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.)


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  2. Hi Owen, why is it so widely accepted that old houses "enormously expensive to retrofit" (to quote your intro to New Ruins) old housing? If lots of properties were to be done at once, surely there would be economies of scale and an increase in the relevant skills?

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