London Buildings, Good & Bad (Part 2)
So yesterday, a very potted history of how the developers arrived. Ultimately, the greedy inherited the earth. Step forward Julie and Magnus Davey, property developers and, by various press accounts I read, Grade A scumbags who have exploited government schemes and asylum seekers even as they knock down listed buildings.
It would be nice to think that the bottom feeders will get their come-uppance, but they won’t because they have powerful lawyers. However, UK stamp duty means that many owners of London’s overpriced FutureSlums™ are looking to offload and buy elsewhere. More than half of the city’s 1,900 ultra-luxury apartments built last year failed to sell, raising fears that the capital will be left with dozens of ghost towers. The high maintenance flats, complete with private gyms, swimming pools and screening rooms, are lying empty asLondon’s would-be first-time buyers struggle to find anything affordable.
But the clone buildings offering ‘exciting new business opportunities’ and ‘luxury loft lifestyles’ continue to rise, as we Londoners walk around them, trying to pretend they’re not there. Among the buildings I least love are Renzo Piano’s typically fake Central St Martin’s buildings, standard grey office blocks each with one jolly coloured wall, built around a miserable, windswept plaza full of chain cafes. The problem here is that it’s massively out of scale in a low-rise neighbourhood, dwarfing everything around it. This area, in my lifetime, was St Giles, a separate London neighbourhood hundreds of years old, with its own delightful character. No more.
Piano is also responsible for the Shard, of course, a trick building that’s actually another deeply ordinary office block given sloping sides and an empty turret to make it pay homage – in his words, not mine – to the city of churches. Inside there are some not very good restaurants that manage to be spacious yet weirdly claustrophobic, so that while you’re meant to be enjoying the insanely priced food you’re actually thinking about ‘Towering Inferno’. And the scale is vast, so vast that it wrecks the skyline from everywhere in the city.
If you think Piano has reached peak vulgarity, think again. His plan for the low-rise area of Paddington is the building on the right, which no amount of golden-hued photoshopping can make appealing. The architect has already had to cut over fifty floors from it. Thankfully the project has been put on hold pending a public enquiry. Piano is 80 years old. Perhaps it will be a very long enquiry.
Piano is far from being the worst superstar architect. Sitting in my study I’m looking out on a gigantic mirrored building with a bulbous midriff on the south side of Blackfriars. It has apparently wandered out of China and ended up here.
Number 1 Poultry is a unique triangular site upon which there has been a graceful building longer than anywhere else in London. Its history is so extraordinary that one might think it was the centre of the entire city. So naturally it was demolished and remodelled a few years ago in a style I think of as ‘Miami Lego’, and is only famous as a popular suicide spot for stressed bankers. Clearly they’ve eaten in the rooftop restaurant.
The ‘Sainsbury flats’ of Camden have another fancier name, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s Grand Union apartments, but because they’re as ugly as a rabid mongrel and are built above a supermarket that’s not what everyone calls them. They change hands fast because they’re pokey and depressing and nobody in their right mind would want to live in them.
I could point out other horrors, like key-lining the whole of Covent Garden’s Long Acre with neon, and the Battersea development of millionaire glass sky-pools and dictators’ lofts – it’s Battersea, luv, not Monte Carlo! But the good news is that well-preserved good buildings still act as anchors to provide grace notes in cacophonous streets and remind you that every city needs to keep its own identity. Those who want to keep a city’s character are accused of nostalgism, but it isn’t that at all. Why do we flock to other cities? To remind ourselves about what makes people different and special in other places. History is not a dead thing to be looked back on but a key to understanding life. Of course we need new buildings, and as the South Bank and the Gherkin show, they can be quickly adopted and loved by their users. But balance is all, because once it’s gone it never returns.
For more about London’s lost neighbourhoods read ‘Vanished City’ by Tom Bolton.