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.

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