Recovering Doric

19 May 2009

Living fairly close to Euston station, and having known it for the last few decades as my gateway to London from my home in the midlands, it’s history fascinates me. The unlovely functionalist 1960s station is practical and large, it serves its function well, but it’s not got the romance, history or stories of other London stations. The Times art columnist said

“It gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight. And the fact that it replaced a much-loved old station, wiping out the Classical portico of the Euston Arch, only compounds its offensiveness.”

Which is why I was fascinated to read that the Doric arch, or what remains of it (or most of it that didn’t end up forming a rockery in the back garden of the guy that demolished it), is being recovered from it’s subsequent resting place, thanks to the London Olympics.

Developing Prescott Lock to enable construction materials to be transported to and from the Olympic site in a more sustainable way than dirty road lorries has meant that the remains of the arch, which since 1962 have been basically blocking a hole in the tidal riverbed, are finally being recovered. More on the story here, here and here.

Although I am a town planner, I don’t have a strong conservationist streak. But the story of Euston, and the threatened near-by St Pancras, make you realise what a sense of pride and sense of place architectural history can give you. After one of the most shocking pieces of architectural vandalism it’s now hoped that the arch can be reconstructed, not in it’s original place (somewhere near Platform 8, apparently) but perhaps in the redevelopment of Euston station (possibly looking like the image below), or elsewhere. Even if you cannot stop progress, meeting the needs of future generations, and the ability to integrate architectural history into developing places, is an important challenge we need to grasp.


The blandness of unreality

1 November 2008

So it’s been a while since I posted anything other then my Delicious links, and I’m posting now with no experience of, but a judgment on, Westfield Shopping Centre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. So, what’s the big deal? The centre opened to the public on 30th October 2008: 150,000m² (1.615m ft²) of space to shop in 255 stores, the third largest shopping centre in the UK, sold as a “new retail experience”. And it received some good press: a covered indoor mall combining the top and middle of the market – booming in its first few days even in a credit crunch.

But it hasn’t pleased everyone:

“It’s more Gatwick village than Liberty, all airport ambience and airlessness, an everywhere and nowhere place, everytown and no town, every familiar shop in every high street, the same, same, same. Eclectic, bold, extraordinary? Only if you have never seen a Tie Rack, Gap or New Look.”

But, let’s not forget it’s a shopping centre. This is the disneyland of retail – show and gloss, nothing real. Some people have suggested that it “is a unique and democratic way of shopping, where highstreet brands sit cheek by jowl with designer labels as well as supermarket shopping”. But the truth is it’s the most undemoctratic shopping experience that can exist – a fully privatised space where the company that runs it (who earned $5.58 billion profit in 2005/6) can control what happens. This is not a place. It’s a non-place. It’s not a city: a city is democratic – a city where you can demonstrate on the street, busk, shop or saunter.

And, this ‘democtratic’, privatised future of consumerist excess on cheap credit does nothing to help the very deprived area it’s landed, alien-like, in. It’s a closed-off traffic-jam generating privatised space with no connection to the place around it and very little benefit for it too. In the words of one resident:

“If you don’t turn off towards Europe’s newest, largest shopping mall but head into the grey autumn of Shepherd’s Bush Green, where the local residents walk their pitbulls and the 99p stores will sell you a handbag and an umbrella, but no real, authentic Prada or Chanel. The rest of the “Bush” looks terrible now up against all that is shiny and new. Squalid isn’t the word.”

And yet this is the place not built on billions of dollars of profit – it’s the city, where we live, which is maintained by our money, and which is democratic. So if we want to build something democrtatic let’s think about how places really work – not with closed off walls and revolving doors, but linked into the fabric of the city, where people can be without the approval of corporations or security guards.


Northern Scum

15 August 2008

I haven’t finished reading the Policy Exchange’s latest gem, Cities Unlimited. This is the report this week which – despite the PX being “the tories favourite thinktank” – David Cameron called insane. It’s the report that, and I’m paraphrasing here, said “let them move south” like Marie Antoinette said “let them eat cake” – ignorant of reality.

It’s a shame I haven’t finished reading it yet – I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it when I do. The idea that, because “northern” towns and cities have had money poured into them and are still not doing as well as thriving places in the south we should help more people move south to work and live, is an interesting one. It’s based on pure geographic principles (our northern cities are in the wrong place – no more is cotton and shipping an economic driving force), but a rather ignorant and arrogant suggestion nonetheless.

But for a rather intelligent academic with a supposedly switched-on political mind, it’s a rather odd assertion to make. They say:

The reality turns out to be pretty stark. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “you can’t buck the market”, we find that you can’t buck geography either. Cities such as Liverpool and Hull, for example, were perfectly placed for economic success in 1875 when Britain was a maritime nation, and imports, exports and even trade within Britain often went by sea. But today air, road and rail transport dominate, and suddenly places like Reading and Milton Keynes – awful locations in 1875 for business – beat our coastal cities hands down. No amount of regeneration spending can alter that basic reality.

It’s a rather stupid assertion to say that just because northern cities haven’t grown as fast as more advantageously-places southern ones means we shouldn’t seek to regenerate them (actually they don’t say this per se, but surely they should realise how it comes across). It would be much better, not to benchmark them about how they’ve improved in comparison to the south, but against how much they wouldn’t have improved if regeneration money hadn’t been ploughed in! But their craziest suggestions appear to be reserved for the south, and here I am talking as a town planner.

“We must stop reserving land in the south-east for low productivity industrial use” – I have some sympathy with this argument. But it’s overly simplistic. What about industrial land which is needed here – warehousing (where will our goods come from to get the the many more shops we’ll need?), recycling (we need to have space for this – not ship it all north) and the grotty uses people rely on (even now people have difficult finding a mechanic or car breakers yard in London) are just some examples.

Slightly more crazy is the idea that – assuming by the time you reach the outskirts of London you’re driving at 70 miles per hour, it would only add a minute of congestion onto your journey to expand London by a mile abd you’d have space for 400,000 houses. What about the services people need, what about public transport, what about green space, what about types of homes people (without cars? god forbid!) may want to live in? Is this a child’s approach to urban geography?

John Prescott (Labour’s newest and rather prolific blogger), however, has some interesting words on the “abandon the north” theory, and I’ll leave the last words of this post to him:

It reminds me of what my mother had to do. Daughter of a welsh mining family, she had to work in service in the wealthy homes of the Wirral when she wanted to stay with her family in north Wales.

The same policy was echoed later by Norman Tebbit in the Thatcher regime when he said “get on your bike and look for work.” And that was against the background of over 2 million unemployed. This gave us the highest level of unemployment in the cities they talk about, like Liverpool, Hull and Bradford. And what was their answer then? In Liverpool it was for Heseltine to take a bus-load of bankers up to the city and establish what they called Garden Festivals. Go there now, the Garden festival has been demolished, the city is rebuilt, public services improved and a new confidence, particularly as Europe’s capital of culture.

England’s cities are now better placed than at any time since the end of the 19th century to become motors of national advance. The years of decline and decay have been overcome.


Germaine Greer, you can do better than this!

29 July 2008

She has a good point she finally gets to in her rant about new housing:

The British, like other timid mammals, are neophobic – that is, irrationally terrified of the new. Eco-housing will have to work differently without looking different.

…but her argument is terrible. She bemoans the destruction of romantic but inadequate Irish cottages – most of which disappeared with the potato famine and has no concept of housing’s role in creating, and reaction to economic forces, demographics and lifestyles… to suggest that unless you live in a hemp-built wind turbine clad in solar panels over a tube station you’re not really eco is just plain stupid..

Although I quite like her argument that “Houses grew uglier as the proportion of architects in the population and their share of the new-build budget grew”… St George’s Wharf is a good example of a building designed for maximum river views (and thus maximum profitability) – but will it not always been thus? In a world of commercial developers, and a country country obsessed with home ownership, design isn’t going to be based on what looks good from the outside. And look where functional designs have got us in the past. How does this all compare to her house?

Come on Germaine – you have some great points to make but sadly your argument let you down.


Planning for a defeat?

24 June 2008

Town Planning is rarely seen as exciting. But, hot on the heels of the 42 days debate, tomorrow’s vote in parliament on the new planning bill will be a key moment for the Government. Over 60 Labour MPs have signalled their concerns about the bill. Not only is this ‘yet another’ change to a relatively new planning system which local authorities are well-behind on delivering, these changes raise much bigger issues of how decisions are made.

Today’s Independent sums up the controversial change nicely:

At present, major projects such as power stations, ports, airports, roads, railways, dams, water plants, hazardous waste facilities and critical gas and electricity works are subject to public inquiries, where lawyers for residents, pressure groups and developers do battle – sometimes for years – before government-appointed inspectors recommend whether the schemes should go ahead. Ministers then take the final decision.

Under the Bill, an independent infrastructure planning commission would decide whether to approve such projects. Environmental groups and MPs from all parties have condemned the proposals as an affront to democracy. They say the final say on such developments should not be handed to an unelected quango but should be retained by ministers accountable to the public.

This raises major concerns over the democratic accountability of decision-making for major infrastructure which will affect peoples’ lives for more than just 42 days

A comment piece on the Guardian website added:

It rejected calls for the impact on climate change to be part of the commission’s remit. It wants the new system to speed through projects that have been stuck for years in the slow (but democratic) planning system.

A further irony is that, at least upon my last reading of the bill documentation (yes I have read it) the Government proposed not to include railway infrastructure because there was no forseen requirement for major infrastructure on the rail network (the multiple planning applications to each local authority on the West Coast Mainline for upgrading undoubtedly contributed to the project delays).

There is a need to speed up the planning process for major infrastructure. There’s a need to make sure decisions on new wind farms and power stations are made in the near future and nobody wants the Terminal 5 planning debacle again. The inquiry cost £80m, heard 700 witnesses, and took eight years from first application to government approval.

The Guardian comment sums up the political debates nicely:

The fantasy politics comes from the almost mythic status that monetary independence for the Bank of England has assumed in the Brown story. It was his most successful single act, so he wants to repeat it. Planning is about balancing different needs. It isn’t about expertise or arcane knowledge. A body told to keep inflation low will get on with it. A body told to get things built, will get things built. Remit is all. But deciding if a wind farm is more useful because of the power it generates than it is damaging because of its impact on a landscape – that’s about balancing interests. There is no obvious “right” answer. It is for politics, and argument, not for closed meetings and phoney experts.

The proposed means of decision making is simply wrong, regardless of any concessions that may be offered. It takes democracy away from decision-making. A different approach is needed which allows both speed and democracy, allows people to make their case but takes into account the much wider benefit of infrastructure. The democratic deficit can work the other way around too (where small-scale decisions are made by elected councilors who are voted by residents but may affect more people than those living in the area).

Coming so soon after other concerns about democratic rights the government is once again setting itself on a collision course with its own party and those who vote for it.


on Architecture (updated)

20 June 2008

The London Architecture festival was addressed by the Mayor last night who said:

It is true that I did once take a paper in architecture at university but the syllabus ended after the invention of the Corinthian column and before the Romans introduced the arch and though I look up with a delighted eye at many of the revolutionary buildings going up in London my profoundest thought is that I like the crashed mothership by Daniel Libeskind on Holloway Road, and I like the cornices and the triglyphs and the metopes and the caryatids of the more traditional buildings but I have come to the conclusion that I like each more for its proximity to the other.

…the rest of it however was also interesting and, in theory, more readable! It’s available here.

Also today the owners of Battersea Power Station launched their own plans


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