How money and amenity contend in our cities

Buildings are political, a statement of the relationship between power and the people

Share

On Saturday I stayed with my husband in the Boat Room, overlooking the Thames in London, perched up on the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The edifice, which juts out and looks seemingly marooned there by receding waters, was collaboratively created by David Kohn Architects, the artist Fiona Banner and Artangel for Living Architecture, the company set up by the dreamy philosopher Alain de Botton. It is named after and shaped like the Roi des Belges, the riverboat commanded by Joseph Conrad in the Congo in the late 19th century. Conrad recoiled from our metropolis and great river, both murky to him, “sleepless and monstrous”. Maybe parts are, but the city is still the greatest and most evocative in the world.

Postcard views of London twinkled in the sun, suddenly turned melancholic but resolute as lightning flashed and the rains fell. The Thames, too, changed moods and colours several times. We fell in love again and again with London and each other. I’ll hold on to the recollections of that day and night until dementia or death wash away all memories. We awoke to the sounds of Big Ben, breakfasted gazing at St Paul’s, the bridges, spires of small churches, newish buildings, Charing Cross station, the London Eye and County Hall, fantastic boats of every size. And people, thousands of them, somehow moving without crashing, laughing, arguing, one or two crying as they stood at Waterloo Bridge. A treacherous lover? The loss of a job or home?

For centuries, caution and a deep historical sensibility has ensured that Britain moves to the future without bulldozing its past. It can, at times, be maddening for most of us. All those damned planners who interfere with your right to do what you please in your home and garden! Who do they think they are? But these are vital arguments and some necessary rules to ensure no development takes place without due care. The new needs to be properly scrutinised and attachment to what has been must also be robustly interrogated.

That drama is currently playing out in the space beneath the Hayward Gallery which has been claimed and used by skateboarders and BMX bikers for more than 40 years. The Southbank team has produced plans hugely to expand and improve the facilities, bring in more commercial outlets, and move the bikers and boarders into a new space 120 metres along under Hungerford Bridge. I know and have worked with Jude Kelly, the dynamic, compulsively democratic artistic director of the Southbank Centre, which was once an elitist club with its dark undercrofts inhabited by the homeless. Remember Cardboard City in the 1980s? And middle-class patrons of the arts holding their noses as they swished past?

That changed in the last decade. Kelly made the Southbank a place for us all, high and low, young and old, black and white. She is now cast as a capitalist scoundrel by skateboarders, internet petitioners, a PR company and law  firm who want to keep the park where it is.  Two users told me they were protecting a tradition. (Interesting that cool dudes are so conservative.) Vilified Kelly wants, she says, to welcome all the tribes of Britain, including the voiceless. They, who doubt her, should ask questions, make her explain her vision. I hope after all that they understand that she will not betray them.

In Toxteth, Liverpool, another conflict is heating up. Joe Anderson, the Mayor of Liverpool, wants to demolish old, restorable dwellings (one of them lived in by the family of Ringo Starr) and replace them with swanky new constructs, not affordable to most existing residents. Plucky campaigners have fought long and hard to stop the project. Only a public inquiry can now guarantee the best option for a city too long blighted. There are other such cities, too, where vandals have taken over local authorities and are opposed by citizens with little cash but much feeling.

Such challenges, in the end, are good for the country. Richard Rogers, 80 this year, has always believed the buildings are political, a statement of the relationship between power and the people. When the glass city of Canary Wharf was built, it represented the indifference of money to the local population, their hopes and history. It remains alien. City Hall, on the other hand, seems to belong to its locality and the metropolis, as do some of the finer modern constructions in Liverpool.

Ahead of us in the Boat Room was the  disagreeable Shard, more macho than  Canary Wharf Tower, pushing into the clouds, violating the sky, brashly indifferent to the  cultural and historical accretions that made London and Britain. It is an apt symbol for  the way the nation now flogs its environment and character for the right sum. New privately owned towers are being erected without  much consultation. Old properties, too,  though kept intact on the outside, are turned into gross, showy, tasteless mansions fit for  the Kardashians. Or bought up and left empty for investment purposes by the filthy rich  from elsewhere. No pesky planners and  campaigners can stop this sell-off. Within a  decade the most enduring and irreplaceable buildings and landscapes in urban Britain will be despoiled. Too late then to turn back. Too late already.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea