If I cast my mind back to that first trip from Gatwick airport to the outer London suburb where my then girlfriend and now wife used to live, one memory stands out: typical red-brick, gabled-roof English houses dotted around the rural and urban landscape through which we were driving. A scene reminiscent of my lectures in uni in which the implicit message was that Britain (England, really) was a country attached to its traditions where people sat to drink tea at four o’ clock on the dot. If only we, students, had known then that what the British call tea at that time is more like a late afternoon light meal regardless of the hot beverage that accompanies it! Back to 5th April, 1997, though, I still recall watching the top of the roofs of the neighbouring semis through my wife’s bedroom window that evening. To me this was the London I had always heard about.
So, London, what happened? When did you start giving up on low rise property? What happened to the detached, semi-detached and terraced houses that made you famous?
According to a recent report more than 230 tall building (20+ storeys) have either been approved or are under construction in the British capital. That includes both living and working spaces. In fact the majority of these towers are likely to be residential blocks, which is good news if social housing gets a larger piece of the architectural pie. Yet, this piece of news has left me with an uneasy feeling. Call me romantic, in fact, call me hopeless romantic, but I love the traditional British house. The one with red bricks and gabled roofs. Whilst I understand the importance of “building high”, I am also concerned about the aesthetic side of it. And I’m afraid to say that I am not really impressed by the latest developments in the field of construction.
|The Gherkin: a phallic symbol of London's new skyline|
I am not the only one. Plenty of Londoners I have spoken to do not see the need of “building high” and higher, and even higher. Who do we want to be like? New York? Skyscrapers might fit the US urban behemoth but I do not think they are suitable for a city like London where many streets are still quite narrow. The beauty of London – once you live here – is how quaint and delightfully maddening it is. Plenty of one-way roads, just to drive you bonkers, out in the ‘burbs lots of streets with width and height restriction just to confuse you (will I fit through here?) and low-rise property that no matter how unique it is, it still manages to convey smallness. That, to me, is the key phrase when it comes to London: a huge city that looks small.
As I mentioned before I understand the importance of finding suitable spaces for people to live in. In fact for more than three years I was a resident in a high-rise which, by the looks of it, would not have been considered a very tall building nowadays as it had only eighteen floors. The building where we used to live, however, was ugly, impersonal and lacked character. Same with a lot of new properties. I am not an architect and my design skills are non-existent but I do not think you need to be one to notice that many current urban developments, especially “towers”, place practicality before aesthetics. Without wanting to sound too melodramatic, London’s skyline has been ruined.
My only consolation is due to my special anniversary I am getting lots of flashbacks of the gabled roofs I saw that first time I arrived in London, as dusk turned to night, through my wife’s bedroom window.
This is it for the time being. I am taking a month off for Easter. I will be back on Sunday 27th April. I am not planning to go anywhere so expect me to pop by your blogs every now and then.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 27th April at 10am (GMT)