Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Paris High Line

The High Line in Manhattan, a former rail viaduct that has been converted to a linear public park over the last few years, has become popular (OK, a cliché) as a reference and inspiration for the landscape component of large projects.  One hears less about the equivalent project in Paris, the Promenade Plantée, carried out a few years earlier and presumably a major inspiration for the High Line ( it is referred to on the High Line website).  In spite of being less fashionably located (and having a rubbish website - why can't the French do websites?), the Parisian version, starting at the back of the Bastille Opera, is well worth a visit.  Elevated viewpoints in great cities are usually enjoyable and this is no exception - highlights include this extraordinary sexing-up of an otherwise unremarkable building with giant versions of Michelangelo's 'Dying Slave'.

Monday, 30 May 2011

'Living history' - not just for progressives

To Apsley House last week, for the launch of English Heritage's corporate plan for the next few years - not as exciting as a Cup Final, but more thought-provoking than one might have expected, with cogent speeches from EH Chair Baroness Andrews, heritage minister John Penrose, and Chief Exec Simon Thurley - all putting a brave face on the fact that the Government has cut EH's budget by about a third, with consequent job losses on a large scale. 

One interesting question from the audience came from Tory MP Peter Bottomley - as is common on such occasions, it was more of a proposition than a question - who suggested that senior EH staff should be taken regularly to Eltham Palace for an awayday, with a view to reflecting on whether a wealthy businessman would be allowed today, as happened there in the 1930s, to revive the remains of an important but decaying medieval palace by grafting on to it an enormous art deco mansion.  

The resulting ensemble is now an EH property, which is well worth a visit.  The EH website draws you in with talk of '1930s Art Deco decadence' before mentioning the older stuff; whereas the South London Pevsner, from 1983, majors on the medieval parts, and clearly doesn't fully approve of the Art Deco addition, which is by Seely and Paget - evidence of changing tastes, and / or the difference between scholarly and popular interests in the past.

Bottomley's question referred to a view of EH's mindset that many architects who try to do interesting things with old buildings - plenty of whom were there at Apsley House - would subscribe to.  EH would, I imagine, protest against the the lazy, cartoon-like dichotomy between tweedy, elbow-patched conservationists who would list anything pre-Beatles, and black polo-necked progressives who would bulldoze the lot.  But imaginative responses to what Lewis Mumford called the 'usable past' are still considerably less likely to find favour than safe solutions that frighten no horses, but could never be used in a few decades to bring the visitors in. 

Budget cuts at EH may well reduce the chances of an enlightened approach if everything is reduced to a tick box exercise, as is usually the way in the public sector.  A better outcome would be for EH to let well alone in cases where projects are in competent hands, and concentrate on things that are actually falling down.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Broadgate recycled

The proposal to demolish two 1980s office buildings at Broadgate in the City of London, and replace them by a new HQ for Swiss Bank UBS, designed by Ken Shuttleworth's practice Make, is making waves in London architectural and development circles. The Twentieth Century Society is lobbying for the existing buildings to be preserved.

In an interview with the Architects' Journal, Shuttleworth is quoted as saying that 'office buildings are commodities not monuments'. This is consistent with what the City of London's head of planning Peter Rees has been saying for years: that the City needs to churn its building stock to suit what businesses need, and that the last thing it needs is to be filled up with new buildings that can't be knocked down when their time is up.

An obvious question is begged by the objections to demolition: if an important business like UBS wants a big new building in the City, where do the objectors suggest that they go? The building stock in central London, out as far as somewhere between zone 1 and zone 2, has ossified to the extent that the number of possible development sites is severely limited. Anything older than the Second World War is now as likely as not to be proclaimed a 'heritage asset' unsuitable for demolition and redevelopment, even if not listed or in a conservation area. Until a couple of years ago, my rule of thumb for the cut-off point was the First World War; from this latest news, it appears the pace is accelerating, and the new age limit may be the First Iraq War.

In practice, the only substantial sites in central London that are unquestionably plausible for large-scale redevelopment are those that have big post-war buildings on them that no one loves. Usually these buildings are bigger than their surroundings already, and development economics suggests a new building bigger than what is there - with the attendant planning difficulties.

Make's proposed building has been likened to 'a piece of kitchen equipment'. Presumably this is meant to be disparaging about its looks, but it is an interesting observation in another regard. It tends to be the very oldest kitchen equipment that is replaced by the new - that sounds like the natural order of things. But with buildings in central London, it has become the other way round - only the newest buildings are allowed to be replaced.

Broadgate is a special place, and a special case - it would be a shame to see some of the original buildings go. But the controversy is symptomatic of the fact that as the pressure for the preservation of old buildings (and their 'settings', and the settings of their settings) has had more and more success, 'conservation creep' has gone too far.

Blue is the colour

The Barclays Cycle Superhighway is coming soon to an arterial road near you – the example above is at Millbank near Tate Britain.

That Bob Diamond certainly earns his money. Any advertisement more than about half a square metre in size needs planning permission. Any new development that affects the ‘setting of a listed building’ is pored over endlessly and in minute detail by the planners to decide if it is appropriate. But I doubt whether consent of any kind was needed for this scheme, which covers several square miles of premium London highway, no doubt passing through a few conservation areas on the way, with Barclays' corporate colours. Money well spent for them. It might have been worse if it had all been sponsored by Orange, but what happens when Barclays pull the plug? Let’s hope there is a bond covering the cost of scraping it all off.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The public squalor of London's eyesores

London's worst eyesores are not for the most part buildings in decent nick that you may or may not like - they are things that are in a mess because of neglect.

It would be great if public money could be spent on sorting out a few of the most outstanding, and most longstanding, examples in time for the Olympics. Here are three suggestions. Each is something that when I moved to London as a student about 30 years ago, I naively assumed was work in progress at that time, since they looked so decrepit then - but in each case, they remain as bad today as they were then.

First, the Hungerford car park on the South Bank. SIXTY YEARS after the Festival of Britain, parts of the site of that great event remains a cat's cradle of public realm confusion - and at its heart the Hungerford car park: in 1951 the Transport Pavilion, but today, after endless squabbles that have got nowhere, a shabby mess and a visual embarrassment at the heart of one of the capital's principal destinations for visitors.

Secondly, the entrance to Highbury and Islington tube station - used by millions every year, now an interchange with the Overground too, at the heart of a lively and prosperous area. The entrance area has the feel and visual quality of the back entrance to something unimportant, with a prefab style station facing a prefab style back elevation of a post office building, the two given a certain coherence by the accumulations of decades of mechanical and electrical equipment installed with maximum thoughtlessness. The sad remains of a single pilaster of the grand Victorian station, seen above to the left of the entrance, offer a poignant reminder that caring about the look of everyday infrastructure used to be more than a minority interest.

Thirdly - the Hogarth roundabout flyover at Chiswick, the west London road network's answer to a Thorpe Park ride, ideally located to impress foreign visitors on their way in from Heathrow. Apparently made of Meccano and roofing felt, it looks like something the Royal Engineers could be half proud of - if they had put it up in a day or two with a view to using it for a week or two. It was built in 1969 as a temporary measure. Presumably someone tightens up the bolts occasionally, but it certainly makes me nervous when I drive over it. Sorting it out has obviously been in the 'too hard' tray on someone's desk for a few decades.

Not all of London can look spiffy, and a big city needs places for tattiness - such as the lower Lea Valley as it was until 2005, when few people went there and businesses unknown to HMRC could carry on in peace and quiet. The places described above are different - they are used or seen by tens of thousands of passers by every day.

A good use of public funds is to lift the look of places by tackling messes in prominent locations like these that can never be sorted out by the private sector. In time for the Olympics please.