Thursday, 7 July 2011

Temporary insanity

A stroll along Chelsea Embankment this week brought on a double take as Wren's Royal Hospital appeared to have been moved 100m towards the river and undergone a moronic and visually distressing PoMo makeover.  No long term harm done, except probably to the grass not yet recovered from the Flower Show, since this turns out to be a temporary tented city housing 'Masterpiece', an event billed as the 'best of the best from around the world' - best of what, I couldn't work out, but the punters were being greeted by cab-door-opening flunkeys in top hats, moonlighting, I suspect, from door duties at a 'gentleman's club' (of the E1 rather than SW1 variety).  Things are generally all of a piece, and the general mismatch between aspiration and what you could see was at least consistent.

Aside from the question of the marketing wisdom of claiming that you could find the best of anything inside here, this bizarre sight prompted a couple of other thoughts.

The first is that this was more evidence that PoMo, like that other 1980s icon Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, may not be quite as dead as we thought, and as suggested previously in this blog, a revival may be on the cards.  Stake through the heart time?

The other question raised is: for how long you are allowed to defile an important location with tat like this without anybody telling you that you can't?  Anything permanent built within view of the Royal Hospital (e.g. Chelsea Barracks) is gone over with a fine-tooth comb and every last inch argued over, but it seems you can block an entire frontage of a Grade I building completely as long, as the blockage goes away again before too long.  A visiting Wren enthusiast from abroad on a short break to London last week might have been a bit upset - and surprised? - to find 'Masterpiece' in situ for the duration of their visit.

Could there be a formula that planners apply whereby something very long lasting has to be very beautiful, something only there for a week can be any old rubbish, and something middle of the road, like a new office building that will be there for thirty years and then be recycled can be, well, middling? That would suggest we should pay more attention to the design of housing than office blocks, which doesn't happen, so it can't be quite like that, but there is clearly a natural logic to something along those lines.

As a more general point, at places such as the Royal Hospital, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, places that are meant to be open are occupied for more and more of each year by large scale temporary events, the paraphernalia of which are generally of no better quality than those of 'Masterpiece'.  Much of Hyde Park is presently shut off by a high temporary fence that not only deprives people of much of their park but looms aggressively (together with the concomitant 'security' goons) over the space that remains, and a park where one might expect to go for 'quiet enjoyment' has become a showground for much of the year.  Trafalgar Square is a mess most days...

Application of the formula suggested above would mean that the longer we have to put up with this kind of stuff, the better looking it should be.  If such 'temporary' structures are in fact there more often than not, then the thing should be done properly - for a modest outlay you could get Hopkins Architects to design you some tents that would be a pleasure to look at, rather than yet another example of public squalor in our supposed world city.

This is the approach being taken for the Olympics, where for all the complaints about what is to happen in Greenwich Park, for example, we can expect it all to look pretty good on the day.  But it is not the general rule - rather like the difference between the 'impressing the foreigners' procurement philosophy applied to building new embassies, contrasted with the likes of the ghastly new Royal London Hospital building being foisted on Londoners in the East End.  Of which more later.

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