The very image of vitality
Friday 16 May 1997
News of Sir Norman Foster's design for a dramatic new money-market trading floors in Spitalfields shown on these pages last week drew nothing but hostile criticism in The Independent's postbag. The letters were from local residents and assumed that the author of the offending article (the same as this one) wouldn't like it if he had to live next to a market, ancient or modern. But, I have lived cheek-by-jowl with Spitalfields Market in its fruit and veg heyday and again when the old market moved out. The second time round made precious little sense. The area seemed unnaturally quiet and local residents in those far off days (six years ago) complained that without the market traders, drivers and loaders who toiled here noisily throughout the night, the area was unsafe, especially for single women to walk through on their way home to the exquisite Georgian streets east of the market.
In those intervening six years, residents have got used to the peace and quiet of the new look Spitalfields, while newcomers recently settled down from Chelsea and Ladbroke Grove have never known a London wholesale market in full swing. What many residents want is a good-looking Georgian neighbourhood just a few minutes walk from the City where imaginative salaries allow a substantial way of life. In other words, what was for the conservationists, artists, historians and architecture buffs who came this way shortly before Mrs Thatcher moved into Downing Street and when a crumbling house in the shadow of the market could be had for pounds 15,000, an unforgettable liaison between unrestored Georgian houses, Dickensian streets and a workaday market, is now on its ways to being sanitised. Spitalfields, like Covent Garden before it is being gentrified.
Of course families want to live in safe areas and do not want their sleep disturbed by the cacophanous workings of a market, but why choose Spitalfields over Hampstead Garden Suburb, for example, where only the sound of Jeeps changing gear disturbs the deep sleep of the urban bourgeoisie?
What has been called the "embourgeoisification" of our city centres, and notably of London, has been developing apace over the past 20 years. While the continuing trend is for blue- and white-collar workers to move out of the city to comfortable new private estates on the outer fringe of old market towns, the wealthy and artistic middle classes have recolonised districts of London which, until recently, were home to markets, workshops, newly arrived immigrants and the poor. That is as true of Spitalfields as it is of Smithfield, where I live now. Here the Victorian meat market has survived (upgraded to meet the latest EU health and safety directives) and the area remains remarkably true to its ancient and bloody origins. I love the clatter of the market and hope it stays, and, yes, I wish the surrounding streets of Clerkenwell still echoed to the sounds of the clockmakers, printers and other craftsmen who toiled and spun here until so recently. But, I also know that as the area has become chic, so a new wave of stylish and demanding residents would be the first to complain of the noise.
Increasingly we want our city centres to be anodyne. I have read countless worthy articles on the future of our cities, listened to numerous lectures on the subject, attended seminars and debates, and what I have learned is this: We want, in principle, the glamour and convenience of living and working in a city centre (assuming we can find decent homes), but want none of the very drive and excitement, clatter and sheer business, that makes great cities so very exciting in the first place. We want to tame the beast, curb its excesses; in fact, we want to suburbanise the city.
The danger of taming cities, as if their energy was somehow dangerous, is that they only truly make sense when writhing like some giant snake. Great cities, like the memorable markets they need to feed them, are never at rest. Their mighty hearts pound through the night. They are always being rebuilt. The sound of compressors and drills, the sight of JCBs and men in hard hats, the acrid smell of building sites, these things, upsetting to the acute sensibilities of the new urbanites, are outward signs that a city is healthy.
I am always amused by illustrations of ancient Rome or Athens in which these famous cities are depicted as stately, serene and humourless. Rome, at its height in the first century AD, a city of at least 1.2m people (400,000 of them slaves) was an extraordinarily messy, noisy city. The streets were crowded and dangerous at night, the hubbub went on 24 hours a day, particularly after Julius Caesar decreed that goods traffic could only move by night to save the city from gridlock during the day. All night long delivery wagons rumbled through the serpentine streets (Rome was as loosely planned as London), and because the rich lived beside the poor (the most opulent villas were sited alongside crowded, and unhygienic eight-storey apartment blocks), everyone had much the same experience of the city at work. They complained - poets, philosophers, politicians - yet anyone who wanted to be anyone headed for the teeming capital. The point is clear enough: the most dynamic city of antiquity was restlessly alive, and that is why many of us would love the chance to jump into a time machine and spend a weekend break in Imperial Rome (but could we face the Colosseum in full swing?).
New York, Barcelona, London, Hong Kong, Mexico, Bombay are the Romes of our time. We should want them to be restlessly alive. We should welcome exciting new buildings and worthwhile developments. If not, we should retire to bungalows in far-off cul-de-sacs and sleep the deep sleep of middle England.
Getting the balance right between what we call heritage and new development will never be easy. To have new designs "fit in" with existing buildings and streetscapes, however, does not mean designing in retrogressive styles. You will have your own examples to hand, but I find the topsy-turvy juxtaposition of, say, the Lloyd's Building in the City of London with Leadenhall Market (a lovely Victorian confection) as delightful as it is theatrical. I feel the same when I walk from the old terraced streets hiding from what remains of the 20th century behind the Greek Revival church at Waterloo and come face to face with the revamped railway station and its impressive new terminal that links London to Paris by 300kph trains in three smooth hours. These juxtapositions tend to fail badly when new buildings appear to be trying that bit too hard to ape the original context. Under the scheme for Paternoster Square, as approved by the Prince of Wales and his toadies, St Paul's Cathedral would have been disgraced and overshadowed by some of the most embarrassing giant office blocks this side of Ceaucescu's Bucharest.
The City of London, meanwhile, is slowly coming round to the idea of encouraging people to live in the upper floors of banks and office blocks in the hallowed Square Mile. This makes sense, but will those who move here begin to complain of the bells of St Paul's calling the few to Evensong on Sundays? Will they rail against the way the City is constantly building and rebuilding itself? Will they want to pedestrianise it, so that it loses its weekday vibrancy? Will they insist that the common people who clutter the place on market day (Petticoat Lane, Sundays) clear off and leave them in peace?
Somehow we have to jog along together to make cities work and to allow us all something of the lives we want to lead. Some of us want them to be dynamic, romantic and inspiring; others want them to be dignified, old-fashioned and homely. That debate has been going on for 2,000 years. It is unlikely to end now. What we must do, whatever our position, is to keep campaigning for the very best and to keep our cities enticingly on the boiln
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