The wearer as much as the frock

Peter Campbell

  • Building Capitalism by Linda Clarke
    Routledge, 316 pp, £65.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 415 01552 9
  • The City Shaped by Spiro Kostof
    Thames and Hudson, 352 pp, £24.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 500 34118 4
  • A New London by Richard Rogers and Mark Fisher
    Penguin, 255 pp, £8.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 14 015794 8

Time can play dirty tricks on architects when launch-time promises are recalled to mock crumbling fabric. The progenitors of much post-war public housing suffered in this way. Time finds out bad bets; entrepreneurs are bankrupted financially, planners intellectually. But it has always been like that. Linda Clarke’s Building Capitalism illustrates its argument with a study of Somers Town, where a late 18th-century planner’s promise – to develop an estate of middle-class houses north of the Euston Road – went just as badly wrong as any Sixties development. General Booth himself (the Salvation Army now occupy buildings only a few hundred yards from where Somers Town stood) reckoned it a centre of frightful moral and physical contagion.

Time leaves other marks. Streaks of conceptual rust show in the gaps between what a structure symbolises and what it contains. The Lloyd’s building was commissioned to be modern, forward-looking, technically advanced – to represent all that was best in modern underwriting. Now it appears with ironic effect on television business programmes, behind Names who want out. The success of the design as architecture makes matters worse. In a smart new suit you look more of a wally when you take a pratfall.

Time takes revenge on slow workers. New buildings to old designs look dowdy at best. This has happened to the new British Library, which belongs stylistically to the Sixties and may not be fully functioning even in the mid-Nineties. Such effects, common to all arts, are emphasised in architecture. Buildings are unavoidably present; a book can go to the stacks for a generation but the ups and downs of a building’s reputation are suffered in public.

Stylists fight back. When society seems to be changing too fast architecture styled for permanence becomes fashionable. In the Eighties High Tech, which suggests the industrial and therefore replaceable, became a reserved style, like Gothic in the 19th century, restricted to jobs where its resonance was appropriate. Function (Stansted Airport) or the need for exceptional lightness and openness (the new stand at Lord’s cricket ground) or the nature of the business (the ITN building) have all been reasons to turn to it. Styles which advertised probity with bronze and granite were becoming popular when, with a great piece of salesmanship, Richard Rogers persuaded Lloyd’s to accept a brilliant, unclubbable cousin of the Pompidou Centre for their headquarters.

The sense of the passing of architectural time is particularly strong in London now. The Eighties boom found a city of stucco, brick, Portland stone, weathered concrete, glass and anodised aluminium, and left it with substantial additions in steel, granite and mirror glass. The tallest office building in Europe rose at Canary Wharf, a huge new complex of offices at Broadgate. Everywhere, London prepared itself for a prosperity which never came. The results have left citizens bemused. We believe London belongs to us – you do not have to own the real estate to feel you own the landscape. The changes which enriched developers, inflated the portfolios of pension-fund managers, and put the architectural profession through a bout of staffing bulimia, irritated citizens. It was as though a decorator had crept unasked into one’s house and gone to work modernising the kitchen and changing the drapes. This was not, like the housing schemes of the Sixties, something which, whether you liked them or not, related to needs which were easy to understand. That it now turns out London has one office building in five waiting to be filled confirms the feeling that these buildings are, for all their exceptional solidity, the landscape of a dream. The results of 19th-century boom years – Tuscan banks, Gothic railway stations – were fancy dress for bodies which, however clothed, had distinct identities. Much of the new building has been speculative; it is waiting on the rack, ready-to-wear.

The Docklands and Broadgate developments seem too large for the needs of Britain’s manufacturing economy. Of course they are: they were constructed in the hope that an increasing part of the world’s financial affairs would be shunted through London exchanges. To own a share in one of the global financial capitals which new ways of exchanging commercial information would make rich and powerful would be a great prize. City institutions and developers gambled on winning it, but found themselves shedding jobs just as the space an increase in activity would have demanded became available.

The juxtaposition of homeless people and empty offices is offensive. Why not plan? There are cycles in planning too. At the moment no political party likes it much. Five-year plans mean failed socialist economies. New Towns mean blues. Public housing means decay, new roads the overflowing M25. So there is always a ‘mind you, not like last time’ implied. It is a good time to turn to building history.

London, and most other modern cities, are texts so glossed and patched that no single reading of any part of them is possible. Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped deals with elements which impose patterns. The evidence is in the plans, drawings and aerial photographs which are the best illustrations in his book. The pointed stars of old defence works, now greened over, the irregular grids of southern Manhattan giving way to regularity north of Greenwich Village, the boulevards of Paris – all these survive to shape life today. The elements have meanings, and the meanings change. Speaking of the last decades, Kostos writes: ‘The stone cities of multi-layered tradition began to be rediscovered in the Sixties, and the Modernist ideal rejected as destructive and vacuous. A young generation who hardly remembered the war could turn to the road-points and the Baroque diagonals and even the accursed ceremonial axis, reject their symbolism, and find in them something guiltless and eternal.’

Kostos’s overview of cities in general confirms what is often said about London being an atypical European capital. The high (revealing) view shows little large-scale geometry. The City rejected one impressive organising diagram – Wren’s Baroque plan for post-Great Fire London – and kept its Medieval street pattern. By beheading the King, Parliament stymied plans for a Louvre on Whitehall. London was well set in its small-scale mode when the time came to build new offices for government. Built on well-used sites, the Houses of Parliament, and later the offices in Whitehall, could not emulate the democratic-administrative diagrams of Canberra and Washington; nor had they what Paris had – the shell of imperial architecture for the democratic crab to make its home in. Fear of the mob and the desire for rational circulation never reached the critical point which made it possible for Haussmann to burst stars of boulevards across the map of Paris. The closest thing we have to an axis, Regent Street, starts in one park and ends to all intents and purposes in another. It was a speculator’s, not a general’s or an emperor’s dream. The nearest thing we have to a ceremonial way, the Mall, is dwarfed by the Champs Elysées, and in effect not much more than a long path to the front door of Buckingham Palace. The one form of large-scale visual organisation Wren did give London were the spires of the City churches. From outside the City you could see the one which marked your patch: above them all rose the dome of St Paul’s, representative of the collection of parishes. This hierarchy of markers again preserved what was essentially a Medieval town diagram suggesting a dispersal of power. By the time high modern building compromised it, the truth it had once mirrored was past.

Kostof is particularly good on the way various kinds of city diagram – the organic reticulation of slow-growing centres, the grids of Roman towns, French bastides and American city blocks – are adapted by later generations. He has a diagram showing how the gridded plan of a Roman colony is gradually changed when it becomes an Islamic city, threaded by alleyways which cut across the rectangles of the original. In Italy, where Roman town plans of just the same kind existed, the blocks were liable to be fused into fortified feudal enclaves crowned by defensive towers.

Within the grand plan, the view from above, complexity evolves which is too complicated, too much a matter of what individuals choose to do, too much tied in with unpredictable short and long-term economic fluctuations, for analysis to be made on a diagrammatic scale. It can be argued that the modern city is beyond analysis altogether.

It is a problem of information retrieval. Old cities have real centres and definable districts. The printers and journalists of Fleet Street were, in the past, a mappable group. The trades which supplied them, the clubs and pubs they used, were on the same patch of ground as the newsrooms and presses. ‘Fleet Street’ now means either a place or the press, not a concatenation of the two. A paper written by journalists who send their copy by computer down the telephone line is faxed to the provinces for printing. A diagram of this activity has no correlative in the built environment. The syntax of house types breaks down too. Grand houses become embassies and offices. The mews becomes a street of cottages, garrets become flats. When, in the past, prosperous craftsmen were replaced by successful capitalists, the house over the shop was abandoned for the suburban villa. Today the hierarchy of rich and poor shopping streets is obliterated by the shopping mall.

Most changes of this kind have nothing to do with architecture, let alone architectural innovation, and little to do with planning of any positive sort. However, both architects and politicians have an interest in diagrammatic expression of social facts. They wish to be life-enhancers. Looking backward, they find the squares and promenades of old cities delightful. They propose ways of creating them here at home: cafés and pubs and shops, museums and theatres, rightly arranged, would fill up with citizens pursuing antique pleasures. When they point to places where this does in fact happen – Covent Garden, for example – they usually fail to note that most of the citizens are from another country, here to savour the culture of old-world streets.

Simple diagrams are embroidered into wonderful complexity. Kostof is eloquent in his praise of the orthogonal grid, which has indeed proved a perfectly good support for settlements of all kinds from fourth-century BC hill towns to 20th-century Californian speculative housing. The tools of planning – zoning, the provision of infrastructure, rules about densities, heights and so on – suggest that the pressures which shape cities can be modelled: but no sooner are buildings up than their occupants begin to make something of them which the model took no account of.

London’s virtue is variety. It cannot match Paris for pomp, or for elegance and urbanity. There is nothing which suggests a well-modulated urban existence as surely as the Palais Royal, no frontage as magisterial as Perrault’s to the Louvre. But move out from the centre of Paris and the light dims. The blocks of tenements become repetitious, the streets mean. Perhaps it was this lack of a readable centre that made it possible for the Tories to abolish the GLC so easily. Their implicit denial that London is a rational entity has roots in history. Richard Rogers’s and Mark Fisher’s book, which suggests all sorts of things architecture and planning could do for London, does not propose that housing and education provision be centralised. Their general drift is that we have become dowdy and depressing and should go out and buy a new hat. To be fair, they do speak of housing and of traffic improvements, but not with half of the conviction with which they talk about getting the traffic out of Trafalgar Square or reviving the Thames as a focus of activity. We do need a strategic authority, they say, and in trips to Paris, Rotterdam and Barcelona, where grand projects are under way, they have found examples of what central control and public investment can achieve. In London they suggest a new bridge downstream of Tower Bridge and a tunnel to take traffic below the Embankment. There are a few tuts about the desire of French presidents to leave a big physical mark on the landscape, but on the whole the spirit of the book owes more to Haussmann than to Rasmussen, who called London ‘the unique city’. Architectural competitions, judged by juries with a bias towards the profession, are recommended as a way of getting the ideas of young architects into circulation. London’s basic problem, Mark Fisher writes, is lack of confidence. Who or what is it that suffers this lack? Authorities? Citizens? Planners? Such generalisations do not address the central question: how does one direct the resources which oversupplied London with office space into improved transport and housing?

A study like Linda Clarke’s, which makes sense of a piece of building history in terms of who built it and where the money came from, prompts questions well beyond the ‘surely it would be nice if ...’ Somers Town was built to the west of the Fleet river, north of what is now Euston Road. Railway buildings, shunting-yards and Thirties public housing have since replaced most of the terraces conjured from the earth of Brill Farm. The pits it was dug from became cellars. The ash the earth was mixed with to make bricks was scavenged from the city itself. Somers Town’s early days were not pretty. Ash piles, holes filled with stagnant water and smoke from brick-burning were a common nuisance. Building began in the early 1790s. By 1820 the last fields were built over. Lord Somers and the developers who took up the leases on Brill Farm intended to develop to the style and standard of the Grosvenor Estate to the south. The Napoleonic wars and a slump put paid to all that. The original lease specified that bricks from the estate were to be used only for buildings on the estate. When construction was slow Lord Somers gave permission for them to be sold off: his royalty on bricks became an important part of the income from Brill Farm land. Some middle-class housing did get built, but early on Somers Town was on the skids socially. Impoverished French aristocrats fleeing the Revolution settled there. Writers and radicals (Godwin, Wollstonecraft), artists, trades people, craftsmen and – more and more as time went by labourers. Smaller houses, more tightly packed on the plot, were built. The densities got very high. There was less profit for the landlord in keeping the properties in good condition: and more difficulty in making tenants meet their obligations. When the Grosvenor Estate came to build on the land between Somers Town and Camden Town, walls and gates prevented the streets (and the poor) of Somers Town from making their natural progression northward.

In 1790 the development of the great London estates was well advanced. Landowners leased plots to independent builders – master carpenters, bricklayers and so on. The landowners’ return was a ground rent (peppercorn for the first year or so while building took place, more thereafter), and when the 99-year lease expired, the reversionary value of the house. Or a landowner might lease the land to a developer, who would in turn lease individual plots to builders, and take responsibility for the infrastructure (sewers and so on); his return would come from an improved ground rent. The value of the house and the design of its elevation were set out in the lease. The builder made his money by selling the house to a landlord, who in his turn would rent it out, or sublet it. By the 1820s this had changed. The artisan no longer had a direct interest in the profit made from his work. Craftsmen worked for contractors who were paid the market price by the ground landlord for the infrastructure and by the owner/landlord for the construction of the house. Contractors accumulated capital and the size of their firms grew. Their interest lay more in turnover than in the long-term value of the houses they built. They were also able to profit from the public provision of street cleaning and the upkeep of roads and sewers. Clarke argues that these changes were part of the emerging capitalist mode of production and not a passive response to demographic pressure. As wage labour replaced piece-work and independent craftsmen became hourly-paid workers, their collective power diminished. Clarke’s wider purpose is to challenge models of urbanisation which do not take account of such shifts of power.

Must political and speculative opportunities be the primary stimulus of large-scale urban change? There is a strong case for saying yes. Housing, for example, is one item in our standard of living which cannot be made cheaper by using low-waged labour abroad, by increasing factory-made elements, or by using funds from foreign sources (like the rents overseas companies pay for City offices and tourists’ hotel bills). The bill for houses, educational buildings and hospitals must largely be met from resources which are taken from other activities. In the absence of returning heroes or a mandate for radical income redistribution, the consumer must depend on failed speculations (much of the housing in Notting Hill, for example) for a temporary windfall. The money the speculator loses goes to the tenant in rents which are lower than a good return on the capital invested would require. (This margin may of course go just as easily into the pocket of a rackrenting landlord.) Such happy/sad accidents provide redistributions which planning cannot plan for. The Sydney Opera House was paid for by a lottery. The imaginative step which does something for London’s homeless is more likely to come from a maverick Borough Treasurer than from an architect.

The smugly frugal mock those who live to shop: but without the desire for style, and for the feeling of well-being which goes with it, the urge to build becomes a merely utilitarian thing. This works very well when the stench demands a new drain; it might even be enough to justify the funding of a new transport system for London. I hope it does. But when it comes to style one must realise that it belongs to the wearer as much as to the frock; we get the London that we are.