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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Friday, 30 December 2016

Thought for 2017: Give us Gagarin rocket apartments and super-tall towers of crystal rather than squat lumps of blandness

OK so it is a RPBW impression, but you can see
how the now abondoned project for a Paddington
Skyscraper might have echoed the luminous
elegance of the Shard at London Bridge.
Photo: Piano
Of course as an old buffer I'd rather London looked and felt like it did in 1976: dirty, scruffy, smelly, semi-derelict, cheap.

But as that ain't going to happen, I'd rather all the new developments were as interesting and elegant as the recently-dropped proposal for another Renzo Piano tower, this one at Paddington Station.

The so called Paddington Pole was removed from planning consultation by the developers after a well orchestrated protest and a big public outcry. It would have been like a second Shard, in even more stark contrast to its surroundings, and therefore, to my eye, less offensive than what is likely to emerge as the compromise: a massive, but much shorter, "floating cube" that will still jut up into the skyline.

This seems to be  a continuation of the Prince Charles effect. Get enough posh and influential people to protest and you can batter the planning committees, etc, into submission.

Sadly, the result is usually something duller, less brave, and much blander than the original design - eg,  the bits around St Pauls, One Poultry, the Sainsbury Wing National Gallery extension (a truly ghastly place which makes visiting this once great gallery a dismal experience);  and Chelsea Barracks - where the Prince's view of architecture holds sway. There's a good piece in AJ explaining precisely this eventuality.

This is exactly what has emerged at Paddington. Instead of a crazy, slender, sparkling 800 foot pole, this bit of London will get a gigantic glass cube, which looks very much like a big version of everything else built in cities all round the planet in recent years, and actually reminds me of nothing more than the cheap looking new US Embassy in Nine Elms. This 14-storey cube is also designed by Renzo Piano, but as you can tell from the awful green and orange plastic-look slabs near St Giles, he's just as capable of turning out cheap and nasty stuff as the next architect.

Here's what we'll get instead: a 14-storey glass and steel cube that looks
like something designed for a business park somewhere down the M4...

Given the lumpen blandness of so much stuff going up now, don't you just long for some crazy, high quality but imaginative buildings, such as the proposed 'Soviet Space Rocket' aka Gagarin Square tower, in Southwark?

This was a really mad sci-fi look 30-storey building that would have changed Southwark Street completely, had it not already been ruined very thoroughly by all that stuff that's arrived next to Tate Modern, not to mention the Shard and co at the Eastern end. In fact this outlandish tower was ruled out in 2015, to be replaced by something much blander.

Personally, what is most offensive about all these buildings - tall, short, ugly, beautiful - is that they are being built for people with upwards of a million to spend on a flat they probably won't even live in. How odd that in the 60s and 70s the only people who lived - or even wanted to live - above 20 storeys in central London were council tenants. Now most of those great towers of Barbican and elsewhere, built with public money to give everyone a decent place to live,  have been privatised. Those are tall towers, so is Trellick. Trellick is near Paddington. Many who used to hate it now think it's a great experiment in vertical living. That Paddington Pole, with a visionary council behind it, could have been a continuation of that experiment.

Impression of the 30 storey Gagarin tower designed for
Southwark Street, but kicked out by planners last year. 
A lot of the best anti-tall towers stuff is coming from the Skyline Campaign, which seems to be a global pressure group pulling together lots of local protests. While much of its activity seems well justified, it also seems to forget that any new building - especially a large building like St Paul's or  the neo-gothic mass of St Pancras - ruins somebody else's view.

No point crying over London's ruined skyline - that milk was spilled many decades ago. Really, some dear rich people's view of St Paul's through a telescope from Richmond Park has been desecrated by a large residential tower in Stratford? Oh dear! Oh calumny. Those poor dear Richmond residents. What about the residents of the Patmore estate in Battersea who used to have a nice view across the river. Now all they see are the steel skeletons of yuppie towers, as their windows are shaken and their lungs filled with grit by the passing of hundreds of trucks bringing cement and steel to the site, every day for the past three years?

We're fighting the same battle but from totally different perspectives. You can like tall buildings, and want more of them, without being a capitalist baby-eating property developer.

Every time someone creates a good new viewing point, they destroy many other people's view.

The people who built the Shard have changed almost everyone's view of London. But they have also given us all something new and interesting to look at, a new landmark that we can claim a bit of. I've said it before, and I stick to it: the Shard is a better building than London deserves. It is a perfect new landmark for this dirty old city in the mud, and the way it shines out on a changeable day, visible from almost every zone 2 or 3 high street, gives everyone an immediate sense of location, like GPS only better.

Of course the Paddington conservation lobby are now protesting against the bulky cube, for which they are in part responsible. Of course they want to keep their nice bits of W2 just as they are. Which is just as bonkers as me wanting London to be as dirty and dangerous and cheap as it was in 1976.

We can't always get what we want, thank god.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Battersea end of the Nine Elms nightmare: is there an uglier road in London?

Look what they've done to our road, ma! Look what they've done to Queenstown Road.  This long final strip of Queenstown Road, from Battersea Park roundabout up to Chelsea Bridge, was always a sort of runway or ramp, a diving board from which south London likely lads and lasses launched themselves into the monied worlds of the King's Road, Chelsea, Westminster and beyond.

Mods, rockers, boy racers used that half-mile of tarmac as their catwalk or drag strip. Bikers would meet at the tea hut on the south side of the bridge en route for their Friday night runs out to Heston Services and back.  That bridge, with its Christmas tree lighting,  was always a potent symbol of the gap between north and south London. Posh and arty on the north side, industrial and a bit rough on the other.

Now, it's getting bland on both sides.  The money-zombies have taken it for themselves. They've taken over the Queenstown bit, the whole length of the bit that faces dear sweet Battersea Park. And soon the road that continues on the north side will be overshadowed by the Chelsea Barracks re-development. The views into Battersea Park are still there, but that knockout close-up view of the great looming power station has gone completely.

Look at this photo - how on earth has this happened? People joked about how absurd the old
Observer/QVC building, Marco Polo House, was. This place - occupied briefly by the supposed rival for Sky TV, BSB (later BSkyB as Murdoch added its scalp to his knapsack) - was a veritable cathedral of restraint and good taste compared to what we see now.

Looking north towards the bridge from the Battersea Park roundabout, it seems that three or four bulky, mass-market holiday cruise liners have backed up against the road. Those horrible blunted curves. Wrap-around balconies in some dismal white stone-look material.

It seems they have used every available inch to shove their bulbous bodies as close as possible to each other and to the public realm, the street.

Are these the "affordable" bits of this monster development? Or are the people paying their £850,000 plus happy to stroll around their balconied decks, looking straight across at another block which is identically ugly to the one they live in?

Tell me, please, I really don't get it.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Soseki centenary passes unmarked as Clapham museum closes

Waste disposal trucks load up with the display cases from the Soseki in London Museum. Looks
 like Clapham has lost another of its already pitifully short list of interesting places to visit.

Last week - on Friday December 9 in fact - it was the hundredth anniversary of the death of one of Japan's most revered novelists, Natsume Soseki. Unsurprisingly, this date went  unmarked in the Clapham street where the famous writer lived during 1901-2.

In fact, it's sadder than that. Ironically, just a few weeks before the centenary date, the small museum dedicated to Soseki at 80b The Chase was apparently dismantled, and is now closed for good.

Earlier this year, the owners of the Soseki Museum in London announced they would be closing down in 2017 because of the increasing costs of keeping it open.

Then, on a cold bright afternoon early in November, a couple of bright yellow rubbish trucks parkked up outside the block. Soon, the workmen were bringing large glass-fronted display cabinets and huge sheets of plate glass out of number 80, and tossing them into the back of the trucks. You could hear the glass shattering.
Part of the Soseki museum's immaculately displayed collection
of the author's published works - now sadly dispersed.

The trucks sped away, and a "for sale" sign went up outside. At the same time a first-floor 2-bed flat in this block went on the market for well over half a million pounds: was it 80b?

Unsure whether this was actually the last gasp of the museum, I checked the doorbell. The notice bext to the buzzer giving opening times had gone. No answers from the buzzer. I rang the museum's phone number. The line was dead, gone.

Of course the museum always did close down for the winter. But all the evidence now suggests it has closed for the last time. All that is left in this street to commemorate the fact that great Japanese writer lived here is the English Heritage Blue Plaque on number 89, opposite the museum, where Soseki actually lodged.

Oh, and the Victorian pilar box which Soseki tourists always seem to find fascinating.

A few months back, I visited this obscure museum that shared the same building I've lived in for the past three decades (see: Catch it while you can: Clapham's Soseki museum). It displayed a small but fascinating collection of photos, books, documents and artefacts relating to  Soseki, and also sold some of his works in translation.  The curator was also a great source of info on Japanese literature in general.

I think the museum was purely private project, funded by a Japanese scholar and businessman long resident in London. All credit to him for opening this museum, and for keeping it going for so long. I can't imagine the £4 entry fee covered much of the costs.

Natsume Soseki museum closing down
The entrance area of the Museum included this display of photos of various
distinguished (mainly Japanese) visitors it had welcomed over the three
decades of its existence
Of course the museum was much better known in Tokyo than in London, and every summer there was a regular trickle of Soseki pilgrims from Japan crossing the Common and wandering down the street in search of the museum. Pointing it out to elderly Japanese tourists was a regular and pleasurable duty. Just another strange aspect of life in this borough that has now gone. Life is that little bit flatter as a result.

Despite his importance in the development of modern Japanese literature, and despite his creatively fertile if very miserable stay in London, Soseki is still hardly known in this country. A few years ago Penguin re-issued a few of his best-known titles in  their Classics series, but these are rarely stocked in any but the most specialist bookshops.

Clapham library held just one of his novels; typically, I found a better selection in Peckham Library, not even in the same borough! (Clapham is in Lambeth, Peckham in Southwark).

If anyone ever actually reads this entry, I imagine the reaction to it would be a simple"so what?" - and certainly the loss of a very small and eccentric museum is hardly a big deal in a world so full of tragedy, death and suffering. Personally I think Soseki has a lot to teach us about ourselves, and I think a much bigger audience could enjoy his work, if they knew about it and could access good translations.

Above all I think the closure is sadly symptomatic of what is happening across London and all of southern England. Realising the maximum value of property is paramount; god forbid that anything as airy-fairy as culture and memory should stand in it way.

Friday, 9 December 2016

'Tis the season to download some fine podcasts

The battered, dust-filled shoebox with the motley collection of Christmas decorations is once again dragged out of its hideaway above the hot water tank.

The remnants of five decades worth of tarnished tinsel, plastic baubles, one surviving glass bauble, papier maché angels, lights that no longer work. Add to this a 2009 Waitrose Xmas pudding with real cognac, a gift that has yet to be opened, and probably won't be - and you're ready to face the season.

For a decade or two my personal Advent treat was listening to John Peel's Festive 50 countdown. Then Peel died, the 50 was no more, and there was a big gap in that strange collection of repeated experiences that - for me - made Christmas Christmas.

But now that gap has been filled. Yep, I've acquired a new listening habit, the depleted stable of Christmas/New Year traditions has a new, very 21st century member. It's an Advent Calendar, but not the type that offers stale sickly chocolate behind cardboard shutters. It's Daniel Ruiz Tizon's Advent Calendar, a sequence of 24 daily podcasts recalling his past Christmases, and always asking the question: will it ever be possible to love Christmas again as much as we did in those distant times?

These bundles of memories, deeply autobiographical and rooted in a certain area of south London, but also deeply resonant for anyone who has grown up in the UK over the past few decades. Each 12 minute episode arrives like a little gift-wrapped memory bomb. I'm a lot older than Daniel but the references to life in the 80s and 90s are as powerful as any Proustian madeleine.

"When you live in Lambeth, you learn not to pick up the snow". Well, that was true in almost any urban area where dogs roamed the parks and pavements.

If you like your wine extra dry, your lemon very bitter, and your oil extra-virgin, this is the advent calendar for you. Catch it today: we're not even half way there yet. Listen, and like me get hooked. But don't cheat - one day at a time please. As with the chocolate variety, there was always one lirttle piggy who scoffed the whole lot on December 1, and suffered as a result.

Literature has Dickens' A Christmas Carol; TV has  The Snowman. Now podcasting has its own Christmas classic. Listen!