This is a boom like we’ll probably never see again. London is undergoing change as radical as that desired by the utopian planners of the 50s and 60s (now so despised), who thought the solutions to the city’s problems were a combination of zoning, urban freeways, segregated proletarian housing and tall buildings.
Each of these fundamental tenets has been readdressed with the exception of tall buildings, which are going through a Seifert-style (the unapologetically commercial architect of Centre Point) revival with little of the architectural invention or wit of that most derided ‘commercial’ modernist.
But what have we really learnt? By doing the opposite of what they did we aren’t getting anywhere. The current obsession is with ‘generous’ public space (in a city with no real tradition of urban squares except for the wealthy) as the public tidbits thrown from the property developers’ table. This sanctions the construction of over-scaled, poorly-conceived glass and steel behemoths populated by chain sandwich shops, anti-skateboard studs and sinister CCTV cameras. This cheap typology, the justifiable office, has been allowed to become the prime driver from Potters Field to Spitalfields. The architecture is simplistic and superficial, a tacky cocktail of Renzo Piano’s terracotta tiles from Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, sub-Chicago modern and that peculiarly over-detailed English High-Tech (exemplified by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers) which seems to take its inspiration from the very station roofs which are now being looked at as sources of air-rights income.
The City in particular has suffered. Perhaps the only major commercial and business centre in a modern capital which has attempted to squeeze itself into a Roman and medieval street plan, it has been a palimpsest of old and new, throwing up curious and juddering juxtapositions like the Victorian municipal confidence of Leadenhall Market and Richard Rogers’s looming Lloyds Building. Even Foster’s streamlined Gherkin butts up against London’s best Miesian tower, the Commercial Union building across the street.
Crucial to the mix had been the odd collection of post-war buildings which rode roughshod over the old city plan but which allowed it to be rediscovered, lurking surreptitiously behind. The podiums and towers lent a strange Alphaville ghostliness to the City at night or on the weekend. Now, as the least protected parts of the City they are being demolished in an orgy of destruction and are making way for commercial perimeter blocks with no architectural invention or intelligence. The case could easily have been made for this destruction but only if it was to be replaced by something better – not only in terms of lettable space but of urban and formal quality. Instead the porcupine skyline of tower cranes which has been a feature of the boom is slowly giving way to an incoherent mass of ill-considered buildings which tick the boxes – they restore the ancient street plan (every architect uses that old trick to get bigger floorplates), they create public space (surely there’s a contradiction here?), they are sustainable, ‘green’ towers, packed full of features to obfuscate the fact that the overheating glazed tower is the least sustainable type of building.
Together they create an image of a city attempting to compete with Frankfurt or Shanghai instead of one with real confidence. Spain and Switzerland display this kind of confidence, every provincial town hall or library built in Spain outstrips the most expensive commercial building in London, every office or suburban house in Basel contains more architectural intelligence, history and thought about the cultural meaning of construction than a whole development in London. The municipal housing on the fringes of Madrid is more formally inventive and radical than the architecture we constantly hear promoted as the zenith of the world’s creative capital.
This boom is a bad boom. The overall quality of architecture in our city (despite a few very good things) is unambitious and vacuous. The astonishingly incompetent riverside redevelopment in Vauxhall and its proposed new tower is jaw-droppingly bad – and it is some achievement to have made that area worse. The city, now over-populated by chain coffee shops and dim glass frontages is beginning to resemble downtown Toronto or redeveloped Berlin. One of the city’s big success stories (and still successful examples of its old-style architectural zoo)—the South Bank and Waterloo—have been overwhelmed by glass leviathans, entirely unrelieved by the ubiquitous motif of staggered elemental elevations. The West End is becoming a continuous facade, a single layer of old stone fronting standard spec offices. Nothing has any depth, be it physical, architectural, cultural, or intellectual.
We are in a curious position. The last boom coincided with postmodernism and threw up its share of horrors. But it was also a period riven with debate. The interventions of the Prince of Wales did force architects to defend their position (and also led to Paternoster Square, hopefully the nail in the coffin for his approach to London). Modernism had not yet been fully accepted. Now a kind of zombie glass commercial ubiquity has been adopted as the lingua franca of the thrusting city whilst residential blocks rise in a weird amalgam of classic modernist motifs drawn from utopian public housing. There is no debate. No argument. This is what we have, and what we deserve unless we argue for something better.