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.)

Urban Trawl: Belfast

The Morning Star newspaper always runs reportage from Belfast with the proviso 'from our foreign correspondent'. No offence is intended when I say that the first feeling when in the Northern Irish capital is intense familiarity. It looks at first like a 'regenerated' northern English industrial city – bigger and grander than most, a proud and demonstrative Leeds rather than a minor mill-town. It's a great deal more familiar, in fact, than anything in Scotland or even Wales. Walk round the centre of Belfast and it's all there – towering red brick linen mills, dressed in Venetian styles; sandstone baroque commercial palaces; Portland stone civic buildings with domes and abundant Edwardian statuary; Festival Style buildings of the '50s; bland post-war office blocks; 80s vernacular; an 'iconic' shopping mall; riverside regen; phoenix-from-the-flames public art. Only the weather and the mountains in the near distance remind you you're not in the West Riding.

By the second day you start to register something different in the centre – 1980s buildings like the BBC's fortress-like Northern Ireland department or the weird Vegas entrance to the Europa Hotel that doubles as a screen against bombs; or the more recent Court buildings, with their conspicuous lack of windows. These unnerving moments are far outnumbered by northern industrial vitality and post-industrial regeneration. BDP's Victoria Square mall has a Fosterian glass dome 'contextual' with that of the enormous, overwhelming Edwardian City Hall and the multi-storey Victorian insurance offices nearby. Here there's a slight hint of Glasgow as well as Northern England, in the clear, legible grid plan, opening out to the wild landscape just outside the city. The Mills of 'Linenopolis' are pure Lancastrian-Yorkshire, however, and the place of labour in the city is stressed by the city centre's best post-war building, J.J Brennan's Transport House, a tower and wing clad in green tiles with a magnificent Constructivist mosaic running down the façade. It was occupied until recently by Unite, who should be ashamed for abandoning this building.

Walk a bit from here and the grid's coherence is replaced by the mess of speculation. That's especially sharp where the Westlink slices across the city, an urban motorway comparable in its destructive effect to the M8 more than the Westway, leaving a straggling landscape in its wake. Next to it at one point is John Smylie's ridiculous St Anne's Square, where an ill-proportioned neo-Georgian car park becomes an enclosed 'Palladian' courtyard, with detailing so cack-handed it makes Paternoster Square look like Aldo Rossi. It's hard to imagine Leeds or Manchester standing for this. Walk from here and you're in Laganside, the obligatory riverside brownfield Disneyland. Naturally, the possibility of extending inner Belfast's grid would have involved too much planning and expertise, so the place is a collection of disconnected towers, of different eras. Era one, the BT tower and the Hilton Hotel, is still fortified, stock-brick clad with ground floor blast walls; the post-Good Friday agreement era two is more optimistic, its spec residential towers boasting lots of glass and extraneous bits and bobs, like The Boat flats' brightly coloured picture frames, randomly hung onto the curtain wall. A domed concert hall is a tad more civic, but turns its back on the river. This place has some sort of record for Carbuncle Cup nominations – in 2010, it boasted the The Boat, Broadway Malyan's Obel tower (the best of this bad bunch, to be fair, as its east façade has some grace), plus St Anne's Square. The latter was surely robbed only by the fact none of the judges had seen it first hand.

So far, the only worrying thing about the Belfast landscape is the lowest-common-denominator approach to redevelopment; its sins are the sins of other cities. Things are different once you go beyond the ring road. Drastically so. Inner Belfast is demarcated by a cordon sanitaire of wasteland and surface car parks, just to make the change more obvious. It's not the most obvious barrier, though, in a city which still has 48 'peace lines'. The most famous of these is in West Belfast. When you first see the Loyalist Murals in the Shankill, you suspect they're being kept for tourists; there are black cab tours available and everything. On closer investigation it's obvious that this is real life. The Shankill, like most working class areas of Belfast, was redeveloped in a manner which makes clear the roots of 'defensible space' planning. Tiny houses in cul-de-sacs, with plenty of room on the ends for Oliver Cromwell, William of Orange, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association. Grim open space runs between the artworks, and a leisure centre tries to keep the kids busy. Walk past a large flour mill and the peace line (a gated wall open during the day, closed at night) and the murals are more right-on (Free Palestine, Frederick Douglass, Che Guevara). The Falls Road shows identical defensible-space urbanism to Shankill, although the lack of ubiquitous union jack bunting and punctuation such as the Divis Tower (no longer serving as a British Army watchtower), a more attractive keep-the-kids-busy leisure centre by Kennedy Fitzgerald and St Peter's Cathedral make it feel slightly less bleak.

There are parts of Belfast that weren't completely redesigned into encampments. Much of South Belfast, in the vicinity of the University, is a tad more normal, with terraces both regency and Victorian seeming not to be divided by walls, bunting, murals or conspicuous swathes of wasteland. There are buildings here as good as anything anywhere in the UK or Eire – Francis Pym's unprecedented, unsurpassed Brutalist extension to the Ulster Museum, Richard Turner's first ferrovitreous Palm House just round the corner, and in the residential streets, O'Donnell and Tuomey's recently completed Lyric Theatre, well-made contextual modernism pitched somewhere between James Gowan and the British Library. All of these are buildings worth an architectural pilgrimage in themselves, but the notion that such visits could help the city in some way is hard to believe. Especially so, on the other side of the river, in East Belfast.

I thought it would be interesting to see if it was possible to walk from the residential working class areas of East Belfast to the new 'Titanic Quarter' adjacent. It is, but I felt lucky to be alive at the end of it. That wasn't because of the sectariana, alarming as that is. You walk through a gap so small it may as well have a turnstile, and suddenly street signs are in Gaelic as well as English. This is Short Strand, an tiny nationalist enclave in loyalist territory. Here the Peace Line is fortified and recently extended. You find out why when you squeeze through the wall out into the surrounding area. You don't know the difference from the buildings – both consists largely of defensible space cul-de-sacs, with fragments of Victorian streets marooned in them – but instead from several new UVF murals, marking an area which had a full-scale sectarian riot in June, somewhat overshadowed by the riots in England two months later.

Northern Ireland, with its large public sector, is one of David Cameron's targets for 'shrinking the state'. To see the remains of non-state employment, you have to traverse a terrifying maze of motorway intersections to that Titanic Quarter. The planner here, Bluewater architect Eric Kuhne, made not even the slightest attempt to connect it to residential East Belfast. In fairness he'd have had to demolish part of the motorway to do so (it is instead, in an act of pure folly, being extended). There's nothing surprising here other than scale – the presence of Samson & Goliath, the astonishing cranes which tower over much of the city, and the semi-derelict sheds around it. The slogan for this apocalypse is 'we used to make ships here – now we make communities'.

There are counter-proposals for Belfast – the Forum for Alternative Belfast have published a plan for building on the surface car parks and wastes around the ring road. Architect Mark Hackett of the Forum drove me around North Belfast at the end of my visit, where the relatively simple demarcation of Shankill and Falls is replaced by an illegible chaos of peace lines, new and long-lasting, with some often handsome Victorian housing left derelict then demolished when tensions between areas run too high. This is a city riven with divisions whose post-troubles redevelopment has multiplied walls both real and perceived. It's incredibly disturbing, not for its difference from the rest of the UK, but its similarity. All the factors – rampant inequality, deindustrialisation, social divisions and poverty – are as familiar as the city centre's buildings. Sectarianism might just have lit the torchpaper. With unemployment about to explode, what will happen here in the next few years? But for the rest of the country, contemporary Belfast might be a vision of he future. It's not hard to imagine peace lines in Clapham.

(Originally published in Building Design, 20/10/11. Photo set of Belfast here)