Tipp-Ex at the ready for some planning history revision
The London weather changes hourly, much like the mood of the combatants in the guerrilla war that is planning. My recent experience suggests that the silly season of support for the good 'new' (AJ 9.9.04) is very much over: we are back in the jungle.
What chance has good architecture got with bad planning?
Perhaps it could be worse - an architect of many fine buildings recently advised me that nothing gets done in (insert place name of your experience) without an exchange of brown envelopes. My experience is of exchanges with the intolerant, but not of envelopes. I question, however, whether the current abdication of responsibility, pursued as a 'new deal' by so many target-incentivised authorities, is any more moral. It is certainly more random. As some Roman architects remarked to me recently: 'We have corruption all the way through our government - that is why nothing good happens in our cities unless you have a fixer. You have it too, but only at the top.' This was six months ago.
But she was right, as recent Roman holidays suggest; for Berlusconi read Blair.
Perhaps we should pursue a new 'what if?' history of our cities. You must have seen a form of this publication: historians imagine what if the Spanish Armada had triumphed;
D-Day had been a disaster; or the Twin Towers had survived. Except we could add a twist that would move this genre on, from a world of speculation to one of fact.
How? Quite simply, you visit your local library, an appropriate website, or the recesses of your mind to establish the momentous buildings and spaces that shaped your village, town or city. Order these chronologically, examining the effect they had on the figure-ground maps. Once this is done, pick up some Tipp-Ex (no need for a pen), and you can illustrate the alternative history of your locale. What if the current regime of planning, statutory control and conservation had existed before 1947? Very soon you will find all the momentous events are removed and all your carefully Tipp-Exed ground plans resemble the first.
In London, city walls remain intact as the populace is sent back to the countryside.
The Act of Enclosure is defeated at a public inquiry. The railways never make it into town, nor do the arterial roads. Following the Great Fire of London, all are obliged to retain the essential fabric and details of construction, which are resolved by new, expensive robust-details guidance. Wren fails not only to re-plan London, but his vision of spire and dome is also deemed an affront to the skyline.
The industrial revolution is consigned to somewhere else, as is the Port of London; the cranes and masts of the boats destroy the profile of the crooked and sinking spires. The slums of the Industrial Revolution never come into being, as those of Restoration London are preserved and gentrified. London's commercial growth never happens.
Maybe that would have made for a better London. That it didn't may explain why so many architects retreat to Tuscany. I seem to remember a lecture by Leon Krier at the Architectural Association presenting slides of the delights of San Gimignano and the nightmare non-urbanity of Los Angeles. It was all very clear. How could you compare a pocket square, with kids kicking footballs against ancient bleached walls under the canopy of a cypress tree, with the graffitiridden, chicken-wire world of burned-out cars, basketball courts and warring gangs?
As the late Ron Herron reflected, with a wry smile enlivened by the gum he was chewing:
'The trouble is I'll take LA every time'.
So the question to ask is, are you a Los Angelino or a San Gimignanino?