A PAIN IN THE ARTS

Tanya Harrod rails against the cult of spurious Victoriana
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The Independent Culture
A few months ago, Notting Hill Gate began to look different. Trees were planted. The street furniture was changed. Handsome bollards mushroomed along pavements, and guard rails were replaced.

It's odd what thoughts are provoked by the removal of a few railings. Just after the war there was a vision of London as modern city. Beleaguered landmarks to that sensibility remain - though Erno Goldfinger's Elephant and Castle and Sir William Holford's St Paul's precinct will soon only exist in photos, models and plans. Developments of the first two post-war decades have to be radically changed now just to survive. Schemes range from complete transformations - pitched roofs, recladding, lots of iron work - to, more rarely, sensitive refits involving better detailing, good lighting and more defensible space. The usual effect is to turn a living piece of architecture into a self-conscious quotation.

The rails of Notting Hill may seem unimportant, but in a small way they encapsulate the headlong flight from anything that reminds us of the idealisms of the 1950s and 1960s.

Until recently, pedestrians were protected by standard galvanised-steel barriers, grey, unobtrusive and undeniably modern. Now they are being replaced by an anaemic variant of 19th-century cast-iron, complete with posts capped with decorative balls. Theymight be appropriate in a historic part of the city but Notting Hill Gate is an eclectic architectural mix.

Its tone is set by the 1960s housing and shops on its north side, hailed by Nikolaus Pevsner as an example of English ``urban picturesque''. Of course, Pevsner was wildly over-optimistic; Notting Hill Gate cries out for improvement. But why are faux 19th-century railings seen as the solution? Clearly they symbolise security, prosperity and permanence while ``modern'' design of the kind once illustrated in Design Council handbooks suggests just the reverse.

We can expect to see more and more reproduction and pastiche employed for the ``upgrading'' of London. What it will signify instead is a failure of nerve in the articulation of public space and a denial that there can be a contemporary visual language that works for a late 20th-century city. Or am I reading too much into the removal of a few railings?

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