11 JANUARY 1992, Page 29



London's best-laid plans

Alan Powers

Ido not build, therefore I am an archi- tect,' says Leon 'Crier, the radical conserva- tive urban theorist. The same could almost be said by Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems, the hyper-high-tech practice whose unre- alised designs are exhibited alongside 'Crier's in this exhibition at the Architec- ture Foundation (30 Bury Street, SW1).

The Architecture Foundation is a rein- carnation of the 9H Gallery, a lively but rather cliquish Eighties venue for hard- pencil hard modernists. It now occupies a corner of the Economist building podium and offers a stimulating programme of exhibitions of contemporary British and foreign architecture, mostly related to Lon- don. 'Vision for London' is the name of a particular pressure group, but the phrase and the idea behind it — that London's environmental problems need co-ordinated discussion and more forceful solutions — is now widespread. Groups are falling over one another to create a London equivalent to the Pavilion de l'Arsenal in Paris, where new projects are exhibited and public opin- ion sounded.

So far, the Architecture Foundation is our closest equivalent, and Lost Opportuni- ties for London? sets in a historical context some of the well-known unbuilt projects of the last ten years, many accompanied by fine architectural models. How many of these would one rather have seen built? Sir Edmund Watkin's Eiffel Tower at Wembley, begun in 1892 and demol- ished before completion in 1907 to allow for housing development, or Future Systems' leaning tower in Hyde Park for the millennium?

`Eiffelism' attempts to contrast the small-scale informality of London with the kind of grand gestures we admire in other cities. In this way, the argument runs, we will compete in the internation- al cities league. Canary Wharf Tower is an example of Eiffelism, demonstrating the usefulness of single landmark buildings in establishing a sense of place. Land own- ership, politics and economics have frus- trated most Eiffelist schemes down the centuries, and the same factors also impede more utilitarian improvements to infra- structure, preventing effective co-operation between private and public sectors. London has had neither Eiffel nor Haussmann.

`Paxtonism' is another persistent tenden- cy: emulating Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace by creating large, glass-covered Spaces. Norman Foster's Hammersmith Broadway was one of the best Paxtonist schemes, at least when contrasted with its now emerging usurper. Some 'lost opportu- nities' are just the work of coat-trailing hopefuls, others were lost near the point of achievement, such as Arup's Paternoster Square, Mies's Mansion House tower and Ahrends Burton and Koralek's National Gallery extension. The first two of these Development on a small scale: Leon Krier's plan for Spitalfields offered alternative versions of how build- ings would affect public behaviour, and proved to be moderately unpopular.

The existing Paternoster plan and the proposed Mansion House Square were the work of the planner William Holford, whose 1962 proposals for Piccadilly Circus, presented here through the front page of the Evening News, were an early attempt to improve what is now fashionably called 'the public realm'. The failure of this project was the graveyard of post-war hopes of 'civic design' as a co-ordinating skill. Hol- ford's biographers, Gordon Cherry and Leith Penny, remark that, 'No reasonable pleasure at the saving of the old Circus can be unqualified by sadness that one of the few attempts which were made in the 1960s to turn commercial redevelopment in Lon- don to positive civic account should ulti- mately have failed'.

To achieve a consensus on civic improve- ment and to construct a 'public realm' which operates effectively remains very dif- ficult, in spite of the immense amount of theoretical work that goes into it. The Architectural Association held a summer school last year on the 'Vision for London' theme, tutored by some of Britain's most internationally esteemed figures, but nei- ther the projects set nor the results seemed likely to improve anyone's quality of life. The sense of despair was most honestly articulated in a student's project consisting of a text questioning the architect's place and value in meddling in other lives.

Leon 'Crier's scheme for Spitalfields, pro- posed in 1988 and since overlaid by several successors, represents the alternative vision of small-scale 'community' development, which is highly attractive but needs a political manipulation of land values, as happened on the Coin Street site, frus- trating Richard Rogers's Paxtonist Gal- leria and substituting housing of a provocative banality. The 1980s have seen many small housing and commer- cial schemes in central London, often infilling sites empty since the war, which cumulatively have had a more beneficial effect than Eiffelist or Paxton- ist visions. They are also much more in the spirit of London, a spirit which out- siders like 'Crier (born in Luxembourg) or Steen Eiler Rasmussen, the Danish author of London, the Unique City, seem to recog- nise more clearly than natives. Rasmussen wrote, 'London's contribution to architec- ture is simplicity'. It is also a unique con- cern for greenery and private space.

Planning controls just succeed in holding these quasi-suburban values in balance against commercial pressure and the con- trary vision of the city as a crowded public arena, but at the same time prevent good projects from succeeding. This does not justify letting go of such controls, and it will be interesting to see what balancing act Richard Rogers and Mark Fisher perform in the Labour Party's forthcoming mani- festo for London. The sudden contrasts and juxtapositions between these different modes tend to annoy the tidy-minded, but the spirit of the place needs both Broadgate and Spitalfields side by side.