London and on and on

London is more a process than a plan, a series of events that have precipitated structure, texture and grain. In this sense, London is not so much as a city as a phenomenon, almost like a kind of geology – perhaps a sedimentary bed laid down over years, slowly compressing into solid mass. Amongst the gravel of 19th century housing one could imagine fossil-like forms: the shell-like husk of St Pauls, the spinal string of the Westway, or the coral reef of the Houses of Parliament.

The forces that currently bear on London are, however, no longer earthly. They are moved by the invisible tides of global capital that flow like lava below the tarmaced streets. Like plate tectonics, this force shifting the shape of the city: stretching London out wider, and compressing the centre where skyscrapers push upwards like a fresh mountain range.

For the first time in a generation, London feels as though it is in a state of flux: straining, swelling and fit to burst. For someone who grew up in the 1970s and 80s this is unsettling.

During these decades London’s physical form remained constant. However, at the same time the concept of lifestyle utterly transformed the city. Things like food, music, clothes, became as important as bricks or infrastructure because they altered the possibilities of living. It was a transformation that was almost invisible, that was decorative and ephemeral. In a generation, industrial slums – once scheduled for demolition - became gentrified neighbourhoods.

It means that there is a direct line drawn between London urbanists: from John Nash, via Patrick Abercrombie to lifestyle gurus like Terrance Conran and Jamie Oliver.

This lightweight urbanism is driven by private money on a mission to create an individual dream. Curiously, these individual dreams add up to a collective vision. It undoubtedly harnesses the most powerful force in urbanism – desire, aspiration, identity, community all bound together. This period has had an ironic effect as the qualities once associated with metropolitan living have vanished: diversity, opportunity. Instead, the centre has becomes a wickerbasket wielding village fantasy full of specialty cheese shops.

This is an urbanism of consumption –feeding from its surroundings, yet without the ability to contribute anything more than atmosphere and character.

Self-cannibalising urbanism can only go so far. While incredibly successful, it has simultaneously atrified metropolitan opportunity through rising property prices and the paraphernalia of lifestyle. It is a gloriously luxuriant full stop to a chapter in London’s urban history.

What happens next?

Perhaps the organization of the city will reverse its polarity: the sprawling suburbs are already home to the diversity once associated with metropolitan centre. Maybe a new bohemia will flourish in the suburban landscapes yet to assert their own unique identity?

In built form, we are beginning to see a vision of the London of twenty years time. Renderings of the city show it denser, higher, and shinier. While views out east show the Olympic masterplan and the hazy concept of the Thames Gateway.

London’s eastern stretch has been dramatized in the design for the Olympic park – as though the city has turned into a gloop of grass and concrete, slowly oozing eastwards like a 1950s sci fi monster. It is stretched and stringy like warm chewing gum beneath your shoe. The intention seems to be to visualize urbanism as a graphic swoop – a steroid enhanced Nike swoosh at the scale of a city: a graphic diagram transformed into reality.

One might argue that it is trying to find an alternative to horizontal sprawl, to give strong formal character to the eastward horizontal vector of London. One might also argue that is abstract stretch is gambling everything on its formal characteristics in a city that has traditionally resisted such gestures (one might argue that only the M25 has succeeded in completing large scale plan)

If you carry on east, you’ll find yourself in the Thames Gateway. Though you probably wouldn’t realize it, as it is a bureaucratic concept rather than a place. It has been earmarked as an area for major development over the next 30 years – the means to solve the crisis of unaffordable housing in the South East. Quite differently to the Olympics, this huge area lacks vision and image – unsurprising, as it has been developed in the turgid text of policy documents rather than the global beauty parade of the IOC.

These three scenarios will transform London: from skyline to horizon. In each case they propose alternative approaches to urban design. From the glamorous image of a corporate brochure via a design vision to the bureaucrats shading of a map. The danger in each case is that they become parodies of their own technique, and thus conservative in their scope and limited in their ambition. By relying on these traditional forms of urban thought, they exclude the imaginative leaps that can be made by the unofficial ‘lifestyle’ urbanism.

The opportunity is now ripe for London to create new approaches which hybridize scales of regeneration: from DIY to large scale infrastructure. It is perhaps only by engaging these varied urban practices that we can begin to imagine London’s future landscapes succeeding: Socially minded celebrity chefs working with traffic engineers or music promoters with volume house builders. These are the new equations of pleasure that could re-invigorate diagrammatic master planning.

Posted by sam at August 4, 2006 11:36 PM

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