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.

 

 

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