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Ricky Burdett on London's urban transformation

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Ricky Burdett's appraisal of recent development in London was a sharp contrast to Rowan Moore's withering criticism of the capital's major projects a few weeks ago. And, in contrast also to the political awareness of architectural education in Iran (AJ 8.11.01), it highlighted the lack of a clear political or social agenda behind development in a city which has some of the poorest wards in Europe - parts of Tower Hamlets and Newham vying with areas of Portugal and Sicily for the honour. For a metropolis which also boasts the richest financial centre in the whole world, this surely should be a point of real shame.

But for Burdett, the very fact that such areas can lie cheek-by-jowl with the wealthiest represents a dimension of London's particular historical success in growing as an intricately connected urban mass, without any formal plan.He points to the resulting vibrant organism which, by virtue of its complex social juxtapositions and interpenetrations, has actually safeguarded against processes of social exclusions in a way that could not be said of American cities. This somewhat optimistic view of London's social mix would no doubt infuriate many working to alleviate poverty and lack of opportunity in the city's population. On the other hand, the view that London represents a model of a comparatively comfortable living environment offering opportunity was also expressed by some of those I met in Iran.

Burdett's analysis of the situation fully endorses the 'mercantile' tradition of development in London, and the relationship between London's particular urban form and capitalism.He proposes that this continues to be a desirable model for its future development - so long as a balance between the demands of the market and the social fabric can be maintained. He indicated considerable confidence in the power of the mayor and GLA to secure and safeguard such a balance, without divulging any real detail about how such a process might be put in place. Suffice to say, he has no qualms about the new City Hall being integrated into a large-scale commercial development, and regards transport policy, including the new 'congestion charge', as crucial to sustaining the seamless quality of the large, messy, fundamentally flexible and responsive structure of London. Burdett also endorses the need to foster links between development and education, as manifested in the new Peckham Library building, and in contrast to the 'expedient'nature of development policy in the 1980s.

One point which he does underline is the lack of a 'great quality of public space' in the capital but, unlike Moore, he sees projects such as Foster's Great Court as great success stories in forging new public spaces which contribute to fresh linkages within the urban fabric - 'living-rooms' for the urban population, as manifested so vividly in the popularity and use of the Tate Modern. 'Linkage' is the issue - not 'whether we like the architecture or not.'

Ricky Burdett was presenting the Clifford Berkeley Enterprise Lecture at the London School of Economics, on the subject of Urban Transformations

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