Rebuilding London Bridge. Slightly blurred.

It’s true that I started this blog with good intentions, then in September last year my masters degree began, and suddenly I seemed to have no time. I’ve written essays and things though, will maybe post a selection of them in due course – some writing on such things as gentrification and London’s war on the poor would be an improvement on my normal witterings.

Being as the course is at UCL in Bloomsbury, I spend a lot of time on trains between there and Lewisham, a journey much shortened by the partial closure of London Bridge station – a station so utterly dysfunctional and horrible, that anything they do to it can only be a good thing*.

Essentially a great big chunk of the Victorian brick viaduct supporting the platforms is being cut away and replaced, with the Shard apparently propped up on bits of wood ‘n’ stuff for a while. I assume the Shard actually has deeper foundations than is apparent from station level, otherwise an awful lot of empty offices and vacant overpriced apartments will end up sprayed across the City of London. Which would be a shame, possibly.

Anyhoo, I cruise through most days, and take snaps as I do so. These are taken through a South Eastern train window though, which is always filthy, thus the photos are always blurry.

The viaduct, by the way, is an extension of the original viaduct built from Deptford to Southwark in the 1830s, the world’s oldest, and still the longest I think. Large parts of it survive as the core of a much thickened and extended structure which connects Greenwich to Charing Cross.

*Btw, the one being demolished, which I’ve known and hated all my life, isn’t even the one that John Betjemen knew and hated. It’s far worse.

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Woolwich and the Carbuncle Effect

I’ve just read that Woolwich Central, the enormous new blob of apartments that sit uncomfortably on top of a Tesco,  has won the Carbuncle Cup – Building Design magazine’s award for Britain’s worst new piece of architecture.

The irony of writing ‘Every little helps’ in huge letters on a hugely overscaled building was lost on me at the time. I was too busy noticing the hugely overscaled building.

Actually, I don’t hate the architecture that much (runner up Vauxhall Tower irks me much more for some reason). Yes, Woolwich Central is very big. Yes, its single architectural ‘idea’ is not a subtle one, and fails to negate the building’s enormous bulk. And as a bonus it creates a desolate wind tunnel between in conjunction with the new Woolwich town hall (itself a previous Carbuncle nominee).

The vast block also gives no indication of being even slightly aware of Woolwich’s previous architecture, most notably the rather charming Edwardian building that it menaces across the town square.

It does I guess interact with its surroundings in a way, albeit that this interaction comprises people going in and out of Tesco, 24 hours a day.

I once read somewhere of Woolwich belongong to the north of England; not a part of London or the southeast at all, and this has always rung true to me. But times are a-changing. Bits of south and east London that have previously been oddly disconnected, despite being relatively close to the city’s core, are now suddenly an explosion of new apartment towers and transport links that place them “only X minutes from London Bridge/Canary Wharf/the City”. Places such as Lewisham, Greenwich and Deptford are being immersed in an expanding foam of new buy-to-let-investor apartment blocks. What strikes me most in BD’s commentary on the shortlist is the problem of overdevelopment that typifies so many of the nominated schemes – the attempt to cram as much stuff onto each site as possible.

However awful some of London’s new housing developments may be, they represent an urban expansion unprecedented in London’s postwar development.  I was watching a short John Betjeman programme from 1959 the other night (on one of the Beeb’s excellent archive collections) and it reminded me just how easy it is to forget the sheer emptiness of London for many years after the war; a world of bomb sites and middle class flight to the suburbs. The population of ‘inner’ London began to fall from the 1920s onwards, and between 1951 and 1991 Greater London as a whole lost over a million people, largely from its core. But between 2001 and 2011 there has been a dizzying rise of over a million (which interestingly is split roughly equally between inner and outer areas) and looks set to continue strongly towards 9 million. Figures here. Having been away from the city for seven years, the accelerating change is stark: it feels that there are just more people here, and in terms housing, it seems it will be quantity not quality that counts.

Just beyond the new world of Woolwich Central and the Royal Arsenal regeneration, the old Woolwich of working class housing survives, for now. Wandering along the river I passed what I guess is an abandoned lido that made use of a pair of former dry docks as pools for the use of the surrounding estates. Sadly, I can’t see such an idea fitting in with the ubiquitous basement gym/pool/sauna template of the many new ‘luxury’ housing blocks likely to sprout from the banks of the Thames here over the next decades. Woolwich will be far too central for that.

 

 

An Encyclopedia of Myself

By the end of this month I’ll be deep into a reading list for my MSc (Urban Studies at UCL’s Urban Lab, since you ask) so am enjoying my last days of literary freedom. After that it’s all gentrification, co-housing and Jane Jacobs.

Anyway, the summer draws to a close and I’ve just finished Jonathan Meades’ An Encyclopedia of Myself, the author’s (aided) memoir of his childhood. The book immerses us in an England far away from London, and temporally a foreign country: Salisbury of the 1950s.

The text immerses us in the foodstuffs and ephemera of the age. Meades describes a hotel restaurant belonging to an acquaintance of his parents as a “culinary morgue, […] proof that the English attitude to food was founded in masochistic stoicism rather than the disease called pleasure. The walls were a riot of insipidity, all smeared beiges and fawns. The swirly carpet contained the well-trodden gristle of immemorial meals. The food included imperfectly defrosted, fishmeal-fed fowl from the cash and carry at West Harnham and bottom-of-the-range tinned veg from the Amesbury NAAFI.”

As ever, Meades’ dextrous way with language and prodigious recall is entertaining in itself (I can’t remember what I did last Tuesday, and I suffer only half-glimpsed memories of my teens – how on earth does he recall biographical knowledge of a neighbour’s long-dead relative?). But I found myself yearning for more of Meades The Shouty Man Off The Telly, explaining to us how mistaken we are about everything. The book is at its best when he digs deeper: he is scathingly offhand on the social mores of 1950s England, on antisemitism, on a culinary world yet to escape from rationing, and on modern architecture that to the young Meades appeared, confusingly, to be already a part of the past. Yet he all too often alights briefly on a subject – for instance T.E.Lawrence’s ridiculous aggrandizing of Arab warlords – before suddenly we’re off again, left wanting more.

If you’re not already a fan, I’d suggest reading Museum Without Walls, and perhaps some of Meades’ other writing (and telly) before you start on this one. Fascinating in parts, but possibly ‘one for the fans’.

 

 

Archi things to do in London

This is as much a note to myself for stuff I’d like to see, but thought I’d share it. Often,  the weeks will fly by and I miss things, only realising this when I go to check the dates. So to avoid that sudden sinking feeling, and in no particular order…

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture, at the Design Museum till 12th October. Everyone’s raving about this, and particularly want to see it as have recently seem some Louis K (as I’ve just decided to refer to him) in Ahmedebad.

At the other end of the glam scale, I notice from John Gridrod’s excellent blog that the prefabulous Excalibur estate in Catford is nearing the end, and the museum is only around till Open House weekend in Sept (see below). Apparently, its founder Elisabeth Blanchett may be running a final tour on 23 August.

Dream, Draw, Work: Architectural Drawings by Norman Shaw at the Royal Academy. Maybe the Summer Exhibition while I’m there – for the fab architecture models. Not for the art.

There’s a foyer exhibition at the Barbican from next month on its designers, Chamberlain, Powell & Bon25 Sept 2014 – 22 March 2015, if you’re in the neighbourhood. Sadly doesn’t overlap with Digital Revolution, which finishes on 14 Sept, haven’t seen it yet.

And of course London Open House on 21st and 22nd Sept. Where even to start?

Before I left London, the RIBA’s own site, architecture.com, used to have a quite good listing of all things architectural in all regions, but is now over-designed (Flash-type sites in 2014?) and seems to be mainly RIBA’s own events, plus a few elsewhere but in no way comprehensive. Filtered for London here.

Ooh, also, some telly:

BBC 4 still has its Post-War Architecture collection available, including loads of Building Sights (from the 90s) as well as Nairn Across Britain.

On iPlayer, the Fifteen Billion Pound Railway is really worth seeing, if you can get over the boring bits about how real ordinary actual normal people operate cranes and such. And the Secret History of Our Streets‘ second series, in Scotland, is the best tv I’ve seen in ages (obviously excluding Our Lord Meades, who is not currently available on iPlayer, but does have a new book out).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#newisham

There’s something unfortunate about the name ‘Confluence Place’, a small new park planned for the centre of Lewisham. ‘Confluence’ sounds a bit close to ‘effluent’ to me, and the overlap is further reinforced by it being at the confluence (do you see what they did there?) of Lewisham’s two mighty rivers Ravensbourne and Quaggy. They’re not really mighty of course, and at the point of their conjoining they seem rather open-sewer like in form, running in deep concrete channels, with the odd shopping trolley thrown in for effect.

Confluence Place is a part of the ongoing Lewisham Gateway redevelopment, which seems to have superseded the so-last-century Lewisham 2000 plan. Or perhaps it is the Lewisham 2000 plan, altered and very, very delayed. I want the new redevelopment to succeed. But I can’t help thinking there’s something missing, and that they’ve been buggering around with the station area and roundabout for years now, without addressing any real problems. After all, the ever-clogged A20 and A21 roads will continue to collide at this point, even if no longer at a roundabout.

In some way that it’s hard (or perhaps not so hard) to define, there’s always been something a bit crap about Lewisham’s town centre, something that just can’t quite be fixed, something that anchors the town centre as a fortress whose core is unbreachable by the gentrification that sweeps through other parts of the capital. It’s no Brixton. It’s no Hoxton. It’s not even a Deptford.

In part it is because of the continued existence of the Lewisham Centre – a vast late 70s lump, complete with an anonymous tower that reaches down and buries itself in the rest of the building in a manner that’s strangely unclear from any angle. The tower is occupied by Citibank. Or rather unoccupied by Citibank, as it is a ‘footprint’ building, used as a backup in case something bad happens over at Docklands.

And then of course there is the pièce de ré-shit-stance, the vast shapeless sack of potatoes that is Lewisham police station – the largest police station in Europe, apparently. No coincidence perhaps that it’s also Europe’s largest building that is this ugly. It’s like a particularly large and awkward elephant, that has attempted to fit in at a wedding by sticking bits of doyly and other decorations on to its sides. At times it seems to appear on every street in Lewisham, with its formless bulk, as if the architect’s sole aim was to actually build the phrase “Move along now, there’s nothing to see here.”

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I assume that an early plan was to have a pedestrian route through the complex from the high street – it looks like there was an intention to indicate this by the form of the main elevation, subsequently value-engineered and secured-by-design into gates at the front and, well, just a f****ng big wall right across the road at the back.

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Once upon a time this was a continuous street, with an Army & Navy store on both sides, connected below ground at basement level. I’m digressing, and sounding like those old guys who write for local newspapers in a column called ‘Sydenham Memory Lane’ or such. Shoot me if/when this happens.

It just seems to occupy everywhere, in a vain attempt to scale itself down to residential street level, often using the device of, er, ‘landscaping’:

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Anyway, buildings such as the Centre and the police station are allowed to exist precisely because Lewisham doesn’t believe itself to be an urban centre, but a suburban one. It wants to be in Bromley, when it should aspire to be a proper part of the Smoke. For this reason I admire the attempts to hipsterise Lewisham by creating urban outposts such as the Model Market (#newisham, anyone?) when normally I find the world of approaching-peak-beard hard to take. Plus they have good beers.

Perhaps the sheer increase in population, made possible by Lewisham’s many new (and very ugly*) residential blocks, will have an unstoppable effect, transmuting town into city. But at the moment, it still feels like several completely separate worlds: the short-term renters in the new commuter apartment blocks and the residents of the suddenly quiet and leafy streets of late-Georgian / Victorian / Edwardian housing that march up towards Blackheath (said residents never to be seen in central Lewisham); and the working class population who live in the centre and towards Catford, of whom, I regret to say, I know very little. Although I fear that the latter group, as in other parts of the capital, they will continue to suffer the centrifugal force of London’s rising prices and disappearing social housing, irrespective of whether Lewisham ever becomes #newisham or not.

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* Lewisham’s various new towers remind me of the (possibly Owen Hatherley coined) term pseudomodern. I also just don’t like any new building constructed in that beige London stock brick. And why do the cluster of new apartment blocks and towers at the bottom of Loampit Vale, built as a single development, have so little faith in themselves? A couple of not-unpleasant greenish glass sub-Foster towers are joined by some horrible squat white and pink blocks. Next the ubiquitous beige brickwork is added everywhere. Then the multi-coloured facade of the leisure centre is welded on for good measure… the architects just, I don’t know, need to relax a bit.

Twitter tour

Thanks to everyone who retweeted, favourited etc. as I cycled about the other day – turned into an unexpected tour of Docklands and elsewhere. Just needed to get out of the house really. Turned out it was summer outside, thinking I must go out again sometime…

Photography professionals will notice that many of the photos I take on my phone are at a slight angle. I am guessing that either the phone is faulty, or that most buildings are actually at a slight angle.

 

The glory that was John Outram:

Some flats by the river:

The Millenium Dome, now known as the O2, apparently:

Oh, the contrast…

All Saints church:

House on Poplar High St:

St Mary & St Joseph RC church, Adrian Gilbert Scott (that family really knew how to do brickwork)

Limehouse Church Institute (I know this as it’s written on the front of the building)

And my intended destination, Hawksmoor’s magnificent St Anne’s, Limehouse:

Heneghan Peng’s new architecture department in Greenwich:

Back home, to the glory that is Lewisham:

Ahmedebad: Brutalist City

The Rough Guide to India, clearly written mainly by fans of its monuments and beaches rather than its cities (and often, who can blame them?) describes Ahmedebad as a city of “appalling pollution, dreadful congestion and repeated outbreaks of communal violence”.  At the time I was there, that communal violence aspect (an oxymoron, surely?) was being much scrutinised in the international press in the run up to what turned out to be Modi’s resounding victory in the national elections.

But compared to Delhi, which was (from my brief experience) a hugely unequal disaster zone of a city, as well as an equally brief experience of Agra, Ahmedabad seemed refreshingly organised and businesslike. Also, even given that the Rough Guide makes no claim to be an arbiter of things architectural, it makes no mention of the numerous works by Le Corbusier and Doshi, Charles Correa’s design for Gandhi’s Ashram or Louis Kahn’s monumental campus for the Indian Institute of Management. Which is doubly surprising, given that randomly picked rickshaw drivers knew all of these and more.

After decades of heavy-handed British neoclassicism, the new nation of India acquired a taste for twentieth century modern, I’m guessing in part as a reaction against the fusty built imagery of British rule, but also because modernism represented a new world, and the progressive, independently socialist state that India aspired to be.

And is no longer. Wandering the centre of the old city at dusk, we came across this marvellous beast:

It’s a no-holds-barred fully paid up member of the brutalist club, and I like it. Sadly, the city authorities clearly don’t like it, or at least not enough to maintain it, and it’s now an abandoned hulk, used only as rough sleeper dormitories (I misuse the term here; most Indian city-dwellers sleep rough to some degree, sleeping in a building beats sleeping on the streets). Turns out it’s the Premabhai Hall by B V Doshi, an architect who worked on several of Le Corbusier’s projects and has built a huge number of projects in Ahmedebad and elsewhere. Someone rather more industrious than I am has uploaded an excellent Flickr set of his work.

Le Corbusier’s City Museum (Sanskar Kendra), has fared a little better, but only just. There are gaping holes in the concrete, and the whole place feels worn out, especially coming from the shiny interactive museum culture of European cities.

The trademark Le Corb water chutes at roof level have been sidelined in favour of a more prosaic solution. Lost then is the idea that water would cascade off the roof into the central courtyard pool (maybe better on paper, that one).

 

Next door is Doshi’s Tagore concert hall, in fine condition, but entirely deserted, and the whole location really only accessible by vehicle. It was rare to come across a well connected and busy cultural centre in an Indian city, that wasn’t a temple.

Low expectations then, for a visit to the Le Corbusier’s Mill Owner’s building. It’s still in the private ownership of the Textile Mill’s Association, and, it seems, all the better for it. I expected to get a couple of snaps from the gate, but me and the mrs were enthusiastically welcomed by Mr Abhinava Shukla, who couldn’t have been more helpful, and gave us the run of the place. He noted wryly that his budget for the maintenance of the building is a tenth of that for the Ahmedebad Museum, but as was clear, the Mills’ Association receives far more TLC. It also hosts a permanent exhibition about Le Corbusier’s work in India, plus they have some cool souvenirs:

I’ve been banging on for the last few years about how I’m much more into studying successful urbanism and places as opposed to one-off architectural statements, but visiting this building reminded me that there is such a thing as great architecture. The sequence of spaces is extraordinary; an entrance ramp rises to the first floor, a series of staircases and mezzanine levels then take you up through semi-open spaces, with the blinding Indian sunlight filtered through the concrete fins of the green-planted façade. Arrival at roof level is an experience in itself, with an extraordinary view out across the river and the city. Lots of my snaps, jumbled up with other Ahmedebad architecture here.

Ahmedebad has an extraordinary collection of modernist buildings from the ‘heroic age’, and I just wasn’t there long enough to do it justice. One of the places I would definitely return to, not least to witness how the city changes in that most fast-changing of nations. Rest of my snaps at… including a trip to Charles Correa’s Gandhi Ashram, and of course Louis Kahn’s Indian Management Institute (this last one for a separate blog post, I expect).