London Buildings, Good & Bad (Part 1)
Cities that don’t get bombed or burned down always look more cogently constructed. Paris and New York are of a piece, the former locked into the 1900s, the latter the 1920s. New York has gone from futuristic to homely, and is all the better for it. Gdansk was bombed flat and rebuilt exactly as it had been before, brick by brick. London was left with thousands of ragged bomb holes that were filled in without thought or care. Instead of being repaired, every church steeple with a crack was simply torn down.
London was owned by the titled, and the titled don’t like change. The first speculative development scheme was in 1768 at the Adelphi behind the Strand, and involved demolishing acres of small houses and replacing them with a terrace which they then couldn’t sell.
The Adams brothers tricked Lord Foley into selling the site that has eventually become the Langham Hotel after spotting a missed clause in his contract that let them crowd him out by building along boundary lines; and so the modern world of scamming speculators was born. The Abercrombie Plan for London (1943) imagined vast wide roads cutting across the centre filled with vehicles, but it was the last grand scheme of its type until the present-day Crossrail plan, which is wiping out swathes of London – but let’s wait and see what they raise on these construction sites before judging.
The seventies was a time of rampant corruption and greed, and London lost more buildings than it had in the war. The cohesive fabric of entire areas was unpicked, and without their signature buildings whole neighbourhoods vanished. The eighties saw the rise of the global star architect, and buildings that looked ludicrously out of place started popping up. Today London is a sea of cranes as the great apartment block boom continues.
These are the buildings we call FutureSlums™ – designed around a vast picture window and a narrow balcony, they look good in the overseas investment brochure but hide some nasty surprises; outrageous annual service charges, ugly common areas, no long-term maintenance plans, risk of the holding company collapsing.
I have trouble seeing London for what it is today because I’m in its streets and cannot see what those with fresh eyes see. Sometimes I’ll watch a group of Chinese tourists taking pictures and I simply can’t understand what they’re photographing.
What London has lost doesn’t bother me. It’s what London has gained that depresses. You can see the few buildings in central Paris that have been replaced; they’re usually made in inappropriate materials, like blue plastic piping. For me the Centre Pompidou is an eyesore, as is the appalling new Les Halles, finished in custard-coloured concrete that tips rainwater over everyone and renders the staircases unusable.
When London’s confusing, labyrinthine South Bank Centre opened there was a national outcry about its use of concrete, followed by decades of plans to somehow disguise it and pretend it wasn’t there. Luckily the original brutalist design stayed untouched. Now it’s one of the most beloved buildings in the capital, an inviting low-rise series of blocks that locals drift toward on a summer night.
One of the reasons why we love the South Bank Centre is that it has been put in perspective – dwarfed, in fact – by the march of London’s glass monsters.
(This piece concludes tomorrow)