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Look up, look around, there’s a building falling down. Well, not really falling down, more knocked down and ripped apart from the inside out – with its skin torn off. All that scaffolding and netting that seems to go up overnight looks innocent enough but some nasty and brutal things are going on behind it.
Like a sheet that obscures a particularly bloody surgical procedure, scaffolding hides the gruesome operation of deconstructing buildings; in most cases, however, these patients have little or no chance of survival. Yes, some elements might end up being recycled and some finer features might find their way to an architectural salvage dealer, but too many nice, slender buildings in Sydney, Toronto, London and Stockholm find their way to landfill.
Oddly, it’s the lean and elegant that are most at risk. I’m not talking about steel and glass spires that climb to 60-plus storeys (there’s no shortage of those), I’m talking about the friendly neighbourhood building that can be anywhere from four to seven levels high. You know, the one with the shop or restaurant at street level, the offices above and maybe a few apartments on top. They tend not to be architecturally remarkable and they often hail from the start of the past century, with their long windows and elaborate metalwork and masonry.
Often, these are the buildings that form the backbone of our favourite neighbourhoods. In isolation, they’re not terribly impressive but, strung together, they’re the cornerstone of many communities. These buildings have become prized targets for developers and are fast moving on to architecture’s endangered list.
Tour London and you’ll see a plague of new, bland blocks that have taken the place of once diverse streets dotted with a variety of façades and a mix of rooflines. There are monotonous walls of sheet glass, lobbies filled with dreadful art installations and those ridiculous turnstiles that are supposed to deter terrorists.
Of course, there are shops and services as well but they tend to look uninviting, as every interior, be it a sandwich bar or nail salon, has turned into an overlit showroom. Who really wants to sit up against four metres of glass, with literally everything on show, to down a bowl of pasta at lunchtime? Who wants to get their hair cut in a fishbowl environment while passers-by stare at your damp locks and your limited choice of reading material?
Gone are ledges and recessed entryways, light and shadow, windowboxes of flowers and places to perch and rest weary bones. Most importantly, gone is variety and punctuation. Instead, we’re left with razor-sharp walls devoid of personality, sharp breaks between pavement and forbidding curtains of glass – and no sense of transition between inside and out.
In modern cityscapes there are only limited options to do something interesting with signs. A tenant might be able to suspend a sign inside or apply some window vinyls, yet no matter how creative the solution, it all looks a bit flat and chilly. Developers will say these hulking blocks are necessary because tenants all want sprawling floors and open-plan offices – as if every potential occupant will be a brokerage house or a CNN-sized newsroom.
Architects will tell you all that glass is there for one simple reason: it’s cheap. It’s much easier to put up 85 metres of glass, flush with the pavement, rather than add architectural detail. It’s far less complicated to run glass from street level to the 16th floor than building brick ledges and erecting solid wood latticework. For sure, it’s cheaper for the developer but the cost to tenants to maintain all that glazing can be staggering, while for the passer-by it’s just uninviting.
London is not alone – the eradication of small buildings in favour of sprawling blocks is happening the world over. Smart planning departments should be rushing through zoning laws to put a stop to such wanton destruction and encouraging restoration and refits rather than leaving too many streets feeling barren and lacking any sense of soul.
This move to fill in city blocks with single buildings is also bad for business, as it’s unlikely that these massive floor plates are going to make sense as work habits change. These buildings need to be more flexible. Not only do light-touch refits potentially keep down rental costs (as tenants don’t need to pay premiums on shiny lobbies and bad art); they also allow for neighbourhoods to maintain a sense of character and personality.
Next time you pass an elegant, slender building on your local high street, perhaps you should pause and take a longer look – its destruction may be shrouded from view next time you pass.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule