Sunday, 18 April 2010

We like our roundabout just the way it is

London is always changing, but a lot more stays the same than changes. Ian Nairn wrote of Sloane Square in Nairn’s London in 1966:

‘Apart from the traffic, Sloane is one of the most attractive squares in London….the space is right, the plane trees are right, the site is right, with….the Royal Court, facing Peter Jones….The square needs joining to both of them, instead of being misused as a traffic roundabout, and then filling with kiosks, a café, more seats. Here really is one of the few sites of London where that wistful dream, a ‘Continental’ atmosphere, would spring up naturally’

Over forty years on, a recent scheme by architects Stanton Williams to do more or less what Nairn had suggested was torpedoed by an improbable alliance of local toffs, thesps and suchlike who wanted their roundabout preserved – and succeeded in bringing about an uncharacteristic failure of nerve by the otherwise admirably robust Councillor Moylan of RBKC.

This is a suitable case for the ‘flip test’, so often a helpful mental exercise: if the present situation is A and it is proposed to change it to B, one way of testing whether this is a good idea is to imagine that the present situation is B and it is proposed to change it to A. How would we feel about that?

In the case of Sloane Square, I am convinced that if the square today was as Stanton Williams had imagined it, and it was proposed to change it to the layout that in fact exists today, the same group of people (or perhaps the other half of the People’s Alliance of Thesps and Toffs) would be manning the barricades: ‘The vandals are at the gates, they want to turn our lovely square into a roundabout’.

Few (apart from moaners stuck in traffic on the Strand) would now want to return Trafalgar Square to its gyratory layout . That, while not perfect, is a terrific success: an example of Fosters' clarity of thinking at its best (I mention that as they may be criticised in other posts).

At Sloane Square, it was, as usual, change itself that was the problem.

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