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Bustling tourists mask the flight of commerce from Canary Wharf

News that the Millennium Dome could be turned into a gigantic advertising hoarding seems likely to reignite the 10-year-old debate about the scale of new additions to the London skyline - or it would if anyone still cared.

The capitulation started with the declaration of the Canary Wharf Enterprise Zone in London's Docklands, where none of today's glitterati, save Norman Foster and Terry Farrell, had ventured before. This was soon to change because in certain quarters opposition to Canary Wharf remained implacable - and in some others it remains so to this day.

I remember a Canary Wharf briefing by the masterplanners some time in the mid-1980s when a representative of the firm, until then concerned with flightlines, sightlines and job creation prospects, stood up to outline the architectural implications of all this numbercrunching. It was simple, he said. Analysis of the British architectural approach to highquality commercial building revealed that the only sure-fire success comes from the use of lashings of stone cladding alongside perfectly manicured lawns, butted right up against each other 'like an Oxford College'.

The assembled architects, hacks, critics and connoisseurs fell about with laughter. That will never succeed, they chortled. The whole subject is much more complicated than that. But the architects all went home and tried obediently to devise buildings clad in stone (but also in glass), and with lots of grass. In a year or so the results were to be seen on the ground around Broadgate and in model form elsewhere.

On another occasion, during the Olympia & York era, Prince Charles visited Canary Wharf and let it be known that he was sure he would be driven insane by his surroundings if he ever had to work in it.

Where were the clues to this sickness? They were everywhere, carefully hidden, as if by a superior intelligence, in areas where no cumulative effect was expected. Within the old City itself, contributory transformations continue to take place before our eyes as they have in the past.

Former royal palaces and government offices become hotels, museums or art galleries; great military barracks disappear; waterfront warehouses are converted into expensive loft apartments.

In response to these preliminary moves, docks and harbours give place to out-of-town airports.

Previously logical street patterns become incoherent as a result of one-way systems and pedestrianised areas.

As fast as the old producer economy deserted the wharf and the old City, a 'replacement economy' began to occupy the dead body left behind. This was the 'phantom population' of commuters, transients and tourists that makes up the daytime population of any 'dead body' city in Europe, but London also has an enormous 'phantom population' of visitors, too.

Tourists look like citizens, some even look like residents, ready to defend traditional urban values, but they will not. Their purpose is to disguise the flight of commerce and industry from the wharf by reducing urban emptiness by any means possible.

Proof emerged 10 years later, when another tower snatched the headlines. This was the project to build a millennium tower, a streamlined 95storey, 385m-high glass, steel and concrete frame structure, with sky lobbies 30 floors apart served by double-decker lifts. This time the wind seemed set fair, but, as so often before, opposition thickened as the project moved forward: English Heritage split over what it called 'macho fashion', and jokes about 'erections' never ended.

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