A curate's egg capital
New London Architecture By Kenneth Powell. Merrell, 2001. 240pp. £29.95
When a book like this comes along, you wonder why it was not there before: a portrait of the face of London after a decade of change and Lottery-funded grands projets. Seeing more than 100 new buildings and projects in one volume is reassuring; it finally proves the victory, in London at least, of contemporary design over Post-Modernism and Princely fake-Classicism. But it is also slightly salutary in that there is a sense of Hello! magazine and the architectural catwalk.
One of the better aspects of being an architectural outpost in the provinces is the renewed discovery of London as a tourist, and I certainly see my old home of 20 years clearer now than when I lived there. To the tourist, London is a dirty, disjointed and loud place, made compelling by its historical richness, diversity and, curiously, its greenness. London has a reciprocal embrace with tourism that fuels its economy, and the past decade has certainly enriched the cultural playground with a series of 'how did they do that?' glass roofs and populist mega-galleries for consuming art.
London's new-old buildings certainly show that architects today have returned to addressing issues of context, placemaking and juxtaposition with great skill and panache - a millennium away from the 1960s affair with concrete or the 1980s sell-out to commercialism. The addition of the courtyard of Somerset House to London's public domain shows sheer excellence in dealing with city fabric in the new age (see picture).
Given all this crafted architecture, the end of Kenneth Powell's neat introduction comes as a surprise. Asserting that London architecture 'pushes constantly forward, generating not only new talents but new ideas on a scale that neither contemporary New York nor Tokyo can match', he points to a straw bale house, a cardboard tube pavilion and a black, blank-fronted house as 'cutting edge' - a strange renaissance indeed.
The visual evidence of the book, however, points to a near perfect marriage of architecture and engineering - 136 years after their uneasy meeting at St Pancras. Perhaps the Jubilee Line is the collective 'building of the century' in London, while Rogers' 'perfect 10' in office design is shown here at the sublime 88 Wood Street.
Powell rightly points out how much less convincing is the compromise of Paternoster Square which, despite the array of talent involved, has succumbed to greed and good manners. London also still harbours a glut of banal apartment building along the river. It is not included here but still has a major impact - a throwback to the cynical 1980s.
Perhaps it is the nature of the new-old buildings in this book that generates so many interior photographs, for this certainly smacks of a fashion shoot. As ever, some inclusions are dubious, while at times images are downright poor (Lloyd's, Peckham Library, etc).
I estimate that what starts inevitably in London, radiates out at about 30 miles per year, so it will be a while yet before the provinces are aglow with new architecture.
But the book has a global dimension. By bringing all these projects together, it invites assessment of London's architectural prowess and how it competes with other great world cities.
Well, it has a big wheel, beautifully engineered and graceful, that perhaps matches Eiffel in Paris, but the grands projets turn out to be conversions and underground transport systems rather than pyramids, great arches or national stadia.
This is so typically British: we fix up familiar old buildings at huge cost while a gritty little city in northern Spain invests in an iconic building and reinvents itself. Turning a power station into a consumer palace for art may well be successful, but it is still an ugly beast slumbering by the river. Given the chance to create possibly the greatest cultural quarter in the world on the South Bank, we prefer to keep a stiff upper lip and not offend, lifting up the carpet of the city and sweeping all the architecture underneath.
It only takes one iconic building to make a great city, as Sydney proved in the 1960s, so London should be thankful that it has three in the Tower, St Paul's and the Houses of Parliament. Our age does not yet promise a fourth.
John Pardey is an architect in Lymington, Hampshire