Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

The Developing City

07/08/2012

On now until 9th September, the Developing City exhibition looks at the past and future of architecture and public space in the City of London, the historic core and financial heart of London.


Artist's impression of the Roman Londinium, looking at the first London Bridge. The muddy channels and islets in the foreground are the site of today's Shard.

There’s a good section on the City’s history from Roman times when it was a distant outpost of a Mediterranean empire, right up to its development into one of the key nodes - the key node - of global finance. This longer-term view of the City’s development teaches us a couple of things. One, that the history of London has been a general trajectory of economic growth, punctuated by abrupt shocks and periods of decline. The financial crisis of 2008, ongoing financial scandals and developments in the Eurozone all put a questionmark over the City's status. Could London fall victim to the same economic forces of creative destruction of which it has been such an instrument in the past? How will London retain its global pre-eminence with nimbler and younger rivals for the title of World City snapping at its heels?

1616 aerial panorama from the south side of London Bridge, with executed criminals' heads on spikes at the entrance to the bridge: pour encourager les autres.

The second observation to note from the City’s history is that the architects’ and planners’ attempts to remake London in the image of a new and shiny ideal city has only ever been partially successful. Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography keeps returning to this theme: London is too amorphous, too subject to  short-term commercial pressures, for overarching Grand Plans to be fully realized.


Post-Great Fire perspective drawing showing the ideal classical city envisaged in Wren's masterplan. None of this orderly streetplan was realised, and the new city arose on the same medieval street pattern as before.

 

An interior from the old Bank of England by John Soane, the Four per Cent Office. All swept away in the 1930s in favour of a markedly inferior new building.

 

Late nineteenth century photograph of Ludgate Hill looking east to St Paul's cathedral.

 

The Barbican after the Blitz, 1941. This became the site of the 1970s Barbican complex, one more limited attempt at comprehensive remaking of the City's urban fabric that did come to pass.

 

In Gensler’s vision for the new Global City in 2050, 'The city of London is now neutral ground, a visa-free zone managed by the Corporation under new global trade laws and is now the global regulation centre for the world's commercial markets.'


So far, so William Gibson. It’s difficult to summarise all the ideas and strategies presented in this exhibition. But the following selection of vaguely sci-fi buzzwords and concepts gives you a flavour.

Mixed-use super high-rise cluster
The envisaged development, already underway of a cluster of new skyscrapers around Aldgate. This new generation of taller, thinner skyscrapers will intensify the City’s density, while they also free up more space for ‘Public Realm’ and somehow, through their thinner profile, allow more light at street level.



New City Architecture
2004 exhibition of new and planned buildings that expressed the City’s self-confidence at the height of the last decade-long boom. Some of these buildings are now reality, like the Gherkin and the Shard. Others remain on the drawing board or unfinished. The concrete lift shaft of the ‘Pinnacle’, a new 288m skyscraper sits unfinished and idle on Bishopsgate, although construction started in 2008. Apparently the cost of removing what has already been built on the site is about equal to the current value of the land.

World Class / World City
‘World Class’ is bandied about everywhere these days. But when you hear it used, it always implicitly acknowledges that in the new, interconnected global economy, cities and regions are everywhere in competition to be the location for ever-more mobile capital, markets and economic activity. To maintain its status as global financial centre, London therefore needs to stay ahead of the game: by renewing its infrastructure and enhancing its attractiveness as a place for business and leisure

Bleisure
This bastard hybrid of ‘business’ and ‘leisure’ encompasses the new urban landscape of social and cloud-based forms of working, and the interpenetration of work and leisure in both space and time. As technology takes work beyond the office, it creates a need for new forms of public and quasi-public space where people work and do business.  And just as business and leisure in today’s world blur into one, where it is hard to say one begins and the other ends, so the public spaces that enable these activities are an interpenetration of commercial and civic space – quasi public spaces that are in most cases, privately owned and maintained. Coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, atriums, shopping malls and roof decks are the new public spaces of Bleisure.

In the City of 2050 imagined by Gensler, only public transport will be allowed in the City, freeing up the streets to become new ‘Public Realm’ linear parks for pedestrians, where people will live the Bleisure lifestyle. Other industries will have moved into the City from its fringes: Smithfield Meat Market has become the London Life Sciences Exchange (something to do with biotech, but looking like another cleaned up, gentrified Covent Garden market)

Arup's vision for the 'decarbonised' City of 2050, with new greenspace in streets, on buildings, on floating island parks - and even on Tower Bridge? Unfortunately, the 1970s concrete slab Guoman hotel that disfigures the north bank by Tower, is still in evidence.

 

Models
The exhibition is full of them. I love architectural models. There’s a huge one of the future City, showing all the skyscrapers now planned or under construction in the future super high-rise cluster around Aldgate. There are models of the Gherkin and several other skyscrapers and buildings, including a rather interesting mutli-level Canary Wharf Crossrail station, with a small park sitting on top of it.

Sectional perspective of proposed Canary Wharf Crossrail station, with a park atop the railway line and station.

 


Toronto on Thames: a model of Canary Wharf, the planned financial district in Docklands.

 

A giant machine of finance: the new UBS headquarters, under construction in Broadgate.

 

There is lots of food for thought here. My problems with the exhibition are the issues it leaves out, and more generally, its assumed point of view – which perhaps explains the omissions. The City we see here is all from the godlike view of the planner, the architect, the corporate client and developer, who remake the world according to their values. Not the incidental, the organic, the amorphous, the life of the city that just cannot be planned for. These visions contain much that should be planned for: decarbonizing, greening, energy and waste efficiency. But they remain on the level of the ideal, conceptual city. The models and land-use maps give us no sense of human scale and texture.  Spitalfields, for example, according to one display, has an ‘unresolved’ and ‘inconsistent’ character. Presumably this means that the messy vitality of Brick lane and its surroundings, one of the top visitor draws to this part of London, need sanitizing in the same way that the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market has robbed it of almost all its former character.

What’s left out of the exhibition are the implications of some of its proposals. Where will all the underground services go when the streets become ‘linear parks? What kind of public spaces will this create? Then there are the plans which show us how taller, thinner skyscrapers create more space for public realm around their base. This has to be one of the biggest design challenges for these new spaces. The foot of a skyscaper is usually windswept, shaded and oppressively dominated by the building looming above. So, you can create so many hundreds of square metres of new public realm by building tall, thin skyscrapers and making plazas around their bases. But are such public spaces ones that people actually want to spend time in? Do they really give the same kind of restorative experience as a park or tree-lined square?

The other big omission in the exhibition is the issues of power, politics and public space thrown up by the exhibition’s proposals. The implications of reinforcing further the City as a state within a state, with its own financial regulations and visa laws. The politics of public space, including the rise of a new kind of quasi-public space associated with new development, privately owned and run. These are the Bleisure spaces envisaged in the future city, spaces for meetings, cloud computing, hotdesk working. But as the Occupy protestors found last year when they tried to protest in the privately owned Paternoster Square by the Stock Exchange, these are not spaces for political expression. There are 80 new buildings and pubic spaces in the City since 1985 featured in the exhibition. Many of these buildings contain ‘public realm’ – roof gardens, atriums, squares – but as far as I’m aware, all of these new ‘public spaces’ are in fact privately owned and managed. These are spaces of business and consumption. Spaces in which to work, do business and socialize. Not spaces in which to protest, or question the status quo.




 

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