Joan Bakewell: How we've learned to love our cities again

Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham have all dragged themselves from a decades-long urban depression
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The Independent Online

Civic pride could have no finer promoter. There we all were trekking the streets of London for something approaching six hours on each day of last weekend. Sensibly clad, sensible shoes, map in hand, first there was a small trickle of us, ones and twos, recognising others on the venture by the leaflets we carried and regularly consulted. We nodded in recognition. We were all on the same mission: to know and celebrate our city.

This was the 14th year of Open House London's architectural initiative, an autumn weekend when some 600 buildings - many private homes as well as the great and the grand of Whitehall and the City - are open free to the public for the simple purpose of examining and admiring. By midday numbers had swelled, the trickle had become an enthusiastic mob. In the early afternoon queues were building at Portcullis House and the Lloyds Building. But good humour and good organisation were the order of the day.

The occasion amounts to far more than simply opening the doors and letting in the people. At each venue there are smiles and welcomes to meet and greet, informative leaflets handed out, the options of lectures and guided tours, sometimes coffee and biscuits, children's quizzes, coloured pens and paper for them, too. Nothing is too much trouble for the hosts: some of the legal staff at the 18th century buildings of the Tribunal Offices in Bedford Square, dressed somewhat awkwardly in period costume, would take down heavy legal tomes to explain just how appeals brought before Tribunals are dealt with. At the Art Workers Guild in Queen Square, the distinguished furniture designer Martin Grierson was in attendance. This was London at its best: its people at their proudest and most benign.

The first surprise is just how many wonderful buildings pass unremarked. How often have I passed Mary Ward House in Tavistock Place, a Grade I listed building of 1898, and never noticed its arts and crafts frontage? How many of us know that the headquarters of the Midland Bank in Poultry, designed by Lutyens, has the second largest safe door in the world, a 32-ton masterpiece worthy to feature in a Bond film, or win the Turner Prize? Perhaps the most sensational visit for me was the Gibbs Building of the Wellcome Trust recently completed by Michael Hopkins architects, and housing for the full five floors of its height an amazing construction of glass baubles designed by Thomas Heatherwick. How easy it is to take such treasures for granted as a routine in the townscape. But how much it boosts one's sense of civic pride to see them.

I am sure this is true of other British cities too. They have been burgeoning over recent years. Manchester and its near neighbour Salford are to my knowledge rich in major architectural projects: not just the Lowry Centre and the Imperial War Museum of the North. One of the finest conversions is from an old warehouse into a car park. When did we ever admire the architecture of a car park! Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Gateshead have all dragged themselves from a decades-long trough of urban depression to become bright and thriving townscapes with both purpose and planning.

It is now more common to be shocked when something appalling has sneaked past the planners than to be surprised that something new and adventurous has been allowed to happen. City culture is booming and with it the pride of its citizens.

Nothing is perfect of course, and amid all this euphoria I was aware of two things. The crowds of us making these pilgrimages were almost entirely middle class and white. Just the sort of people, of course, to be on mailing lists, reading the listings magazines, watching television programmes about houses and design. In terms of any message the weekend might be meant to convey - we have a wonderful and beautiful city - it was preaching to the converted. Perhaps next time Open House London, which is a charity supported by, among others, 31 boroughs, could get the news into schools and youth clubs. They should also advertise in the black and Asian press and television. This is their city too. Civics lessons in the curriculum are one thing, but the reality of what exists in our cities is there at first hand to be seen and enjoyed. If we want to create a sense in our citizens of a pride in what we share then involving them in such a project would certainly help.

We can see that the standards of public buildings and landmark enterprises is certainly improving. But where are the houses being built that we will one day look back on with pride? This country is suffering a massive need for houses. Social housing is virtually at a stand still, and schemes that do go ahead usually have low standards of design. New housing is deeply depressing. The prospect of a new development fills local people with dread and leads to planning appeals that simply delay matters to no effect. In the 1950s when he was Minister for Housing Harold Macmillan got 300,000 new houses built a year. It was a staggering achievement and probably helped him win subsequent elections. This country is desperate for new houses at modest prices, and the display of architectural merit in office blocks, City landmarks and refurbished Georgian terraces simply points up the need. Yet, as far as I'm aware, no political party has a housing policy that might make a difference.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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