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Martin Pawley: roundtabling the street

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Christmas started early this year. For me it started in the lobby of the bt Tower, waiting for the first roundtable of the season to begin. Roundtabling is a version of headbanging, which is a derivative of brainstorming, the craze that started in advertising and then spread to architecture years ago. The advantage of roundtabling is that it only rewards agreement. You get plenty of chances to agree, but keep on arguing and you'll find yourself in the street.

Which is what this invitation-only roundtable, organised by the Landscape Foundation with the help of bt Payphones, was all about: 'Streets Ahead: the future of the street.' The event started at ground level with two short addresses - one from myself, predicting a bleak future of empty streets and smart cards, cellular telephones and home deliveries - and another from Ken Worpole, who read from his diary an account of a neighbour going mad with a machete and being taken off by the police. As far as the bright future of bt Payphones was concerned, it seemed to me that each of these efforts was as bad as the other, but they weren't. Ken had touched a nerve. What he had described was real street life on the frontline, just the ticket for the 18-24 age group.

Then the venue changed. Our bt hosts swept us up 34 floors at six metres a second to the rotating Tower Suite. There the real roundtabling of 'Streets Ahead', chaired by Jon Rowland of Jon Rowland Urban Design, was scheduled to take place - delayed only by a session of sightseeing from 150 metres with participants crying, 'There it is!' and, 'Which way is North?'

When the roundtabling finally started, tongues required no loosening. It was clear that everybody had a street story to tell and they were going to tell it. 'London is about the only sensible place left in the country,' summed up one authority on landscape design, capturing a large portion of the high ground at a stroke. Another landscaper enthusiastically agreed: 'The street is the only place where ideas are exchanged,' he said. 'It's the buzz of chance meetings, things sparking off . . . The sudden flash!' At this there was such a concerted murmur of consent that a callow landscape enthusiast was emboldened to blurt out: 'I don't know if any of you know anything about Baudelaire and Paris . . . But I like to think that these days Baudelaire would have got started at Brent Cross.'

In the stunned silence that followed, broken only by the muffled boom of the air-conditioning and a creak as the tower swayed to a light gust of wind, everyone was struck by the incongruity of either criticising or romanticising the metropolis from our Olympian position. We became aware of the whole enormous, illuminated and miraculous city, gently rotating beneath our feet, ticking over beneath us, totally and unutterably perfect.

A sensible lady from Channel 4 broke the silence by suggesting that we should define the terms 'urban', 'suburban', 'street', 'road' and so on, before we went any further. But time was up. The session came to a close and a buffet dinner was served instead.

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