With Labour comes the golden chance to rethink our cities as complex living organisms rather than repositories of tawdry `heritage' culture
Friday 09 May 1997
Significantly he has Mark Fisher and Tony Banks as junior ministers who, between them will advise him on architectural and "built heritage" issues. Banks will be more or less in charge of issues relating to the listing of historic buildings and Fisher will, or I assume he will, attempt to ensure that the Government itself spends wisely on new ones.
Fisher is a known quantity in architectural circles. He is close to Sir Richard Rogers and his circle (will Sir Richard be the Government's official spokesman for architecture in the Lords?) and has invested much time in thinking about the future of architecture, design and the shape of our cities. He is the author, with Rogers, of a book, published in 1992, that looked at the future shape of London. This was a well researched and punchy exercise which, oddly, was not reflected in Labour's hackneyed cultural manifesto which Fisher masterminded in the build-up to the general election. If it read like Peter Seller's famous "Party Political Broadcast" (sounds grand, but says nothing - "we must build, but we must build surely"), this may have been because Labour was determined to say virtually nothing substantive during the election, allowing fatigue and sleaze to knock the Tories from their perch, and biding its time before declaring its hand. Hopefully, Fisher will now speak openly.
As to Banks, well, there's a turn up for the books. A popular populist, Banks knows much more than you might suppose about cities and buildings, their history and significance. It will make a change to talk to someone other than a stuffed shirt or nincompoop about our future heritage.
What these ministers need to do is to work closely with John Prescott's beefy new department combining transport, the environment and the regions. Here is a golden chance to rethink edge-of-town development, to reintegrate public transport networks blown apart by dogmatic deregulation, to ensure major new urban development is wired into attractive new public transport projects. Here is the opportunity to deal with the spaces between buildings that few developers are interested in, and to create pedestrian walkways through, under, beside, above and across existing and new buildings, so that we can walk freely without having to "pedestrianise" our town and city centres in a heavy handed manner and thus rob them of spontaneous and incidental life.
We need to encourage politicians to see that cities are not fragmented commercial opportunities, but complex organisms in which each part relates closely to the next. The design of a bus affects the look of a street, as does that of a pillar box or telephone booth. Over the past 18 years, the spirit of free enterprise has been invoked to fragment large parts of our cities and to smother what's left of our countryside in buildings that are either simply banal or both banal and designed to make us ever more passive. One almost gets tired of listing the baddies: cul-de-sac housing, superstores, roadside eateries ... but unless we are stubborn and demand an end to this what-the-hell destruction of what little unspoiled land we have, the process will continue until there is nothing left of real value.
We must encourage the new ministers to think laterally and well. Who knows; if in several years time, the present government can be seen to have encouraged likeable and sophisticated urban regeneration, clamped down on the abuse of country towns and the countryside and invested in superb new architecture and design, we might even finally lock the door on the sad heritage culture that has made so much of Britain so very tawdry and dull over the past 18 years. If (only) this could happen, then Chris Smith could ditch the loaded name of his new ministry which suggests that Whitehall cares for nothing but what served, and failed, us in the pastn
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