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It’s often the disappearance of the familiar that makes us notice the city around us. We walk the same streets every day, no longer really noticing the buildings that define them. Then a hole appears, an open wound in the urban tissue. New views are revealed, naked backs exposed. In 19th-century Paris, photographers rushed to document the last moments of medieval streets and intimate alleys. In London, most urban construction today is perceived as a nuisance rather than a sign of progress, greeted not with nostalgia for the old but frustration in the moment: a closed Tube station, a road diversion, a racket. As the capital grows, it goes through waves of rebuilding, each purporting to address a dominant issue. In the late 19th century it was slum clearance; after the second world war it was the rebuilding of a city devastated by bombing as a physical expression of a new welfare state; in the 1980s the rebuilding was an effort to revitalise the city as a global financial centre. And now — what exactly?
The current phase of construction, which will change the London skyline more radically than any previous rebuilding, is predicated on real estate as investment. More than 400 towers of 20 storeys or more, either under construction or in the planning process, will reshape a city that once revelled in its low-rise silhouette of slate rooftops and chimneys. At the same time, entire new strata are being carved out beneath the pavements. Residents of affluent neighbourhoods have been protesting about the disruption caused by the construction of a new generation of mega-basements, multiple-storied subterranean spaces containing pools, gyms and home-entertainment suites. These may be eye-wateringly expensive to build but, thanks to hyper-inflated property prices (Mayfair developments have been reaching upwards of £5,000 per sq ft), they add far more to a property’s value than they cost to construct. Together the two phenomena might be seen as a kind of privatisation of the sky and the soil, a vertical extrusion upwards and downwards of the ownership once conferred in only two dimensions on an Ordnance Survey map.
The story is not only about private property, however. The biggest holes that have appeared in central London during the past few years have been those dug to build the £15bn Crossrail project, which, by the end of 2019, will provide a 100km rail link from Reading and Heathrow in the west, under central London, to Shenfield in the east. Chasms have opened up in some of the city’s most tightly knit and atmospheric neighbourhoods. Big chunks of Soho have been chewed into mulch by concrete shears, and paper-thin Victorian façades now shiver in the wind generated by Centre Point (itself being converted into apartments). The blocks around Denmark Street, once the hub of the music business with its guitar shops, recording studios and basement clubs, have been fast disappearing. This messy neighbourhood, so dirty and incoherent it was overlooked by developers, is now being repackaged as a piece of prime real estate with added musical nostalgia. The hole south of Oxford Street, carved into Soho, appears vast beside the delicate grain of the neighbouring Georgian elevations, the scale of the structural intervention a shocking disruption to the slightly seedy, dilapidated grid.
The city’s next blockbuster infrastructure project is the “super sewer”, or Thames Tideway Tunnel (due to begin on site this year), a subterranean cesspit that will handle storm surges and stop raw sewage being sent into the Thames. The £4.2bn project is being developed by a consortium of private investors, a vehicle for guaranteeing future income from London water bills. The taxpayer, as ever, provides the backstop should anything go wrong. The new consortium is called Bazalgette Tunnel Limited but in borrowing one of London’s great engineering names, it reveals its inadequacy.
In the 1860s, when Joseph Bazalgette designed the sewers that still serve the city, he conceived a Thames Embankment that not only prevented the river from flooding but would also create a grand new public space for promenading, returning a once purely working river to the public realm. This drain in turn provided space beneath it for the new underground system to be built simultaneously. So the by-products of the city’s drainage system were the world’s first underground railway and an expanded public space that radically redefined the city’s relationship with its river.
In London’s last great rebuilding, in the mid-20th century, many mistakes were made — urbanism delegated mainly to traffic planners, terraces needlessly demolished, poor quality social housing, grim commercial canyons. But there was also an idea that the city was being rebuilt for the benefit of its inhabitants as visionary public projects such as the Southbank Centre, the Festival Hall, National Theatre and the Barbican emerged. Social housing, from Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in the west to his Balfron Tower in the east, with a landscape of fine quality council housing in the middle, facilitated a genuinely socially integrated city. The 1964 GPO Tower shot from the West End like a rocket, a revolving restaurant at its top — a self-conscious symbol of the Labour government’s embrace of the “white heat of technology”. By the mid-1970s, south London’s skyline was dominated by the 34 storeys of Guy’s Hospital Tower, the tallest hospital building in the world — a resolutely public structure. There were commercial blocks too — including the once notorious Centre Point — but most buildings sticking up above the city’s skyline were council housing towers, public assets giving the poorest the finest views over London. Now, hospital buildings are giving way to investment pads at Barts Square (part of the site of the city’s earliest hospital, founded 1123) or the former Middlesex Hospital now Fitzroy Place. Public to private.
What, we might wonder, will be the public benefits of the huge new layers of 21st-century construction? Where is the vision for a grand new public infrastructure following in the wake of Crossrail? Times have changed. The sites that now appear as gaping wounds will be stitched not with public space or buildings but with vehicles for private profit.
London’s departing mayor Boris Johnson came to office in 2008 on a promise not to let London turn into “Dubai on Thames”, in contrast to his predecessor Ken Livingstone, who had been pro-development and pro-tower. Yet Johnson’s record has been precisely the opposite of his sloganeering, an execrable legacy of ill-planned developments and poorly-designed towers scattered incoherently across the city. The impression is of a capital in thrall to capital, property as asset class — what the former City planner Peter Rees termed “safe-deposit boxes in the sky”.
Today, the tower at Guy’s Hospital is dwarfed by the neighbouring Shard, a 310m skyscraper with the “View from the Shard” at its peak. This was billed as a new public space for London, a new vantage point: family ticket (two adults and two children) £74.95. Below this are super-luxury apartments (between £30m and £50m each), a five-star hotel further down (Shangri-La Suite, yours for £14,000 a night) and at the bottom a mediocre and incomplete remodelling of London Bridge Station, which seems to put the station at the service of the building rather than the building at the service of the city.
Despite its faults, the Shard at least has ambition and a considered, perhaps even elegant, profile. Compare it with some of the other towers rising across the city — buildings as objects that seem to have nothing to do with the sites on which they sit or the contexts they will so drastically alter. Or take the vast groundscraper on Farringdon Street, a new building for Goldman Sachs, a crushing piece of visual branding that will dominate a neighbourhood that once accommodated everything from making pianos to printing and clockmaking.
There can, of course, be no construction in the city without demolition. The sudden exposure of a site leaves the surrounding buildings looking vulnerable. It gives a glimpse of the parts of structures never meant to be seen from the street. It opens strange new views that can leave the onlooker surprised, even disoriented. Exposed interiors, often complete with wallpaper and fireplaces stuck halfway up walls, are held up with steel bracing or clad with waterproofing or tarps. Period façades are retained in a futile gesture to maintain the texture of the historic city while the rear is bulked up with steroidal development. But one thing these gaps also reveal is the astonishing complexity and ad hoc construction of fragments of a city that have been added to and adapted over centuries. Often the original bones are impossible to detect, obscured by decades of accretions. These were almost always buildings with elegantly clothed façades; the architecture was only for the front. Yet these Georgian and Victorian creations have managed to survive through the centuries, accommodating adaptation and reuse almost in every decade; from residential to commercial, workshops to studios, shops, bars and bedsits as needed. Their replacements will be tailored to specific uses — global retail chains, top-end apartments and commercial units with big floorplates — overscaled developments with a projected lifespan of no more than 25 years. How will these new buildings be able to change in time, to accommodate unforeseen uses?
The city has its own kind of intelligence; it understands the need for front and back: tarty shopfronts and swanky apartments as well as back alleys and dingy basements where workshops or music venues might establish themselves, largely unseen. It creates density, but it is a density of use as much as of population and it is an endangered ecosystem. Of course, every city changes and has to adapt. Nostalgia is an easy emotion and some of the capital’s new buildings are sophisticated and elegant. Perhaps these gaps are temporary illustrations, memento mori, reminders of the natural state of a city as an organism in flux. London continues to attract people from all over the world — even if the young, the creative and the unsure are increasingly pushed to the margins. There was never a perfect moment. Yet walking through its fast-changing streets there is a sense that the new is inevitably bigger than the old; glassier, shinier, but rarely better. “The chief function of the city,” wrote the urban historian Lewis Mumford in 1961, “is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” The chief function of London, today, it would seem, is to convert space into money. Is that ambition enough?
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
Photographs: Michael Collins