Tear down terraces, shopping centres, the lot

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The Independent Online
T he prevailing British obsession with the notion of heritage means that all buildings are of historic merit, no matter how ugly, and so none should be demolished. Try to knock down a banal Sixties office block in Neasden and a prim young conservationist will decry the act, berating us with the fact that this grim building is the sole surviving work of the Dollis Hill architects Sleaze & Largefee, and, moreover, is a unique example of bodged-frame construction.

Forced to play the which-buildings-would-you-like-to-demolish game, my own reply is that much British building from the 1830s to the present has been unspeakably ugly and ought to go. Why the 1830s? Because it was from this date that we began to smother Britain in mass-produced buildings - hideous rows of pinched, mean villas for Pooters and Gradgrinds that today's middle-classes think quite super; mean-spirited churches, grim warehouses and then a superfluity of offices, an inundation of industrial tat and finally, over the past 25 years, the triumphal banality of superstores, shopping malls, business parks, country park hotels, golf clubs and motorway service stations.

Even if many of these buildings have been more or less inevitable, there are many I would love to drive a bulldozer through. I would aim first for the disfiguring acres of Victorian terraced houses that choke south London and many other British cities. These have none of the simple, beautifully proportioned elegance of their Georgian predecessors; they speak only of an England mean, grey and horribly repressed.

All cul-de-sacs, post-1939 and the Joke Oak and Neo-Geo houses that sprout inside them would be razed and replaced by pastures, woodlands and meadows: those who live in them could come back to town, or emigrate to Canada, where there is plenty of space for the twin-garage lifestyle. All retirement homes for the over-55s, all superstores and all edge-of-town retail developments would be trampled underground.

Ninety-nine per cent of Vernacular-style homes built, with good intent, by housing associations and caring, sharing community architects over the past 25 years would have to go. Little Chefs and Happy Eaters, Travelodges and Novotels would be zapped from the roadscape. Birmingham New Street, Birmingham International and Milton Keynes stations would bite the dust and be replaced by buildings proud to acknowledge that they had something to do with railways. Gatwick airport and all its themed cafes would be dive-bombed, as would the whole of Heathrow.

Moving into town, the St James's shopping centre in Edinburgh, Wembley Conference Centre in west London, Camden Town Hall opposite St Pancras station, the Public Records Office in Kew and the Ark office block beside the Hammersmith flyover would come tumbling down. I would blast the recent buildings defacing the Thames near the former Bankside Power Station (these include cheque-clearing centres for banks among other arcane and bureaucratic purposes) and those screening St Paul's cathedral from the River Thames opposite Bankside.

Richmond Riverside, the faux Classical office and shopping complex some miles west along the Thames and designed by St Quinlan Terry, would be sacked; in fact, any bogus Post-Modern classical twaddle would be banished, especially any building described as "witty".

I would root up pedestrian precincts, their gimcrack herring-bone brick pavements, heritage-style streetlamps and those horrid brick obstructions known as "planters" in which a few sad shrubs attempt to bloom and that serve best as receptacles for beer cans and greasy hamburger cartons.

This is just a start. Over the past 150 years, we have built so very much that it is no wonder that so many buildings are bland or horrid. Not every building ought to be a monument or masterpiece, because we would soon tire of architectural richness as we do of Christmas pudding and chocolate-covered figs, but those we do need might be designed and built with care and imagination.

Jonathan Glancey, Architecture Correspondent