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London’s streetscape is haunted by the ghosts of streets and structures that have accumulated over two millennia. Periodically burnt to the ground, each time it rebuilds itself it leaves the memories of its former frameworks in place.
The streets of medieval and Roman London are still decipherable on the map and the traces of the mud and clay it is built on are manifested in the earthy-toned brick of its seemingly endless terraces and squares. It has given the world its own particular typologies: the terrace, the semi-detached house, the garden square, the peculiar hybrid of classical church and gothic spire of Wren and Hawksmoor.
London also soaked up continental models, from Inigo Jones’ Italianate Covent Garden piazza to the Corbusian housing estates of Roehampton. But foreign models were modified, made English through the use of decoration (or lack of it), the scale and patterns of windows, the insertion of a pub into a housing block or the acknowledgement of the topography and the romantic landscape tradition in a housing estate.
The most recent additions to London’s landscape, though, are something very different. The skyline is being filled in with generic apartment blocks, often perfectly well designed but with seemingly no relation to the streets on which they are appearing. The new enclaves of luxury apartments (what other kind is there in London?) from Nine Elms to Hoxton are barely distinguishable from each other and are creating corridors of generic architecture that are stealing the city’s character, neutralising the eccentricity that once made it such a thrilling and unpredictable place to walk through.
Certainly this is an age of globalisation, not only of commerce and culture but of architecture too and you could argue London needed to change its models to enable it to densify and begin to address its chronic housing shortage. But these new towers are not making a denser city, only a taller one. If that sounds tautologous, it might be necessary to suggest that density should not be measured in terms of living accommodation only. A truly dense city is one that accommodates a density of use.
To keep themselves alive, the city’s streets need to be able to adapt and absorb new strands of production, retail, entertainment and work as they emerge. When the great brick warehouses, mills and factories of US, German and British cities were left empty by the departure of manufacture, they were quickly adapted as artists’ lofts, recording studios, architects’ offices and, eventually, lofts for the newly re-urbanised middle classes. This was a building type robust enough to absorb waves of radical change.
The same went for the solid urban blocks of Paris, Barcelona and Budapest, which were flexible enough to accommodate a mix of workshops, cafés, studios and dentists’ and doctors’ surgeries as well as a variety of socio-economic classes with grand apartments on the street front and cheaper places on the courtyards. The social and commercial cocktail of the cities was embodied in the fabric of their architecture.
What London is building today is a huge layer of residential fabric that will fix the city in a certain shape for ever. These new developments leave no room for things to happen around them or in them. They are surrounded by dumb strips of green, separated from each other just enough so that they cannot coalesce into a coherent city. There should instead be a loose tissue of flexible infrastructure around their bases capable of accommodating the mix of small industries, quirky retail, music venues, designers’ studios — everything that developers hate because it brings unpredictability.
Instead, these developments are provided with empty shells tailored to fit a Tesco Express or Little Waitrose, generic chain stores in towers that already look indistinguishable from each other whether they are in Brentford or Bermondsey.
These towers are sold across Asia to investors to whom this is a familiar model: a two-bed apartment in a tower. They can be generic because they are bought off-plan — the owners may never visit. This is a typology guided by grand city models and shiny brochures, aimed at being as inoffensive as possible. That is no way to create a city.
The most difficult thing for any planning system to prescribe is “looseness”, an idea that there need to be less determined spaces where things can be allowed to happen. Yet those are the spaces in which real urbanity thrives and that London needs to make, or at least leave, if it is not to continue its trajectory towards the deadening investment vehicle it is becoming.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic