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Confluence Place is a part of the ongoing Lewisham Gateway redevelopment, which seems to have superseded the so-last-century Lewisham 2000 plan.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.”
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.
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’:
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.
* 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.