Rowan Moore, architecture correspondent for the London Evening Standard and a former editor of Blueprint, launched his lecture series on London at the RCA with a caustic attack on a selection of the capital city's most lauded new monuments.
He suggested that the 'greatest' of these, Marks Barfield's London Eye, is basically 'a funfair ride', taking London in the direction of Las Vegas, while Foster's Great Court at the British Museum is 'completely failing to function' as the public space it aspires to be. Grimshaw's proposed new building for the RCA itself has nothing to do with the idea of an art college, looking more like a 'Docklands apartment block' or an office building, and Rogers' proposed new public space outside Tate Modern, at Bankside, is more like a shopping mall.
Moore regards London as a city with special qualities - one that seems quite ordinary, but subtly reveals itself as rather strange and compelling, full of awkward juxtapositions and incompletenesses.
But he warns that it is being subjected to a government-sponsored hype which threatens to smooth out and strip away precisely the qualities which make it, by definition, a good city - a city where people can dream their own dreams and 'write their own plots'. Moore cast doubt on the concerted attempts to 'do something nice with the public realm', driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of public space.He suggested the concept of the 'general public' is meaningless, and that society is, in fact, made up of many 'small publics', each with its own particular interests and tastes. He also pointed out that most people experience socalled 'public space' at a very intimate level - either alone or with one other person - whereas collective group experience tends to occur in smaller, more private venues. He criticised initiatives, such as Southwark's, to improve the quality of public space in the borough, as essentially doomed - by a lack of understanding, combined with repeated failures of political will and funding. And he cast doubt on the value of the GLA's proposed Spatial Development Plan, if it reveals the same lack of 'real understanding about what makes cities worth living in'.
As for the Lottery itself, the source of so many new building projects and good intentions, Moore is critical of its failure ever to say anything about the 'imaginative life of the city', in its criteria for new buildings. He delivered a much-needed warning in his claim that London will be blighted by bland, unintelligent development which, hand-in-hand with the High-Tech aesthetic, sucks the sensuality, tactility and friction out of the city's surfaces and spaces, and transforms it into a packaged environment of smooth edges, circulation-flow, and light.
The social implications will be an embrace of 'sensory violence' of the most antisocial kind, and an erosion of the city's dream-life, except on the shallow terms in which it is sold back to the people by managements such as Starbucks.
Rowan Moore's lecture, 'London City of Dreams', was the first in a series of five, 'How to Dream in a Big City', taking place fortnightly on Thursdays at the RCA