At least when the security guard told me I couldn’t photograph the statue of Justice in the courthouse I was told that it was to protect the accused from being photographed.

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