Thoughts from a recent trip to London, looking at building, buildings, buildings (more buildings on Flickr). What has changed in the last decade or so, and what does it all tell us about me, Copenhagen, London and life in 2016?
Sunday: Euston Road, Bloomsbury and Midtown
We started out by walking up Hampstead Road from the disused 1907 Euston tube station to Mornington Crescent, the first of many of Leslie Green‘s stations spotted in central London. Despite dying at the ridiculously young age of 33, Green’s impact on tube station design may well equal that of Charles Holden. Then entering ‘forgotten Camden’ (see Tom Bolton’s St Pancras trail) we took in the splendid 1960s St Aloysius RC Church before approaching the three monster stations on Euston Road.
A sort of 19th century Crossrail, the construction process involved in bringing the railways into London extended over the course of 30 years, displacing 30,000 people in the process. St Pancras International was a new one on me, completely renovated from 2001-07 to welcome Eurostar, and now as much shopping destination as station. A symphony in red and white by George Gilbert Scott from 1868, with the kitschy statue to end all kitschy statues in the gallery, its general over-the-topness is not for me.
Much better is King’s Cross, the gateway to the north, where I have taken many a train and met many a parent. It has also changed completely, a 2014 restoration opening up the concourse and revealing Lewis Cubitt’s beautifully simple building from 1852. In contrasting fortunes 1970s style Euston, originally built in classical style by William Cubitt in 1837 but demolished in 1962, is unchanged, with the Euston Arch still found only on pub signs.
Also shined up is the Brunswick Centre from 1972 , an unusual mixed use development with council housing in a ziggurat design alongside a commercial section. Now renamed The Brunswick with repetitive shopping, and still hosting the Renoir Cinema. Of the Bloomsbury squares and gardens we tarried most at Thomas Cubitt’s 1820s Tavistock Square, with its statue of Virginia Woolf set against Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education. After that, Charles Holden’s Senate House (1937) seemed almost underwhelming.
Walking down Tottenham Court Road heralded the self-styled Midtown, centred round St Giles Circus and the iconic Centre Point (1966), currently under wraps. Tottenham Court Road tube is transformed, with 2010s style wide open spaces inside (Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics either in store or in Edinburgh) and Crossrail damage outside. Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles (2010) sets the tone – time will tell how the refurbishment of New Commonwealth House (1939) will fit into this context.
With the rain showing no sign of slackening we then walked through the gloaming down New and Old Bond Streets to Piccadilly, with its splendidly Art Deco Waterstones in the former Simpsons (1936), before taking in Leicester Square and a sumptuous south Indian thali near Warren Street.
Monday: from Hampstead modernism to the Alexandra Road estate
Hampstead modernism day, starting in Belsize Park at the Lawn Road Flats (1934) then on to Ernö Goldfinger’s house (1938) on Willow Road facing Hampstead Heath. By all accounts a formidable figure and immortalised by Ian Fleming, the house is quite superb, a ‘reintrepretation’ of a Georgian terrace in brick and wood on a concrete foundation.
Up to Parliament Hill for a first look at London’s new skyline and an inspection of dog walking mores in this prime spot. In contrast to Denmark dogs almost entirely off leash – although up to four per person – and having a good time, interacting in an entirely stress free way. A proposed Dog Control Order on a lamp post emphasised there were no plans to force dog owners to put dogs on a lead on any part of the Heath, although they are not allowed in children’s play areas. Icing on the cake: ‘no cycling’ signs throughout.
After lunch we followed the rest of the Hampstead modernism trail, juggling a laptop and the London A-Z. Highlights: New House at 13 Arkwright Road (1939) with its blue porthole, the six houses at Frognal Close designed by Ernst Freud (1937), where a resident asked us if we were architects, and the multicoloured 66 Frognal (1938). Round the corner on Frognal Way, one of London’s most exclusive streets, is Maxwell Fry’s Sun House and Gracie Fields’ rather less titillating house (which she probably never lived in), both from 1934. On a mild Monday afternoon we encountered any number of east European au pairs with their charges as we walked down to Finchley Road to gawk at the prices in estate agents’ windows.
Leaping forward more than 40 years we finished the day at Neave Browne’s Alexandra Road Estate (1978), made up of 520 apartments in three long crescent shaped blocks and bounded on one side by the West Coast Main Line. The first post-war council housing estate to be listed, in 1994, Alexandra Road has had its problems but retains a pleasing green ambience akin to that of a traditional terrace, if not exactly Bath’s Royal Crescent. Looking at features such as staircases and balconies more closely the evolution of brutalism from modernism comes into focus.
Tuesday: the Thames, London Bridge and Bankside
After mopping up some final West End sights time to go south of the river, with a brief jaunt to Vauxhall for the PoMo classic that is Terry Farrell’s MI6 building (1994) and the Vauxhall Tower (180m) on St George’s Wharf, the latter striking the same bum notes as the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle, neither well designed nor in the right place.
Bypassing the South Bank on this occasion we re-emerged at the for me practically unrecognisable London Bridge, taking in St Olaf House on Tooley Street (1930) before catching Renzo Piano’s Shard (2012, at nearly 310m, the max allowed, the tallest building in the EU; £25 to visit). Then onward to Norman Foster’s bijou City Hall (2002) and More London, our first encounter with the privatised ‘public realm’.
The south bank of the Thames is well laid out for walking, albeit with endless upscale shopping and drinking opportunities on this stretch. The outdated 1980s viewpoints with plaques detailing buildings on the north bank provide some sort of context for the changing skyline and an overview of architectural fashions – what will remain after a further 30 years?
Next, a short stop at Tate Modern, itself undergoing redevelopment with a monster extension due to open in June. The gallery has been open since 2000, but I remember it better as Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station hulk, in operation for a scant 30 years. GGS was also responsible for Battersea Power Station, still ‘under redevelopment’ after being decommissioned in 1983. The Oxo Tower just west of Tate Modern, originally built as a power station but rebuilt as an Art Deco cold store in 1929, has found a new role as Oxo Tower Wharf, with a full raft of shopping, eating, housing and cultural uses.
Then over Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, a bridge story to rival some of Copenhagen’s, to St Paul’s and Paternoster Square, then onwards to Aldgate, where we were stayed for the next three nights.
Wednesday: the City and the Barbican
A tortured heap of towers? Foster+Partners’ Gherkin (2003, 180m), aka 30 St Mary Axe and previously the Swiss Re Building, on the site of the bombed in 1992 Baltic Exchange, was in situ the last time I visited London, but it’s Richard Seifert’s 1980 NatWest Tower, now Tower 42, I think of first.
In 2016 though there’s a whole City cluster away from St Paul’s sightlines – notably Richard Rogers’ Cheesegrater (1 Leadenhall; 2013, 225m), across the road from his 1986 Lloyds’ Building, as well as Rafael Vinoly’s infamous Walkie Talkie (2014, 160m; Britain’s most hated building | story | Carbuncle Cup) at 20 Fenchurch Street with its Sky Garden (from which you don’t have to look at the thing). Less written about or in your face is the Heron Tower (2011), at 230m the tallest building in the City. Which will last the longest?
What effect is all this having? See climate walk article for starters. Then there’s Crossrail, eliminating numerous blocks, and the general privatisation of public space. Bankrolled by oil money, derided as phallic symbols…but a successful city brand, judging by the number of tourist around in the first week of January. If you enjoy looking up, getting some perspectives on things, it feels well done – at least if you don’t know what was there before.
On another note, the City is one square mile of prime walking country. Even if you are just popping out for your sandwich/ramen of choice, during office hours the streets are never quiet. Visit the City offers a visitor trail map (“one trail: hundreds of stories”), with a main trail and ‘side-tracks’ for London stories, culture, law and literature, skyscrapers and sculpture, and markets. Each square of the map is approx 400m, or about a five minute walk at a steady 3 mph pace, just feel the walking love…in addition there are 10 city walk leaflets, including a tree trail, and for locals a cornucopia of delights including short lunchtime walks for a quick heritage hit. Apparently Harry Potter tours are a thing, as were James Bond tours around the time of Skyfall, plus anti-capitalism tours such as Occupy London tackling inter alia public realm issues. It never stops…
After all that corporate excess on to old friend the Barbican (story) with its nods to culture (we tracked a lad carrying a tuba across the plaza and back over lunch) and upscale brutalist housing, and the gentrifying 1950s Golden Lane Estate.
Thursday: the Olympic Park, Poplar and the East End
It was rainy and pretty deserted when we visited as part of our packed east London programme, so no time to explore the The Olympic Walk from Sporting Tours of London, good wheeze that. While the revitalised park, “the same size as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined”, seems focused on looking forward, a London 2012 trail guide does offer pointers to what happened where. Designed by the team behind New York’s High Line with waterways, woods and wildlife habitats created on the marshlands, there’s plenty to explore beyond the playgrounds and between the building sites, although this kind of designed experience hides rather than reveals.
The four interactive trails on offer include a guide to the 26 permanent artworks in the park. Biggest is the 114.5m high ArcelorMittal Orbit, Britain’s largest sculpture. You can climb it or abseil down it for £85 (£130 to upgrade to live vid), and a slide will be in action later in 2016. Also offers activities and events. Entry: £12, which feels a bit steep for a view of east London. Rather more pleasing are Ackroyd & Harvey’s 10 History Trees, placed at entry points to the park; in total 4300 trees have been planted in the area.
The Olympic Village, renamed the East Village, is the most developed quarter, a dead ringer for any of Copenhagen’s bland new areas. Scandi style, or just modern style? It certainly didn’t feel like London. Oliver Wainwright in July 2013: “making workable streets from tarmac wastes and weaving housing around velodromes is a difficult and expensive way of producing a good city”. A shopping centre and a new ‘international’ station doesn’t a place make – the arrival of West Ham may be what’s needed. Update: here’s Olly in August 2016.
From Stratford we took the DLR down to Poplar, formed as a district as long ago as 1855 and encompassing areas including Bow, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs, but from 1965 part of Tower Hamlets. Two town halls remain, both listed: on Poplar High Street (1870) and the Art Deco style New Town Hall on Bow Road (1938), which we missed by turning the wrong way exiting the station.
Poplar plays a key role in the history of social housing in the UK. Between the wars the council built a total of 1500 homes in the area, including the Art Deco Holmsdale House (1938), complete with deck access. In 1951 the first phase of the Lansbury Estate (again; fab article; in 2017 the home of the V&A’s Lansbury Micro Museum) was chosen as the site of the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Live Architecture. Alongside is Chrisp Street Market, the first specially designed, covered and pedestrianised shopping centre in the UK with iconic bell tower by Frank Gibberd, from 2012 a Portas Pilot.
A further round of development took place in the 1960s and 1970s resulting in two ‘streets in the sky’ developments. First, the much written about Brownfield Estate, with fairly unobjectionable low rise punctuated by the cluster of Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (again; 1967, 84m), accompanied by Carradale House and Glenkerry House, aka the rather more well behaved baby Balfron. Goldfinger and his family stayed in Balfron’s Flat 130 for a whole two months in 1968.
The decision to kick off redevelopment of this concrete monster was made as long ago as 2008, since when some flats have provided live-work accommodation for a posse of artists. Other tenants have gradually been ‘decanted’ elsewhere, with the block to be refurbished for sale on the open market. A certain amount of hooha was caused in October 2014 when the Goldfinger flat was done up Sixties style by the National Trust and opened to heritage fans for 10 days as part of Bow Arts’ Balfron Season. Still awaiting refurbishment it all felt pretty desolate with wind of Himalayan proportions – a major treat for concrete fans.
Nearby is the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens (1972), “an urban solution to an impossible site” and perhaps rather too clever for its own good, due (again) to be pulled down soon – there were CPO notices hanging by the entrance. Expecting something on the scale of Sheffield’s Park Hill, the 214 flats actually felt full of potential, and rather more viable than the Balfron wind tunnel, but is seems it is not to be.
Fascinating round here, so close to 1990s Docklands and so clearly on the cusp of 2010s gentrification, with three hotspots on the London campaigns map and cycle superhighway CS3 passing through. More wandering took us to Bartlett Park with its eponymous Brookside style close, complete with two private land signs and a burnt out church.
As for the rest of the East End, despite having visited London countless times from birth and living there from 1987-93 I had no mental map at all, but can now vaguely place what were formerly merely names, known mainly from the Monopoly board, with any number of leads to follow up. Our final impression was the creeping approach of the City, with Commercial Street gradually crumbling away – our bus to the airport left from beside a hoarding surrounding the one remaining wall of the 1929 Fruit & Wool Exchange.
Our trip summed up: a reminder that humanity comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. People just getting on with their lives, without being channelled into an approved lifestyle. People meeting your eye and not looking away (and talking extremely loudly), creating interaction and even a sense of wellbeing. And trees make a city – everywhere should have a Tree Routes app.
Tidy uptight Copenhagen is in a different place on its gentrification journey, with hipsters largely confined to the city centre and few creatives spotted on Vestegnen thus far. Social housing has been rather better maintained than in the UK, and most new housing is going up on brownfield sites left by the collapse of the harbour and related industries, extending King Canute-like onto reclaimed land. But Amager looks like becoming the first front line, as Ørestad pushes its shiny face into the older neighbourhoods of Sundby and Tårnby (which at a pinch translates as Tower Hamlets), creating some awkward transitions.
And Denmark has a different sense of place, very much of the here and now, with style (aka design) winning over substance. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that this focus on surface is because there are fewer layers left to unpeel? And that some of the attraction for expat Guardianistas and journos is just how these differences play out? Or is it all just another successful city branding strategy?
Reading: Brutalism:Online | Concretopia: John Grindrod’s book, blog & timeline | London’s: footpaths & tallest buildings | London Deco Flats | Modernism in Metro-Land | Modernist Britain | Municipal Dreams | Museum of London: City & Docklands | Spitalfields Life | Walk London | Adrian Yekkes: East End Modernism & More Hampstead Modernism & London Art Deco part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | yet more. Also Homes of tomorrow, audio on Goldfinger’s “utopian drive to build for a better world”.
Some East End walks: Alternative London | Brick Lane and Spitalfields cultural trail | Jack the Ripper tours (at least 10) | The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (Whitechapel) | Memoryscape (inc Royal Docks, Victoria Park) | Soundmap (Brick Lane) | Tower Hamlets walks & trails | A walk through Spitalfields’ stories. See also Richard White’s social walk in QEOP (blog) in May 2015.