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Chelsea Barracks may be dead, but nimbyism lives on

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Before the towering power of the financier, local authority and even royalty seem at a loss. Nimbyism does nowadays seem to be the only energising engine of protest, says Joseph Rykwert

Our bombshell London mayor Boris Johnson has been protesting his belief in our ‘fabulous architectural heritage history as we go about our daily lives, whether crossing one of the Thames bridges, walking along its banks or from a higher, distant vantage point. We must protect those views at all cost’.

To effect this, he is proposing to widen some of the existing ‘viewing corridors’ and add new ones: one from Parliament Hill, the other from the Serpentine Bridge, both focusing on the Palace of Westminster. The really vital one, along the river, from Battersea to London Bridge, does not get mentioned.

The mayor’s initiative is good in itself, but not much cop: it will soon be shredded by the Shard, which is to dominate the whole townscape from London Bridge and, at 310m high, will be the tallest building in the European Union, taller than the Eiffel Tower. That Renzo Piano is involved in the design will ensure that the detail will be elegant, at any rate. That it will not be finished until 2012 is no comfort. The first piles for the foundations were sunk in mid-March, and the concrete core is to be completed by the end of the year.

The developers responsible are the Qatari royals, who – for all the mayor’s fine words – had none of the problems at London Bridge that beset their housing project on the Chelsea Barracks site. Never mind the mayor, no royal personage has voiced any objection to the Shard, nor has any alternative, such as a campanile by, say, Quinlan Terry or John Simpson, been proposed.

Before the towering power of the financier, local authority and even royalty seem at a loss. Nimbyism does nowadays seem to be the only energising engine of protest. Not that Chelsea Barracks back on to the yard of Clarence House – but they did overlook the Royal Hospital, which may not be one of Wren’s masterpieces, but compared to the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners scheme that was dropped this week, it is a building of great dignity and harmony. To juxtapose it with the constipated-looking project by Quinlan Terry in the name of stylistic harmony seems a real insult to the master. And the locals’ campaign is more against Rogers, than in favour of Terry.

The war to recapture our cities is a war against forces that hold us all captive

Pimlico and Chelsea are not short of high-profile protesters, and they can put a bob or two together for legal costs. But the ‘free, open and democratic planning process’ to which the starchitects who supported Rogers’ project pay tribute involves many lawyers – and that means money. As the old saw has it, ‘British justice is open to everyone, like the Savoy Hotel’. Unlike the protesters’ costs, the developers’ exorbitant legal fees are tax-deductible and the proposed planning act, which is about to become law, seems designed to line a QC’s pocket even more than the current regulations allow.

The Chelsea protest has brought out the anti-architect brigade: Simon Jenkins in the Guardian rails against the glass and steel carbuncles from which the Prince allegedly saved us in Trafalgar Square. Of course, the winning scheme – which he scuppered – was a sensible and thoughtful stone building, instead of which we have been given an architecturally graceless one.

Some offices have developed a manner or even style which claims to provide developers with buildings that are naked money-making machines, and create a frightening, unsociable waste around themselves. The story is told in some detail by Carol Willis in her 1997 book Form Follows Finance. We have chosen to allow the moneybags, in cahoots with our elected representatives, to fill city centres with such buildings and they tolerate developers using an archistar to get them planning permission only to sack them, in favour of someone more compliant, when it comes to building. No wonder we do not like our cities. But the neo-Georgian or neo-Tudor or even neo-traditional (Simon Jenkins’ coinage) estates which ‘the people’ prefer are no help. The war to recapture our cities is a war against the powerful forces which hold us all captive.

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