THERE should be limits to the British obsession with heritage. When functional, workaday objects such as traffic lights, bus shelters and 'No Entry' signs have to be dressed up in Regency fancy dress to keep us Quality Street-sweet, heritage has given way to idiocy. This is what has happened to Regent Street, London, where a pounds 4m programme of public works by the Crown Commissioners, now nearing completion, has given us the world's first Regency traffic lights.
Traffic was heavy in London at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, but traffic lights were still a thing of the future. The first gas- powered traffic light appeared in London in 1868; the three-colour electric version made its debut in New York in 1918, almost a century after the Prince Regent, after whom the street was named, took over from his mad father.
Nevertheless, the Commissioners - the street's landlords - and their design firm, McColl (best known for Eighties shop interiors), have given us the Neo- Classical traffic light - presumably based on some yet-to-be- discovered original - along with the pseudo-Classical bus shelter, No Entry sign and litter bin.
This collection of stagey 'street furniture', every bit of it decorated with an ostentatious crown, now marches from one end of Regent Street to the other, from Oxford Circus to Piccadilly Circus. Painted a garish blue, these poles and props dominate Regent Street, cocking a snook at the dignified Edwardian architecture. (The remaining Regency architecture, much of it designed by the Prince Regent's favourite architect, John Nash - the Prince liked Mrs Nash even better - was demolished in the Twenties.)
The absurdity of this programme lies not just in its Mills & Boon sensibility, according to which everything is seen through a Regency haze, but also in the sheer volume of the stuff. Stand at Oxford Circus and look down Regent Street. As far as the eye can see - which is a long way down this great curving street - there is a concatenation of street furniture. All those minor public servants that should play a discreet role in the streetscape have been made the stars of the show.
Where previously people, double-deckers, taxis and shop fronts gave Regent Street its character, now three-dimensional graffiti takes pride of place. One somehow expects signs and bins to dominate banal pedestrian shopping streets and traffic-free squares in the lesser of Britain's new towns, but in the heart of London? The new bus shelters - chunky, glazed arcades with vaulted roofs held up by bastardised fluted Roman Doric columns - are massive, devouring vast areas of pavement and looking as if they have escaped from a Hollywood film set c 1935 purporting to depict London c 1900.
If only the signs, lights, etc were painted black - the traditional colour of London lamp- posts, railings and traffic lights - then at least the clutter of urban accessories would be subdued. The vile blue paintwork, however, clashes violently with the red of Regent Street's pillar boxes and buses (although the Government wants these all the colours of a nursery paintbox within a year or so), the black of its taxis and the muted grey of its buildings and pavements. Subtlety has obviously not been a consideration.
In its defence - although there is none that would stand up in a court of visual justice - the Crown Commissioners say Regent Street had been in danger of becoming downgraded during the chain-store boom of the late Eighties. Too many high street shops were turning Regent Street into a pallid reflection of its ruthlessly commercial neighbour, Oxford Street. What Regent Street needed, said the Commissioners, was 'identity'.
Yet the true identity of the greatest London streets stems from the subtle build-up, over the years, of interesting architecture, shop fronts, signs and what was for decades the unsurpassed design of their buses and taxis. When Frank Pick was chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board from 1933 to 1940, he stipulated that the buses must enhance the architecture of the streets they served; given their size and bulk, they were to
be treated as a form of mobile architecture.
Meanwhile, the bus shelters, bus stops and railings that Pick commissioned were crisp, elegant, discreet and Modern - more so than in any other European city. The London County Council sided with him: street furniture and public vehicles should enhance the city in infinitely subtle ways. Today such subtlety in urban thinking is clearly beyond the wit of either the Crown Commissioners or Westminster City Council.
In fact the Commissioners, the council and the designers are all proud of this act of civic denigration. Even the Royal Fine Art Commission - which you might expect to be in favour of placing crowns on every available surface - wrote to the Crown Commissioners two years ago warning that the proposals theatened to turn Regent Street into 'a facsimile of a mediocre shopping precinct'. Jocelyn Stevens, the voluble new head of English Heritage, thinks the debacle takes 'heritage' a crown and a column too far.
The logical step, now that Westminster City Council wants to 'theme' each of the 'villages' in its care (Soho, West Soho, Chinatown and so on), is to fill the streets with hansom cabs, bring back open-top buses, paint pillar boxes olive green (as they once were) and people Regent Street with muffin men, child sweeps and sixpenny trollops.
Bus conductors should be trained to say 'gor blimey, luv-a- duck, half a mo', guv' in the style of Dick Van Dyke's sweep in Mary Poppins; the Clean Air Act should be repealed so that Regent Street can again be swallowed up in good old-fashioned pea-soupers. And, if the Crown Commissioners and Westminster City Council really want the Regency back in Regent Street, bring back public executions at nearby Tyburn (Marble Arch). This was, after all, the most popular form of public entertainment in Regency London. Why stop with the officially sanctioned public humiliation of one of London's greatest streets?
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies