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Waiting in the wings

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Glenda Jackson has firm plans for the capital if she succeeds in her bid to be London's first mayor - and some of the proposed additions to its skyline may find themselves in for a rocky ride by kenneth powell. photograph by debra hurford brown

If Glenda Jackson gets to be Mayor of London, architects could be in for a tough time. Ms Jackson (Birkenhead-born, but mp for Hampstead since 1992) doesn't want to be described as a sceptic, let alone a cynic, when it comes to architecture, but she does tend to ask uncomfortable questions. Such as: 'never mind what it looks like, does it work?' Or, even more to the point, 'what is it for? Do we need it?'

With her ministerial career stalled - perhaps permanently - Glenda Jackson is very serious about running for the mayoralty. She genuinely believes she has qualities to offer. One of them is the sheer fact of being a woman - she believes that there must be a female presence on Labour's shortlist. With a distinguished career on stage and screen behind her, Jackson is knowledgeable and passionate about the arts. She cares a great deal about housing. She has equally strong feelings about the fate of the disabled - it was she who doomed the much-loved Routemaster bus to extinction in favour of 'easy access' single deckers. All these concerns tend to colour her views on architecture - she is happy to have them categorised as 'pragmatic'.

Jackson confesses that there are few buildings in London which really excite her - 'it's the views, the perspectives, whether down a City alley or along the Thames, which give London its special quality, not architectural masterpieces', she says. Her bete noire is exposed concrete. She has a particular hatred of the Barbican (especially the theatre) and of the National Theatre - 'the dressing rooms are terrible - I can't believe any of the architects talked to an actor. Did any of them ever try changing into Shakespearean costume in one of those rooms?'. She wouldn't be sorry if the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall were bulldozed, assuming that a good new building replaced them - 'I wouldn't preserve much from that period'. Nor is she a defender of the embattled Pimlico School - as for the pfi redevelopment project, she argues that 'it could be seen as a way of getting a good new school at a bargain price'.

Jackson is not a hardline Blairite, but she subscribes unreservedly to the government's public/private partnership funding package for the Underground. 'It's not privatisation', she insists - merely a matter of raising the funds needed in the safest and most convenient way. But would an Underground dependent on private finance ever undertake something like the Jubilee Line Extension? 'A billion pounds over budget - and nearly two years late? Not a great advertisement for the public sector', Jackson counters - while conceding that the stations are 'wonderful'. It's hard to score points over Glenda Jackson on transport issues. Perhaps sensibly, she insists that the modernisation of the existing Underground network should take priority over new lines. CrossRail is 'not a priority for me', she says. Buses, currently under-used, could be made to perform far better and attract far more passengers if bus lanes were extended and rigorously policed - so that a journey of a few miles doesn't take an hour or more.

Living in Greenwich, Jackson has watched the Dome rise and is generally in favour of it. But she is far more excited by the Millennium Village, with its environment-friendly agenda and socially inclusive mix. Several forthcoming London monuments rather excite her. 'I like very much the designs for the gla building', she says. 'Its transparency, right opposite the Tower, is really symbolic of modern democracy against ancient autocracy'. Jackson also likes the look of the V&A Spiral (though she has a rather hazy memory of what it looks like). 'But it's quality of life that matters', Jackson believes. 'Housing design must address issues like noise insulation, adaptability for a changing population, access for the disabled'. The Mayor will not control London's housing but he or she could be the catalyst for change, by pressing for funding from central government and the eu and by setting the pace for innovative solutions. Not least, the Mayor must, Jackson argues, press the private housebuilding sector to do better. Not that employing architects is necessarily the answer - indeed, Jackson has a good deal of sympathy with the advocates of community architecture (as it used to be called). 'Architects are too obsessed with the look of things - people want good, ordinary houses'. Jackson is a genuine democrat. She admires the example set by Barcelona, not because it has built glamorous works but because of the city's campaign to reassert the value of public space - 'it's a matter of giving back the city to all its people, not just the affluent. People like to feel that a park or square is partly theirs not somewhere they're allowed into as a favour'. Jackson wants new parks around London, especially in the more deprived areas. 'We need good materials in the public domain, more works of art, better maintenance. People respect what looks cared for - vandalism is a response to a poor environment.'

We meet in the parliamentary office complex across the road from Big Ben. The interiors are dire - like an East German idea of a luxury hotel sometime in the 1970s. Many mps will soon move into the new Portcullis House, but Jackson is no enthusiast. 'How did it get built?, she asks. 'It's really hideous, especially those chimney things on top.' She finds it hard to believe that the architect of the building, Michael Hopkins & Partners, also designed the 'magnificent' jle station below. The Mayor, says Jackson, 'will have the biggest popular mandate in all Europe'. Leaving aside the tortuous nature of the mayoral selection procedure, Jackson is convinced that London is on the verge of a new era of progress, with a chief executive able to direct the resources of the public and private sectors and get the results. Architecture and architects have their place in the great scheme, but it is a subsidiary one. If Jackson were to become Mayor, 'dynamic' additions to the London skyline - like Norman Foster's Millennium Tower - would face a rocky ride. 'Dynamic for whom?', Jackson asks. 'For the architects?' She likes London's skyline much as it is and, for better or for worse, most Londoners probably agree.

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