UNESCO recognition could signal cool down of 'urban regeneration'
What an adaptable discipline architecture is! Only a couple of years ago, Peckham was its darling, in the forefront of the coming urban renaissance, having been 'turned around' by its distinguished library.But then something went tragically wrong, a boy died and, just like that, Peckham disappeared from the renaissance radar screen. True, it flickered back into life briefly last week with shots of the new low-rise housing that had replaced the Stakhanovite slab blocks where the boy died, but not for long. The human interest version swamped the rebound architecture story, and before a rescue commission could be organised the police were being blamed instead.
Never mind. Architecture is everywhere, especially in London, where so many architects live. How about flying a kite for Camden? Alan Powers of the 20th Century Society has been hair-triggered enough to go public with a claim that the architecture of Camden - host to the siege of Balcombe Street and last hideout of Harry Roberts (who shot three policemen), to name but two infamous associations of the borough once sarcastically known as 'the people's republic' - is good enough to be right up there with the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge.
This is not just fly-by-night urban renaissance good, but good enough to be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Good enough to be protected forever in its present transitional form - street mazes, speed bumps, blocked pavements, traffic calming measures, blue plaques and all - as a serious rival to Brasilia.
Outrageous as this claim might appear, a few moment's thought reveals it to be more like a stroke of genius on the part of the people who confuse art history with artistry and see the built environment as a vast outdoor picture gallery. For notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary, these people were never really happy promoting places like Peckham (as they still are not with those other allegedly rising London suntraps Hackney, Hoxton, Southwark and almost anywhere else south of the river), because in addition to their surviving Victorian streets, these areas are stuffed with the detritus of the last great architectural 'renaissance', the massive housing estates that replaced the bomb sites left over from the war. And with these towers and slabs comes the inescapable memory of the failure of mid20th century utopia and the return of old-fashioned poverty.
For the truth is that these places are not fun to live in, no matter how loud the music of art and adventure is played by their cynical urban boosters. These are inner-city poverty areas laced with the public housing wherein an earlier generation of 'renaissance' architects were licensed to practise social engineering on a grand scale.
What the nomination of Camden for UNESCO recognition - perhaps the grandest art historical prize of all - would do, is beat a retreat from the risky strategy of talking-up the 'urban regeneration' of run-down areas from the front line, where their status remains decidedly shaky as the vicissitudes of Peckham clearly show, and withdraw instead to the much more easily defended art historical delights of Regent's Park and Hampstead Heath, and the financial pleasure pump of Camden Lock. Of course, like Peckham, Camden has its legacy of public housing, but it is far more expensive, elaborate and intellectualised than that to be found in the East End or in any of the boroughs south of the river - so much so that architecture's new favourite borough has already been dignified as 'a laboratory for innovative public housing' by the architecture correspondent of The Times.
Whatever gets built there, Peckham will have a hard job beating that.