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The architectural wonders that are apparently 'Streets of Shame'

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Many years ago, when I was a first-year student at what was then the Oxford School of Architecture, the staff used to teach us architectural history by taking us on walking tours of the City.

But because those were Imperial times, long before globalisation, we were fed a chauvinistic line in architectural criticism.The single tree in the High Street, for example, was described as the most important tree in Europe.The great avenue of St Giles was extolled as a luscious sprawling urban space that would never be improved upon. In the same way, Beaumont Street was a perfect example of Georgian street architecture, as good as anything in Bath, and Broad Street was a magnificent counterpoint of this and that or something or other and - wait for it - the roof of the covered market was the finest timber roof since the Middle Ages.

All this was very gratifying, as you can imagine. These leisurely tours from time to time gave us the impression that, although we were admittedly some distance from the metropolis of London, we were sitting on a veritable gold mine of historic architecture that could stand up to comparison with Athens or ancient Rome any day.

There was no need for any of us to go further afield than New College Lane for historical inspiration - indeed, the only student in my first year who did make a grand European tour, returned somewhat sheepishly with a door handle nicked from the Villa Savoye (which was derelict at the time), to show for his pains. It seemed scarcely worth the trouble.

I mention this little vignette from the past because it serves as an excellent introduction to a diatribe on the way that changing fashions in architecture - read the dumbing down and consumerisation of architectural taste - are industriously overturning all the judgments of earlier times even as they profess a belief in eternal art historical values.

How do I know this? Because to my amazement, in the wake of those pioneer 'walking bus' tours of the city of dreaming spires with all its treasures, comes the news that these self-same priceless streets have won an accolade of a different kind:

against all probability the architectural wonders of the city of Oxford have become 'Streets of Shame'.

In the Radio 4 Today/CABE contest to find the worst streets in Britain, the elite intelligentsia of the radio-listening public has spoken, and it has shown that, however little it might know, or might not know, about the mysteries of architecture, it certainly knows what it does not like.

Out of the top six 'Streets of Shame' nominations, four came from Oxford. Historic Broad Street, glorious St Giles, dubious Queen Street and other less famous treasures of Oxford architecture have been voted by listeners to be as bad as the worst slums in Leeds and Glasgow.

Last week, the Oxford Times reported that CABE commissioners had been shocked at the number of Oxford nominations, and even more by the famous streets chosen for excoriation.

City councillors too have been tight-lipped.

Not only are they still mired in the consequences of a disastrous repaving of Cornmarket Street, but now they can look forward to 12 months of free advice from CABE on 'how to reverse the mistakes of the past'.

These counselling sessions will require extreme sensitivity. Otherwise, the council might begin to feel that its own efforts at beautifying the city's road network with such 'modernising' touches as paint on the road cycle and bus lanes, speed bumps, bollards, and so on, have been unfairly criticised. After all, they must appeal to the kind of people who think that Broad Street and St Giles are 'Streets of Shame'.

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