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.