Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century by Rowan Moore - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Capital Gains?

Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century


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London’s architecture has become laughably boorish, confidently uncouth and flashily arid. Neomodern bling and meretricious trash are the current norms. Without exception, big-name architects turn out to be horizontals who happily put their knees behind their ears at the first sight of an oligarch, a Gulf princeling, a Central Asian dictator, a modern slave-driver or a property swine, while lecturing us on sustainability, low emissions, affordability, bicycles, ethical regeneration and whatever other right-on shibboleths are in the air this week. London is a magnet for a caste of designers who seem hardly to notice that the milieu they inhabit is chasmically remote from the lives of those affected and afflicted by their creations. It is the city – sorry, ‘global city’ – where reputations built through decades of imagination and toil, strict image control and rigorous PR are frittered away in a blizzard of self-parody and voracious cupidity. The tectonic gerontocrats Rogers, Viñoly, Piano, Foster, Nouvel, Shuttleworth and so on are apparently locked in a perpetual competition to vandalise the sky with banality. There are outsiders in there too, architectural practices that, all too evidently, never had a reputation to lose – for instance, the incompetents culpable of the Strata building in Elephant and Castle, or those at Broadway Malyan, whose destruction of Vauxhall deprived London of a valuable terrain vague. A few hundred metres west, the ineffable Gehry has his head in the corpse of Battersea Power Station like a vulture in a lamb’s ribcage.

Despite all this, or rather because of all this, the standard of English writing about urbanism, architecture and its mostly unintended or unforeseen consequences has risen to dizzying heights. We may live in an era of architectural bathos but we live too in a golden age of architectural criticism. The mocking scorn of these critics will of course inhibit further titanium excursions into the heavens just as, in Peter Cook’s formulation, the Weimar satirists’ warnings prevented Hitler coming to power. The notion that architects, let alone developers, can act on or even understand what the despised ‘lay’ critics write about their trade, their work and their practice is not credible. Anything other than puffery that takes them at their own estimate foxes them. Nuance eludes them. If this sounds like a sweeping generalisation too far, just try reading any starchitect’s vanity-published thoughts. ‘A Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee’ does not begin to capture the linguistic massacre these people, fluent in the charmless pidgin of International Architecture Speak, habitually prosecute. And spare us the hackneyed mentation, epic humourlessness, risible self-importance and cracker-barrel philosophies.

Rowan Moore is a dauntingly well-informed critic, a broadsheet journalist of signal distinction. His sinewy prose is usually infected by a very English understatement. Sure enough, Slow Burn City begins with a series of obliquities: a history of London Zoo; how Canary Wharf came to be; a disquisition on waste and Byzantine pumping stations; a journey along that marvel of hydraulic engineering the New River; visits to a few sex clubs and to the extravagantly asexual (or presexual) work of Ernest Trobridge in Kingsbury. After this eclectic and fairly temperate start Moore gradually turns up the volume. He increasingly eschews subtlety. He writes with a strident anger that even the most boneheaded urban regenerator will understand is directed at him. This is not a posture. What has happened to London infuriates Moore: the class clearances; the betrayal by central and local governments of the most easily betrayed; the blurring of public and private; the absentee proprietors; the greedy planners who answer to volume builders rather than to the boroughs that employ them; the pointlessness of the ‘idiot critic’ Prince Charles; the tangible inequalities you trip over in doorways; houses as currency; the market, always the market, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s poisonous and apparently irremediable gift to the country they misgoverned, to the point where London’s secession is total and its corruption, its very English corruption, entire.

It is too early to categorise the business of the Garden Bridge as corrupt. Let us merely say that it stinks. It brings to mind William Cowper of Olney:

This queen of cities …
         is rigid in denouncing death
On petty robbers, and indulges life
And liberty, and oft-times honour too
To peculators of the public gold.

Boris Johnson, a provenly mendacious mayor; Joanna Lumley, a gurning veteran dolly bird; Thomas Heatherwick, a cute salesman for himself with an abject record of design failures, astonishingly compared by the dotard shopkeeper Terence Conran to Leonardo da Vinci: these three ‘national treasures’ should take note of Moore’s startling description of the bridge as ‘digital jism’, a useful addition to the architectural lexicon. They are of course not alone in their antinomian arrogance. One longs for a National Treasure Island, to which the professionally characterful and the strenuously lovable might be transported, there to anecdote each other to tears and expire in a storm of names dropped from a great height. The only good thing that can be said for their odious vanity project is that it has attracted attention and stirred resistance in a way that countless other equally prodigal, equally worthless but quieter projects have not.

Many of these projects were nursed by Peter Rees, for almost thirty years the chief planner of the City of London. This frivolous man believes that families with children ought not to live in inner cities and that those quarters should be places that stimulate a frenetic social life: he gives a new meaning to ‘party planner’. The City’s grotesque pile-up of embarrassingly nicknamed trinkets – the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie – is due to him. So too is the ‘culture’ of City bars in the City clouds where City yobs drink champagne as though it were beer.

Moore ends this engrossing and committed book with a manifesto for a better and more humane London. If only. The conditions that 1945 threw up are not going to be repeated. Working for the commonwealth is not going to happen. The dissolution of self-interest takes more than legislation. And Rowan Moore’s all too reasonable proposals do not include an incitement to armed insurrection.

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