Flora Neville attempts to uncover the imaginitive potential of London’s suburbs at the Architecture Foundation’s Doughnut Festival
On the train to Greenwich for Doughnut: The Outer London Festival, a man sitting opposite me extracted from a brown paper bag nothing other than a spongey ball of sugary dough with jam in the middle. I’m sure it was serendipitous.
A doughnut is the perfect metaphor in several ways for London’s suburbs, the subject of the one-day event curated by the Architecture Foundation, with Will Self as patron. Unlike the sticky centre of London, the suburbs are thought to be cushy and safe. Leave zones 1-3 and plunge into the comfort zones of doughy suburbia.
A doughnut is only a doughnut for its jam, otherwise it’s sugary bread. Likewise, people tend to think of the suburbs in relation to the centre. Suburbia is synonymous with staleness and homogeneity, a place where the white middle class avoid gluten, ironically. No one asserted these stereotypes more clearly on the day than The Buddha of Suburbia author Hanif Kureishi, in conversation with Will Self. ‘I remember Sunday afternoons in the rain,’ he recalled of his Bromley upbringing, ‘and fucking hopelessness.’ Bromley was where all creativity was stifled, where people obsessed over soft furnishings, and where he experienced blatant racism.
Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, writers of TV sitcom The Inbetweeners, expressed a similarly negative view of suburbia. ‘Suburbia was always the fifth character in The Inbetweeners,’ said Morris. Living there is a constant bugbear for the series’ hapless teen characters. The blatant racism is more latent racism but it’s still there, and suburbia will never be as exciting or enticing as central London, they say. For the writers, suburbia was where you launched from. ‘The purpose of the doughnut,’ said Morris, ‘is to push you out.’
Yet the centre cannot hold, and the point of the day was to address the past, present and future of the suburbs – and to encourage the architectural focus to shift from central London outwards. Architecture Foundation director Ellis Woodman kicked off the event with a few statistics. In February the population of London hit 8.6 million and is set to grow by another 1.5 million in the next 15 years. To provide for this growth, reports estimate we need to build about 50,000 new homes a year.
More than 20 per cent of land in Greater London is designated ‘green belt’ but, as Barney Stringer, director of planning consultancy Quod, pointed out, there’s green belt and green belt: nearly 2,500 hectares – twice the size of Kensington and Chelsea – is used for golf.
By contrast, the landscaping scheme by Kinnear Landscape Architects for Walthamstow’s urban wetland nature reserve showed how to rethink No man’s land, appropriate it for people, provide the right environment for wildlife and glorify the Victorian heritage of the 200ha site.
The next session was titled ‘Essexedus’, a term coined by AJ columnist Ian Martin to describe the mass migration of the old East End to Essex after the war. Ken Worpole, Gillian Darley and Patrick Wright gave a historical and sociological context to such suburban settlements, so often created with a strong sense of idealism. They talked of community land trusts and of allowing the residents the freedom to decide how they want their homes and communities to look and be run.
The theme of top-down planning was picked up by Crimson Architectural Historians Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost. Vanstiphout, the co-curator of last year’s British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, has written extensively on the subject and believes the London riots of 2011 (and those in Paris in 2005) were directly connected to planning and architecture. With ‘messianic proportions, endless decanting and alienated planning from above’ comes the tension between inhabitants and authorities, which leads to rebellion and rioting in the suburbs, they said.
Modernism in Paris, asserted Vantisphout, ‘bulldozed’ people trying to build their own communities in favour of enormous shrines to an ideology, masquerading as estates for the people. It was patronising, and the people revolted. Rioting in Paris in 2005 was centred on these suburban estates. Now, community building is something we are trying and succeeding in many European cities to achieve. It’s not so marginal any more: the Baugruppe in Berlin, for example, produces the highest volume of homes in the city.
Using the specific culture of Thamesmead as an example, Provoost advocated drawing inspiration from the existing richness of suburbs in redevelopment. Thamesmead, location of A Clockwork Orange, is, she said, like an open-air museum to Stanley Kubrick (and has been voted the second-best place in England for Nigerian food). Vantisphout supported Provoost, exhorting architects not to simply ‘reset’ all the time, but rather to listen to residents and respect the fabric of the existing local culture.
Will Self became a little riled-up at this. ‘Whence such optimism?’ He demanded. ‘Let’s not get dewy-eyed about Thamesmead. I worked there in the 80s and it wasn’t pretty.’
Speaking to Self in the courtyard afterwards, he offered some sobering advice. ‘Fuck the old,’ he said. Young and old have conflicting interests. The young need property, the old have money in property.’ For Self, it’s because old codgers are sitting tight that hideous, utilitarian developments are springing up around London to compensate.
He has made money in his life, he said, but his house in Clapham has appreciated at least three times as much as he has. Yet, as an old codger himself, he concedes it’s not in his interest to relinquish that right now. ‘Look, I’m being hyperbolic. Don’t line them up against the wall and shoot them,’ he said. ‘Just take the statins out of their hands and let nature do its thing.’
Neither city nor country, suburbia is inherently in-between. I’d always thought that if I’m living in a city, it’s got to be where the jam is. But later, wandering around Wren, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor’s extraordinary Old Royal Naval College and Greenwich docks, illuminated by Merlin Fulcher’s poetic walking tour, my prejudices against the suburbs were relaxed.
It struck me that the suburbs are neither the country, nor the city: they are at the edge of both. But that is what makes them unique; their liminality is to be celebrated.
You don’t have to search very far nor wide to uncover a distinct and priceless heritage in every one of London’s suburbs, and for the most part their potential is, as yet, relatively untapped. Let us hope that we can glorify the heritage of these places in our architectural ambitions.