Friday 3 January 2014

Poundbury's Hidden Reverse

(the below is a review spiked by a prominent architecture monthly, apparently because they'd already published a lot of criticism of the author in question, and didn't want to appear 'obsessed'. Nobody else wanted to publish it, and so here it goes)

Leon Krier, Albert Speer - Architecture (Monacelli Press, 2013)

In his introduction to this new edition of Leon Krier’s 1985 monograph Albert Speer – Architecture, Robert Stern points out, quite rightly, that Krier has never worked for, nor flirted with any currently existing totalitarian regimes; nor is he grandiose as a designer or urban planner. Rather, he bravely tries to tackle the quandary of whether ‘a war criminal can be a great artist’. Skim through the book and you’ll note that Krier’s drawings and graphics are, as always, clever and elegant, and you’ll note an epigraph in big letters: ‘classical architecture and the passion of building are this book’s only subject, its sole justification’. Albert Speer – Architecture consists of a presentation of Speer’s oeuvre, a long essay, ‘An Architecture of Desire’, a historical essay on 20th century classicism by Lars Olaf Larsson, and an introduction by Speer himself. In this new edition ‘An Architecture of Desire’ has been updated, but the both versions are included.

What stays the same is an attempt to explore, as an alternative to modernism, a certain line in National Socialist thinking, which Krier believes he can disassociate from Nazi racism. The SS leader Otto Ohlendorf and the Nazi thinker Gottfried Feder become precursors of Charles Windsor – propagators of a return to small, coherent towns, civic virtues, organic agriculture, restorers of what they called ‘man’s feeling for his homeland’. By contrast, writes Krier, in modern Germany city-dwellers are condemned to live and work in modernist buildings that ‘do not seem to belong to their country’. What has this to do with Speer and his super-urban neoclassical metropolis, Germania, and how is this car-centric moloch to be related to these arts and crafts dreams? Krier himself doesn’t seem to know. His response is to see Germania as a ‘mirror for modernism and socialism’, where they could find their own preoccupations in slightly distorted form. It's a tenuous link - German industry and German industrialists got very rich out of the Third Reich, as Krier himself acknowledges. He asks us incessantly 'what if Hilberseimer or Mies had redesigned Berlin? Wouldn’t that have been worse?' He has no answer to the obvious counter-question: 'so why didn’t they? If they were more Nazi, why didn't the actual Nazis think so?'. 

The speculation continues in a bizarre fantasy where he imagines the implementation of the Morgenthau Plan, a programme entertained for a time by the Allies that entailed the dismantlement of German industry and ruralisation of its economy. In this scenario, the prophets of an agrarian and/or classical Germany like Ohlendorf, Feder and Speer would have been as honoured and respected as Ferdinand Porsche or Werner Von Braun were in the real postwar world. That Von Braun was responsible for mass death is clear, although perhaps not as much as an Einsatzgruppe leader like Ohlendorf, and that is presumably the moral we are to take from this. It doesn’t occur to Krier that Nazism needed rockets and garden cities and standardization and concentration camps, all of which were part of a syncretic and inherently unstable ideology where autobahns and V2s would fulfil the dreams of the Teutonic Knights. In architecture, this meant what Kenneth Frampton in Modern Architecture - A Critical History described as ‘stylistic schizophrenia’ – at Herbert Rimpl’s Heinkel complex in Oranienberg, the offices were neoclassical, the housing arts and crafts and the factory functionalist. Similar dichotomies operated in the work of American architects like Albert Kahn, although the connection to 'modernism and socialism' is harder to spot. Regardless, Krier has nothing to say about any of this. 

Particularly telling are the differences between the two versions of ‘An Architecture of Desire’ (so-called because of the apparently maternal nature of the Germania dome, among other things). Krier in 1985: ‘many people are more disturbed by the grandeur of Speer’s designs than by images of Auschwitz’. In 2012, this is toned down to ‘images of Speer’s designs’ and ‘those of concentration camps’, which is not the same thing, although absurd in a lesser way. The notorious statement that ‘Los Angeles and Auschwitz-Birkenau are children of the same parents’ has been removed entirely in the later version. References to modernism as the product of fossil fuels have been newly inserted, though this evidently concerned neither Speer or the younger Krier. And while 28 years ago, Krier was angry that the Soviets had used the marble from the Reichskanzlerei to build their war memorials, he now appears to believe that it’s apt revenge. Or does he? The new version is ‘edited by Irene Perez-Perro’, which implies that the bowdlerization of the book’s most offensive and apologist statements was contracted out.

And the architecture, apparently the sole subject, the sole justification? Speer appears to have been a mediocre but efficient neoclassicist, and as Lars Olaf Larsson’s cogent essay makes clear, his neoclassicism was not unique in the ‘30s. To ask ‘why Speer? Why not, say, Zholtovsky, Bonatz, Asplund or Lutyens?’ is missing the point. Krier’s project at its root is to both de-Nazify classicism and Nazify modernism, via a contorted, dishonest and historically valueless argument. Krier, in a claim vastly more ‘totalitarian’ than any made by his stock modernist villains, writes at one point that ‘by its nature, civic classical architecture does not exert terror’. Speer’s own introduction to the volume, meanwhile, states otherwise. He and Hitler, he writes, would talk about how a visitor from the provinces would visit Germania’s Great Hall, ‘that gigantic area of 220 metres high and 250 metres diameter, and feel literally crushed by what he saw’. The war criminal was more honest than his apologist.

Monday 24 June 2013

The Swedish Deluge

Entirely coincidentally, I was in Stockholm a week or so after the riots there, giving a guest lecture at Södertörn University on the city's southern outskirts. There is a massively condensed piece on my impressions which you can find here. There was a tiny weeny little bit of glee from some people at the riots occurring at the heart of every Spirit Level reader's favourite 21st century economy, a trickle of Schadenfreude - look, the Social Democratic model is broken and there's no turning back - something which dovetails nicely with a critique from the right. The basic assumption of both is that Social Democracy or the 'Nordic Model' was a sort of historical fluke, something enabled by various kinds of luck - geopolitical neutrality, small and cohesive populations, petroleum, rural societies ready for urbanisation. Pyzik, with me on the journey, is particularly keen on pointing out the far more propitious circumstances Scandinavia had for creating a fairer society when compared with post-war Eastern Europe (not to mention China, south-east Asia...). All of this is true. But it wasn't obvious from the start, and maybe what is valuable today in Swedish Social Democracy is what a leap it was, especially compared with the conformist record of most reformist governments in the interwar years - it is rare in the history of reformism in general for actively trying to achieve hegemony. 


Ah but if only they'd been overthrown by a Fascist coup bombarding their housing schemes, then maybe their monuments and figureheads would live eternally in our memories along with Karl Marx Hof and Salvador Allende....always, solidarity with the defeats, suspicion for the victories. Quite how close Sweden came to a (localised, for sure) classless society can be garnered by this fascinating article in an old issue of Socialist Register by Rudolf Meidner, the economist of the LO, the Swedish TUC. Meidner is best known for the Rehn-Meidner model, where full employment and low inflation were improbably combined, partly via wage restraint; and his later proposals to funnel the proceeds of that wage restraint into 'wage-earner funds' which would enable workers to take over ownership of the highly successful and highly monopolised industries that powered Swedish capitalism - Ericsson, Volvo, Tetrapak, IKEA - the latter of which, he reminds us, owed its success to providing furniture for housing built under the famous 'Million Programme'. The scheme was partially implemented but botched, and eventually the money was spent on culture and scientific research instead. However, the seriousness of the attempt of, at first, creating a genuine compromise between labour and capital and then overcoming that compromise, can't be doubted. But that it hasn't been sustained is equally obvious - begging the question of how something seemingly so strong could have been so undermined. So the failure and success of the Swedish Long Revolution should, we thought, have been easy to see via a walk around its capital.

Södertörn University is a peculiar place on a hilltop in the southern suburbs, reached by a sort of escalator-funicular, which at the top looks like this, above - sober late modernism with sudden and bizarre geological outbreaks. Knowing that the riots had been entirely localised to areas built under the Million Programme, where the Social Democrats had built a million flats and houses in ten years, I asked to be pointed in the direction of the nearest - which was very nearby, apparently, I was told, a particularly notorious example, albeit one where there were 'only a couple of burning cars'. Flemingsberg, for it is there, is reached by walkways, via a large Brutalist hospital:

...and then you end up here, where a glossy new shopping centre lies inbetween the older blocks, some reclads, and an equally glossy new hotel. Evidently works are still happening here. The upgrade programmes for the Million Programme areas often involve 50% rent hikes, cited by some as one of the causes of the suburbs' anger. Further on, along the pedestrian walkways of this completely car-free space, you can find the usual paraphernalia of a good, well-thought-out peripheral estate - youth centres, shops, cultural facilities, the inevitable modernist church.

It's made up of several immense prefabricated slab blocks, which have cantilevered balconies, fanning out Brunswick Centre style at the lower parts of the slabs. Compare them with the GLC's work at, say, the Aylesbury, and it's not flattering to the UK - the applied colour actually works spectacularly well, especially in weather like this - optimistic, bright, never obvious. And then there's the landscaping. Turn a corner and you could easily end up somewhere like this:

The pedestrian paths were walked by a fair amount of people in the hour or so I was there, so didn't feel particularly isolated or isolating; and sometimes you have small shops in them, like so:

It's very hard indeed to see Flemingsberg as a ghetto, which it is, at least in a sense - you see more non-white people in an hour here than in several hours in much of the city centre. The immigration policy in Sweden, like the welfare state and 'the solidarity wages policy' is something that seems to vaguely endure without anyone knowing why; so it has one of the fairest immigration policies in Europe, and police who like to call people 'monkeys'. It's a hard question to fathom for a outsider with access to a tiny handful of English articles, but its effects are undeniable and massively visible. But aside from having quite a few boy racers on motorbikes speeding unannounced along the pedestrian pathways, it's equally hard for an outsider to see anything much wrong here.

Here, at the entrance to the train station, you can see a possible reason why Flemingsberg is 'notorious', perhaps - from a distance all you can see is enormous slabs, and as with the Heygate, Park Hill et al, few get close enough to see anything other than enormous slabs. And though a train can get you to the centre in 20 minutes, it hardly feels contiguous with the rest of the city.

Back to the capitalist centre, now one of the most expensive places to live in Europe. Like the area around Les Halles and the Pompidou in Paris, the square around the Kulturhuset feels more mixed than most - a genuine agora. It's overshadowed by Stockholm's various essays in Manhattanism, from a spectacular, Playtime-esque arrangment of curtain walls in enfilade, to the earlier, more Fritz Lang-like Gothic skyscrapers rammed onto overhead walkways.

The drama of this place, with its multiple levels, is proof that a city doesn't need 8 million people to feel like a metropolis - but the overwhelming sense of obsessive cleanliness can get pretty wearying, as does the monoculture of banks and offices, often in blander, later buildings, all of them planned and uniform. Agata, perpetually annoyed when a country seems to have managed socialism better than the 'socialist countries, is practically hissing here at the tidiness and anality. She recounts an anecdote from a Boris Kagarlitsky essay about a group of Swedish revolutionaries refusing to drink their bottles of beer when they realised they didn't have a bottle opener. Kagarlitsky apparently showed them the several opener-free methods.

Walking west from here we arrive at a very early bit of socialist housing, built in the interwar years. As mentioned in Eric Clark and Karin Johnson's essay 'Circumscribed Neoliberalism' (in this book, and my main source for most of this; and see also), Sweden did not have 'social' housing, but an entire apparatus of regulated and public housing - housing built by the several municipally-owned building companies, housing run by tenant-owned co-operatives, and rigorous rent control for what was left in private hands. Anyone could get on the waiting list and after a few years get a choice of flats, which would pass out of their 'possession' on death. Like the 'solidarity wage policy', the intent is straightforwardly egalitarian - to avoid any divide between rich and poor areas, something that the reception of the Million Programme may have eventually destroyed. Anyway - these are the first draft, built in the city centre in 1927, by the housing co-operative SKB, who are still in existence. The effect is not unlike the early LCC tenements of the Boundary Estate, although rendered in bright colours and with more specifically Swedish-classical details and oriented, Jane Jacobsites, to streets rather than courtyards. It's these that really make it, little street-centred touches like these entrances:

The effect is a little like some of the Socialist Realist areas built in Warsaw in the '50s only vastly better maintained - and a statue, unambiguously titled 'Worker', sits at the heart of it. Just in case you were wondering about the politics. Tor Lindstrand points out that the housing programme here came from a social movement before it did from a government; but also that these were the first to be sold off, as early as the late '60s. The waiting list (according to wikipedia) for SKB's city centre apartments is 25 years. 

So as the city centre has and evidently already had a level of demand that couldn't accommodate everyone who needed housing, even if the lot was nationalised, the city had to build outwards, and you get places like Vällingby, which like all architectural tourists we had to visit. Vällingby is quite far from the centre - adjusting for size it's not massively different from the placing of Thamesmead in London, built less than a decade later - a partly self-sufficient new town within the capital, with a roughly similar projected population. Unlike Thamesmead, obviously, they didn't completely bugger it up via half-completed plans and never-completed tube links. It's also architecturally a great deal more mellow and straightforward - the system of pedestrian walkways is subtler, and the system-building (common in Scandinavia) is hidden rather than accentuated. 

Accordingly the town centre of Vällingby immediately appears from the Metro station as a mid-century modern theme park, with all the signs and details left in place, from the whimsical light fittings to the signs on the cinema and the cafe. 

This is slightly deceptive, though. Walk around that town centre, and aside from noticing that it's basically Coventry or Stevenage with considerably more care and money lavished on its maintenance, you also soon notice that things have happened to it that would also happen to their British equivalents. A mall, with an exurban prefab retail park at the end - Sweden was the partial inventor of the Big Box retailer, after all.

The shops are the same as any others anywhere else in the world, for the most part - McDonalds, a big H&M, not a lot that seems specific to the area other than the realistically modelled Swedish mannequins. Then some of the precincts have these high-tech canopies over the top, like so:

This renovation was prize-winning, it transpires. The residential areas around the town centre are still in remarkably good shape, though: lines of tenements interspersed with tower blocks to the street, but pass under the archways of the former and you get to things like this:

The effect isn't that different to what was being tried by the 'People's Detailing' era at the LCC, only, again, much better maintained, and with much more spatial generosity - less sense of the site being maximised which happens when you have less publicly owned land. Though what the Swedish flag signifies here I'm not entirely sure. There's a small market outside the Metro station, which was apparently the focus for Vällingby's small part in the unrest - apparently some youth went in there smashing up trains during the week of the riots. Yet any menace is pretty hard to ascertain. It may be peripheral, but even more so than in the far less obviously affluent Flemingsberg, it's hard to see it as a ghetto. At the very least, it wasn't built as one. Frankly, compared with the two cities I spend most time in - London, and Warsaw - the level of care and attention obviously expended on this place is gobsmacking, and it's this which probably makes it so difficult to criticise the rump social democracy that pertains here - you have to look deeper, into questions of privatisation, rent, policing, employment - and Stockholm seems to be pretty good at concealing their effects. Which was especially clear in the next place we went to. 

Hammarby Sjostad is, in effect, a post-industrial regen development like any other, the bringing of unprofitable 'brownfield' space back into profit-making service. And architecturally, too, it isn't particularly nonconformist. There's fewer cladding materials than you'd get in London and a lot less height than you'd get in Warsaw, but  the model is the same - concrete frames clad in various kinds of shiny. It also follows all the urban renaissance rules - traditional street plans, shops on the ground floor, Active Frontages and Mixed Uses. It doesn't feel at all hidebound by that, however - there's nothing twee or New Urbanist about Hammarby, though it does, like Flemingsberg and Vallingby, boast the very mid-century retro feature of a modernist church.

The obvious parts have been copied with grim effect in sundry developments across the UK, but the non-obvious parts haven't - the subtle relationship with the water, with marshes, rocky outcrops and boardwalks (whereas in Cardiff, say, you'd build a barrage to make sure there was nothing interesting to see), the squares and courtyards, none of which feel like an afterthought but rather like real public spaces meant for enjoying, loitering in and lying around in. Look!

You don't get that at Paddington Basin. But here, too, is a public-private partnership in social terms where the private appears to dominate. There are some flats built by the no-longer-non-profit SKB, but Hammarby mostly looks extremely affluent, and the shops and cafes are expensive and vaguely pretentious. 

What seems to have happened to Sweden's Long Revolution is familiar: inertia from a left unwilling to deepen that revolution, leaving it open for dismantlement by a radical right. But evidently proud of the far higher standard of living and standard of built environment it achieved, Stockholm appears to have avoided the worst of neoliberalism; mainly in the sense that its new neoliberal developments have retained the best things about social democracy - care, careful planning, benign technocracy - largely for the purpose of housing the affluent. This could be a depressing conclusion, but imagine for a moment that Hammarby was low-cost public housing, as open as the peripheral Million Programmes, and imagine what a massive vote of confidence in the possibility of a genuine social democracy that might have been. Or, alternatively, we could just ignore all of this experience of trying to build non-capitalist spaces as a confidence trick, an outdated compromise - after all, it's not Full Communism, is it? 

Wednesday 19 December 2012

What is really happening at Preston?

x-posted from here

In a situation where benefits are being decimated, estates cleared, the NHS privatised and urban planning regulations torn up, it's easy for politicians (and developers) to claim that architecture is a side-issue, of interest only to aesthetes (probably southern). So it might seem that the campaign to save Preston's Bus Station from demolition is a distraction from the issue of austerity and what the response to it should be - but, in fact, if there's a better illustration of how austerity works and how hopeless the Labour Party have been in opposing it, I can think of few better examples. But, first things first - the building itself. Preston Bus Station was designed in the late 1960s by local, later to be international architects Building Design Partnership. 'Bus Station' hardly covers what the building is. What we have here is a Bus Station and multi-storey car park, with a vast, airport-lounge like interior boasting cafes, newsagent, hairdresser (!) and so forth - a Public Building in the truest sense, taking a mundane thing and making it as comfortable and pleasing as possible, lack of maintenance notwithstanding. The finishes of the building - the wood, tiles and metal of the interior, the op-art concrete waves of the facade - are of the very highest quality. Nothing today, bar the most expensive 'signature' architecture, is this well-made. But being a good Public Building is not going to do a structure many favours today.

I've been trying to puzzle out what is exactly happening with the Bus Station on Procrastinator and to be honest I'm still none the wiser. For most of the 2000s the proposal was to demolish the station and replace it - and the surrounding area of the '60s Markets and office buildings built at the same time by RMJM and BDP - with Tithebarn, a 'mall without walls'. Always a strange idea in a declining city that already has two large malls, Tithebarn was an early casualty of the recession, effectively cancelled in 2011 when John Lewis pulled out. That seemed to give the place a reprieve - earlier this year, at a public tour and talk on the Bus Station, I spoke to a few local politicians and councillors*, who said that they were keen to keep the building - the only obstacle was Lancashire County Council, who wanted a new bus station built by the Railway Station. This idea, that it's in 'the wrong place', comes up a lot, although it's puzzling - it's ten minutes walk from the railway station, but right next to the Guildhall, the Markets, the magnificent Harris Museum and Art Gallery and the shopping centres, basically everything a non-Prestonian might want to see or do in Preston. Nonetheless, Lancs Council are apparently adamant that they will not fund a refurbishment (though it may be cheaper than demolition), so if the current building is demolished, there will (eventually) be a new bus and LCC will (probably) be funding it. Here is what they want it to look like.

(image via Dominic Roberts)

Now you've got your breath back, I should point out that though this is what Lancs County Council want, they are not planning to do this anytime soon - they are not demanding the Bus Station be cleared out of the way. Why would they, when they want to build it somewhere else entirely? So the reason given is the cost of maintaining the current Bus Station. A recent costing puts this at £23 million, a bizarre figure - earlier estimates put it at £4 million, and even councillors concede the figure is probably around £10 million,. £4 million is a lot of money, particularly when council budgets are being crushed in Eric Pickles' iron fist, but the fact is that the Bus Station costs £300,000 a year to run. Local socialist councillor Michael Lavalette estimates that a 50p increase in car park costs would pay for the building's annual maintenance. So all this suggests that someone, somewhere, wants a prohibitive figure put on the building so that they can make the we-are-protecting-services-not-buildings-for-ponces argument, to get rid of the Bus Station ASAP. What for, though? 

What is key here is that Preston City Council also voted to demolish RMJM's 1960s Market building adjacent. That is, the other council-owned part of the former Tithebarn site. Like the Bus Station, although not quite as architecturally stunning, the market is a good piece of civic design, and it is well-used. Nonetheless, the Preston City Council meeting that decided to demolish the Bus Station and markets met for a paltry 30 minutes. I'm sure a lot of people in the city and outside of it have talked more about the Bus Station on an average Monday than that. So it seems pretty obvious that a fix is in. What sort of a fix? Well, what the council want in place of the Bus Station, for the moment, is a surface car park. Given that there's already a cordon sanitaire of dead space between the Bus Station and the ring road, that means a vast, exurban empty space in the middle of the city, to deliberately create the sort of vast, anti-urban car-centred wasteland that has destroyed Southampton - only without the actual shopping mall those spaces serve. The city's idea appears to be - as far as I can tell - that they will carry out the programme of demolition that was meant to precede the Tithebarn scheme, giving them a big empty space that they can then sell to a developer at that mythical moment, When The Market Picks Up. That is, Preston is choosing to inflict on itself what Bradford now has, a huge bloody hole where it used to have a city centre. This, incidentally, is also what happened to Portsmouth City Council in 2004, when it demolished the Tricorn Centre, after a similar campaign that pit bluff, don't-know-a-lot-but-I-know-what-I-like councillors against local and national architecture enthusiasts, who proposed several plausible schemes for refurbishment, redesign and renewal to no avail. The Tricorn was replaced with a surface car park, on which a 'Northern Quarter' was meant to be built, when The Market was most definitely Up. 8 years later it hasn't been, but maybe When The Market Picks Up....

This is the fate that Preston is choosing to inflict on itself. If it's only a matter of Lancashire County Council's hostility, why are Preston so keen to frame it as being about the Bus Station's allegedly exorbitant expense? Unlike similar acts of philistinism, like Tower Hamlets' sell-offs of Robin Hood Gardens or Henry Moore's 'Old Flo', or Birmingham's flogging off of sites occupied by John Madin's Library and NatWest tower, there are no buyers waiting in the wings. Unlike the Tricorn, the building is structurally sound, it works, and it is popular, winning the Lancashire Evening Post's poll for best building in the city - no mean feat when the Harris is nearby. Like the Tricorn, there are several plausible plans for its redesign and reuse, to sort out its problems with circulation, its excessive size, and so forth. Preston and its architecture have been, through the council's philistinism, in the news for the first time since, well, the 1960s. Every council wants an Iconic, nationally recognised building. Preston now has one. So why not appeal to Lancashire County Council's good sense, and mount a council-sponsored campaign to save the building? It still seems like the most plausible reason is that they really do want to replace the Bus Station with a surface car park, in the hope that one day a developer will want to build them a mall. After (or rather during) the massive game-changer that is the financial crisis and the obvious bankruptcy of cities built on debt, shopping and driving in and out, Labour councillors - in both Lancashire and Preston - still can't think of anything their cities might be other than shopping centres. In fact, austerity now gives them an even better alibi. Can't you see - we've got no choice...

Petition to save Preston Bus Station is here.

*one of whom told me a story about this delightful new hotel, that he'd been the only councillor to vote against it when it was in planning. When asked why, he said 'because it's a terrible piece of architecture'. He was told 'that's nothing to do with us'.

Monday 20 August 2012


Around 18 or so Urban Trawls have been set to music - or rather, edited and somehow turned into pop songs - by the wonderful Golau GlauA New Kind of Bleak OST can be found here.

Sunday 10 June 2012


Consider this blog officially dormant, but more of this sort of thing - much more, 110,000 words or so of it - is published as A New Kind of Bleak - Journeys through Urban Britain on July 2 (though it can be obtained already, I'm told). There are other parts of the UK that might be done over on here one day, though, so don't delete from your feeds quite yet.

Monday 2 January 2012

Urban Trawl: The City

If you looked up above St Paul's Cathedral in the early afternoon of the 9th November, you could have counted at least three helicopters. Their deafening spiralling nearly drowns out what is happening below. They're the result of the ruthless over-policing of the slight return of last winter's student protests, currently marching nearby in Moorgate. This made the 9th a perfect day to explore this neurotically protected citadel of undead financial capitalism. Encircling St Paul's is Paternoster Square, or more specifically Juxon House, a nasty, Vegas via EUR via Duchy of Cornwall neoclassical superblock. In the last decade of pseudomodernism, this development has always stuck out for its kitsch revanchism, bolting onto itself Wren's Temple Bar, retrieving it from a garden in Enfield and plonking it a long way from the Temple itself. There's a ghost of a town planning idea in these Rossi-goes-to-Reading banks and offices, in the way they enclose the great dome with a series of narrow byways. Nonetheless this has long been one of 21st century London's most depressing, smugly jolly spaces. Not now, though.

The silly mock-pathetic columns of Juxon House, each topped by a broken, blank-eyed Grecian head, were covered on November 9 with an architecture more parlante – hundreds of small posters, flyers, messages, notes, manifestos, declarations. 'GENERAL STRIKE!' reads the aptest, with a wild-eyed cat below. 'THE BEGINNING IS NIGH!' reads one. 'BEAUTY IS IN THE STREET' another, which is quite Urban Renaissance of them, though the poster's image of a barricade-laden thoroughfare is not very Urban Splash – and nor is the highly developed public infrastructure of the camp they look out on. In tents large and small are a University, Welfare centre, Clinic, Restaurant, Public Toilets (the latter especially unusual in contemporary London). The tents themselves are a Drop City of simple, curvilinear frames with multicoloured tensile artificial fabric – high-tech, though their users might not always think so. A line of armoured riot police, shields and truncheons at the ready, stand at the other side of Temple Bar, with a pastiche of the Monument in the background. As an example of detournement, a subverting of private space into public space, you really couldn't do better; it's a wonderful irony that the square's part-ownership by the Church has meant that the encampment is at Paternoster Square, of all places (though there are subsidiary camps at the time of writing in Broadgate and Finsbury Circus). It's the most exciting thing to happen to the City of London since the Lloyds' Building. Or the fire.

The City is our last Urban Trawl, and it is the smallest and oldest place to be covered; the Roman colonial city that became English capital that became strange, depopulated autonomous centre of gentlemanly finance, or rather the expression in space of the British Empire's funding system. Since 1986 it has taken on another life. Still not residential, still unencumbered by representative democracy or common law, the City has become the fulcrum of a system of offshore, unregulated finance, sprouting colonies on the Isle of Dogs, Borough, Holborn (sorry, 'Midtown') and elsewhere. It is Old Corruption in 'transparent' braced glass. The place where Lehman Brothers did the things that even Wall Street wouldn't let them do. The heart of darkness at the root of the UK's malaise. Everything from slavery to suburbanisation, imperialism to deindustrialisation, can be traced to here. It is a place which has long deserved a serious reckoning.

It's also, and this should be somewhat shaming, perhaps the most coherently planned city in the UK of last 20 years. This is obviously something of a negative virtue. Compared with the planning of the inner areas of Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol, Peter Rees' tenure can be seen as a relatively benevolent despotism. New City buildings boast expensive materials, fine detailing, and sometimes a degree of wit and imagination in their adaptation to the old City's courtyards and alleyways. There's roughly one success to one howler; Eric Parry's elegantly stern Wood Street or Jean Nouvel's lumpen shopping mall; OMA's site-specific raised box or Foster's Rhinoceros round the corner; Levete's blinging neo-Seifert or the well-placed Salvation Army headquarters. Even the bad buildings here have a sensitivity of massing and materials that is deeply unusual in Britain. The Devil doesn't necessarily have the best buildings, but he can afford slightly more civilised ones. Don't think too hard about what goes on inside and there's something to grudgingly admire. But needless to say, nobody has animated the City's malevolence with the demented extravagance of Lloyds, a building which seemed to scare Rogers and his clients into 25 years of worthy sententiousness.

That might sound counter-intuitive given the City's obvious vertical emphasis of late. Its new skyscrapers, adjoining or replacing Seifert or Gollins Melvin Ward's more sombre '70s efforts, are the result of Ken Livingstone's failed Faustian Pact in the early '2000s – skyscrapers for Section 106 agreements, a manifestly misguided attempt by a GLA without tax-raising powers to finance new social housing, resulting in a few 'affordable' studio flats slotted behind waterside yuppiedromes. The architectural results here too are often fair as these things go – American corporate modernism made more interesting by being slotted at random into the medieval street plan, creating strongly memorable accidental vistas. SOM's Bishopsgate Tower is ruined by its height restrictions, squat where it should be sweeping, but KPF's Heron Tower is less compromised. The Gherkin still feels barely corporeal up close, like a piece of GGI. And in typically, the new domestically-named towers under construction will entail both Vinoly's whimsical 'Walkie-Talkie' and Rogers' more rigorous 'Cheesegrater'. Seen from, say, the viewing area of Tate Modern, the new City skyscrapers compare well with Canary Wharf's axial beaux-arts boredom. But it's hard to ponder their architectural qualities in the face of the fact that, despite the bailouts, despite capsizing capitalism, the City is merrily going on as if nothing had happened. If you want to know why OccupyLSX is necessary, consider the fact that the public purse funds the City's new generation of financial phalli, while they squeal against a Tobin tax.

These new towers also have to replace something. Accordingly it is the architecture of the recent past that must go, from the attractive if privatised postmodern agora of Broadgate to Seifert's sinister, insufficiently cuddly corporatism. More sadly, there's the curbing of the walkways strung across the City after Patrick Abercrombie, which added another layer of topographical interest to the tangle of alleyways, byways and churchyards. Yet The City hasn't quite tidied up its edges yet. Sometimes it colonises them, with alarming effect – Foster's unforgivable emasculation of Spitalfields Market, Grimshaw's weirdly '80s blue-glass homunculus creeping up to Aldgate, and most obviously, the leap cross-river into Borough, in the form of Piano's Shard. It's arguably impressive from a distance, but shockingly overscaled at ground level. Elsewhere the border is a harsh them-and-us; the Griffins overseeing the faded technocratic murals of Telephone House or the rotting carcass of Smithfield. There are two moments, though, when the City meets the seeming antithesis of the rapacious capitalism it embodies and propagates.

Middlesex Street, 'Petticoat Lane', is full of public housing, from interwar tenements to a remarkable mini-Barbican of walkways and towers. It's a sudden plunge right into real London, and vies with Poplar for the sharpest meeting of rich and poor in Europe. These places were largely owned by the LCC, now Tower Hamlets, and hence are left to rot. The City's own postwar housing projects, however, are still a revelation. It's incredible at this distance to think that the City could have paid for Golden Lane, for instance, a place where evidently some of London's working class manage to live well next to architects who are paying over the odds for the same flats. The Barbican, into which it imperceptibly fades along Goswell Lane, is a more complicated proposition, never public housing in the strict sense, although certainly not intended as the luxury enclave it is now. The Barbican, aside from the sheer pleasure of its Brutalist-Baroque grandeur, is mainly of use for deflecting every anti-modernist, anti-urban shibboleth going – a high density arrangement of towers and walkways, without an inch of 'defensible space', in beefy raw concrete, that is doing very well thank you (it's also, like the City itself, a wonderful place to get yourself deliberately lost on a Sunday).

If there is hope in the City, it's in the conjunction of these two estates and the camp at Paternoster Square. Here the latter's direct democracy, their egalitarianism and anti-capitalism might lose its anti-industrial biases, their Transition Town off-grid narcissisms, and encounter the sensitively planned, egalitarian, modernist, industrial architecture of the Barbican and Golden Lane. That encounter urgently needs to happen. It is potentially where the future of British architecture and urbanism lies, if it is not to remain the elegant exterior decoration of evil.

(Originally published in Building Design, 24 November 2011; photo set of the City here.)