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)



14 comments on “London Buildings, Good & Bad (Part 1)”

  1. Roger says:

    The way developers all follow the same trend is the worst thing – the spread of fifteen storey ziggurats along the river was bad enough, but now they’re moving inland…

  2. C Falconer says:

    I understand originally the Southbank was to have vertical greenery over the concrete – rather like it the way it is now myself.

  3. Brooke says:

    The glass monsters are everywhere…two glass towers are coming to my little neighborhood, blocking views of the river and our access to same. Mind you, we are on a flood plain and these towers are quite massive– complete with concrete plazas (replacing the garden plots tended by the neighborhood seniors). Time to relocate.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    La Défense in Paris: I cannot say that I ever liked it, but I was initially impressed. With time, it’s become more and more run down. Most of the small cafés closed, the restaurants are not very good, certainly not by the standards of Paris. In the end, a load of money spent on ego massage to no positive effect,

  5. Martin Taylor says:

    What is depressing is the singular lack of imagination in architects and developers so that a hideous monstrosity like the car melting Walkie Talkie is built instead of being laughed out of sight at the planning stage. London’s skyline is rapidly becoming a carbon copy of those hideous “central business districts” they have in places like Melbourne and Brisbane.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    London didn’t have a central business district, I feel, other than the City, which isn’t that much of it. All the rest has businesses, offices, apartments, and shops mixed in together. Look at the area immediately around the Peculiar Crimes office, which I do on Google Earth every once in a while. You’ve got major transportation, art schools, small business and is it Google that has a huge office complex there. It also has the Regent’s Canal, the Narrow Boat Museum and a lot of other stuff. Stay away from Central Business Districts unless you have an appointment with a stock broker, government department, or barrister.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I think that the main problem with modern re-development, is that the planners and Architects don’t live anywhere near their creations, and then you get all the advertising dreck, which, if you know the ‘improvement’ area well, is always comedic B/S. From about 2005, there was, in my home town of Ipswich (butt of many jokes, including one on Doctor Who, but several mentions of it’s American counterpart in HP Lovecraft stories cancel the jokes out) a large scale re-development of the old dock area. Brochures advertised the site as “Convenient for London”. London is 70 miles away, and there are no motorways in Suffolk. In Ipswich, the river Orwell does not run picturesquely through the town, but tentatively kisses a corner, previously flowing as the River Gipping, and magically turning into the Orwell at a weir next to the town dump. Oh, the romance! The dock basin gradually turned from a mellow Victorian working area to a collection of nasty ‘Wanker Flats™’, and the ‘Historic Waterfront’ signs as you enter the town became utter lies. I was cycling to work once, and a perplexed looking man came over to me and asked where the much-advertised ‘Historic Waterfront’ might be. I pointed to a vast pile of red brick rubble that was being craned into a barge: “That’s it, right there.” The man looked angry. “Same as bloody Southampton” he said. Two huge buildings stick out like the sorest of sore thumbs from that development – one is the tallest building in Suffolk, and, of course, it’s completely empty, save the dance studio on the ground floor. It had bright coloured cladding. Which all blew off in the storms of 2013. The other behemoth has never been finished, and is known, to all, as ‘The Wine Rack’, as it’s unfinished internal structure looks like a concrete wine rack. It has never had exterior walls, and in all possibility, will be demolished. The company in charge of these went bust shortly after they were built. Other large projects were completed. They, of course, resemble East German concrete brutalism at it’s grimmest. I have heard them being referred to as ‘Stasi Offices’. Nice. One of the biggest and ugliest has the added bonus of being built over a mediaeval cemetery, and possible plague pit. It is, of course, mostly unoccupied. Several others away from the dock area, have been built along the Gipping, as it wends it’s way through various brownfield sites, and one, in particular, was built some six feet BELOW the top of the river bank, leading me to think that to it’s designers ‘Spring’ and ‘Neap’ tides were things that happened to other rivers. Your first sight of a flooded parking garage comes as quite a shock, let me tell you. As you might guess, I don’t hold a lot of modern development in very high regard. Don’t get me wrong, some is excellent. But then, a good deal of it is excrement.

  8. Brooke says:

    @Ian L. Ipswich, MA and the surrounding area are definitely Lovecraft (and Updike) country. Land of our founding mythology, including our religious hysteria. Today,Ipswich and near by towns like Salem, Gloucester, are known as “senior vice president territory,” meaning very high home prices and small yachts in the harbors. But well preserved and conserved. In my opinion the only places in US worth visiting.

    I mentioned that the developers are building two towers in our neighborhood which lies on a flood plain– well, I have seen flooded parking garages, waded through 2 feet of water in our lobby, and seen my neighbors’ cars parked on the street with water covering the hoods. One would think developers would note these things before building.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    In Desmond Bagley’s “Landslide” I learned the the term “thixotropic gel” which covers things like mascara, which is a solid until stirred when it becomes liquid, then solidifies again. Sounds fine until you discover there is land that acts the same way. In the book it is the land under a dam on a British Columbia River. Thank goodness it is fictional (as is the University of Vancouver he has instead of the University of B.C.) In real life it is much of the area we call Richmond. (Why did the settlers of N. America not come up with their own names or use the one the First Nations people had already used?) There are multistory buildings, highways, hospitals, seniors’ homes and schools all in the area just waiting for the next earthquake to shake them up – or down as the case might be.
    Please, on a totally different note, did you ever read “Famous Monsters of Filmdom”, a monthly magazine that ran from the late fifties till the 1980s apparently. By the sound of things everyone from Guillermo del Toros to Stephen King and George Lucas were fans so I wondered if you had been. Possibly it didn’t appear in England.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – in the early 1970’s, I used to obsessively collect ‘Famous Monsters Of Filmland’. It wasn’t easy to get hold of here in the UK, but you’d find it in shops in seaside resorts, and motorway service stations. Dad, who worked away a lot, used to pick them up for me. The striking cover images, and the word ‘MONSTERS’ writ huge on them made them easy to spot. A great read, too – it’s creator, the late, great Forrest J. Ackerman, had an almost chatty style, full of inside information; he knew all the horror greats, and was friends with most of them. Not just the stars, either. Directors, Editors, Cameramen. Makeup Artists like Bud Westmore, Special Effects men like the brilliant Ray Harryhausen, and Wah Chang. Ackerman also appeared in many movies, as an extra, sometimes a speaking part, and he would be paid in souvenirs. The sort of souvenirs that would make any sci-fi (a term first used by Ackerman, by the way), and horror fan need to sit down. Karloff’s Frankenstein headpiece. The original scripts for almost any classic movie you can think of. The Stop-Motion dinosaurs from Willis O’ Brien’s 1925 movie ‘The Lost World’. A Morlock from the 1960 movie ‘The Time Machine’. Rocket ships and ray guns from countless movie serials, including ‘Flash Gordon’, and ‘Buck Rogers’. Christopher Lee’s fangs from ‘Dracula’ (1958). The Metaluna Mutant from ‘This Island Earth’ (1955). The C-57D starship, costumes, guns, force-field generators, and Robby The Robot, from ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1958). All were stored in his home, the ‘Ackermansion’, in ‘Hollyweird, Karloffornia’. He’d happily show people round, like it was a museum. In about 1976, I rang him up, not expecting him to answer – I still have the number in an old address book – but he did. What a lovely guy. I told him how much I loved his magazine, and how, because of it, I had a huge list of movies I had to see. He asked me where I was ringing from, and when I told him England, in the middle of the night, he said that I should ring off, as it was going to cost my parents a packet (he was not wrong there), and to keep buying F.M.O.F. I still have a few of those old issues – the ‘Star Wars’ (1977), and ‘Alien’ (1979) ones, but the rest, I swapped for movie posters and action figures. Sadly, Forrest J. Ackerman had to sell off a large part of his peerless collection to pay for his wife’s medical bills, and downsize. He did this once more before he died, keeping his favourite items, like his collection of editions of Mary Shelley’s novel, ‘Frankenstein’ (1818), and his beloved replica of the ‘Maria’ robot from ‘Metropolis’ (1925), in the much smaller ‘Son Of Ackermansion II’, the house he moved to after the death of his wife. After his death, several years ago, the lapsed F.M.O.F. was re-launched. I bought one copy. It was good, but too slick, too professional. And it’s heart and soul seemed to be missing. Forry had left the building.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, that fills in a blank. We have a half hour radio program (remember those?) about advertising called “Under the Influence” with Terry O’Reilly.He started it off last Sat. with the fact that he loved that magazine and so did, apparently, everyone who came later into the horror genre including Mr. del Toro – might as well get the correct spelling in. I wonder if Mr. O’Reilly knows it was relaunched, something that rarely goes well.
    When I re-read my typing I realised I hadn’t changed listener. I was really asking Chris, but it was fascinating to read your connection and imagine paying attention to the differing time zone, and that should have lowered the considerable bill your parents were handed. How old were you at the time?

  12. Ian Luck says:

    In 1976, I was thirteen. It’s safe to say that my parents were not particularly amused by the cost of the call, which came to several pounds, which was, in 1976, a ridiculous amount. And of course: “Why were you ringing a complete stranger in Los Angeles?” My reply, that I was ringing him to thank him for his magazine was met with a stony silence, and the dread warning that I’d be going without pocket money for several weeks to pay for the call, and also that I could have simply written a letter, and sent it for a few pence. Telephone use was nothing like it is now, especially in the UK. It was a tool used only when necessary. Frivolous use was not a ‘thing’. I had transgressed that law, and quite spectacularly. It was mentioned regularly in my parents’ conversations for many years afterwards, just so I would not forget.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and I prefer radio to television – the pictures are so much better.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Ian – I worked it out given a third fact from which to derive the fourth.
    We had a “party line” for a while when I was in my teens and had something like 20 homes on it for a while. You didn’t make frivolous calls while that system operated and you tried to keep the calls short. It didn’t last for too long, thank goodness.
    I agree about the radio pictures. Have you ever heard Stan Freeberg describing the filling of a lake with chocolate, covering that with whipped cream and having the RCAF fly overhead and drop a cherry on the top. He concludes with, “let’s see you show that on television!” Well, they could now, of course, but certainly not in the 50s-60s.

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