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Ian Martin: Last of the conservactionists

Ian Martin
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Dusty Penhaligon contends that everything before the 18th century was an architectural rehearsal, everything after it a pointless diversion

MONDAY The cruel gloating from Certain People at the official demise of my Enchanted Forest Bridge has been as unseemly as it has been unsurprising.

I had hoped, forlornly, that this sorry affair might be allowed to die with dignity. Fat chance.

There will always be savage opportunists, though surely the polemicist and flaneur Raymond Banz crossed a line. ‘Several perfectly serviceable Thames bridges already exist,’ he said. ‘Those responsible for squandering money on this catastrophic fuck-up should be publicly hanged beneath one of them with piano wire, as Mr and Mrs Mussolini were.’

Well, sticks and stones may break my bones and piano wire is obviously up a notch but I will never relinquish my dream of a taxpayer-funded, privately-owned toll wood for London tourists. I’m now considering a ‘Low Line’ initiative, converting Southern Rail routes out of Waterloo into green isthmuses of dense foliage, calibrated artwork and retail opportunities. It would delight visitors, and offer commuters an exciting, faster, ‘eco-walking’ alternative. 

TUESDAY In the morning, playfully revamp a folly. In the afternoon, an epiphany – a folly IS playful. In the evening, workfully unvamp the earlier folly. 

WEDNESDAY This week I say goodbye to not one but two old friends. Dear Dusty Penhaligon the conservactionist is taking early retirement, and property gangsterpreneur Phil Cluster – my fixer – is going to prison. Dusty’s moving to Napier, New Zealand. Rebuilt as an exquisite Art Deco city after a devastating earthquake in 1931, it’s widely admired by architectural historians.

Dusty’s retirement project is to get it all torn down and replaced with stuff that was there before. As he says, this would be ‘in the interests of historical accuracy, restorative justice, and the necessary opposition of liberal style fetishists who want only their stuff in the lifeboat and bugger the rest’. 

In Dusty’s ideal world, every built environment would be restored to its ‘proper equilibrium’, which he now dates with astonishing clarity to August, 1783. He contends that everything before the 18th century was an architectural rehearsal, everything after it a pointless diversion.

It’s a challenging position to take, but that’s Dusty. He once campaigned for the restoration of Holloway Road to a sunken earth and limestone track worn away by carts and horses, on the twin grounds of nominative predeterminism and traffic control. 

He once campaigned for the restoration of Holloway Road to a sunken earth and limestone track

His singular brand of conservactionism brought him many fellow-travellers in the heady 1970s, when ideas such as walking allotments, airborne housing and invisible cities were thought clever. As Dusty’s proposals for restoration became more outrageous, his supporters thinned, many of them dying.

From the Unbombing of Coventry, through the Remedievalisation of Winchester to the Let’s Return Scotland to an Ice-Field campaigns, he has ended up, happily enough, in a movement of one. 

I shall miss his twisted wisdom. My world will soon be without Dusty Penhaligon, as it once was, which is just how he likes things.

THURSDAY I’m relieved that Phil the fixer’s out of my life, to be honest. He was a great believer in remodelling, whether it was a historic urban area or someone’s face. Now he’s helping reshape society in HMP Belmarsh.

The world of international property development is as tough as the world of international drug money laundering. Obviously. It’s the same world. But it takes a lot of balls to do what Phil Cluster did, and the police found his souvenir collection of balls (in an ivory box marked ‘London Bridge 1998-Present’).

Let’s draw a line. It’ll be 15 years before he’s out, even with good behaviour. Which, you know, good luck with that.

FRIDAY Ha. I confound my critics – and THEIR critics, and those who criticise THEM – by turning a Brutalist car park into a really expensive hotel.

SATURDAY Five-a-zeitgest theoretical puffball. Equestrian Statuary 1, Dead Bastards On Horses, 1 after sudden death penalty comment pieces in The Guardian.

SUNDAY Musing in the recliner. Why must everything be so relentlessly non-ironic now? 

Not long ago we thought post-Modernism had liberated architecture forever, conferring the freedom to sneer amiably at the past and to laugh mockingly at contemporary design competition rules. Surely the grim prison of orthodoxy couldn’t hold an entire profession of gender-spectrumed Scarlet Pimpernels in gaudy pantaloons and interesting glasses? Alas. 

Brunch at Tempora Mutantur, a marvellous street-food restaurant in King’s Cross.

Epic Space, an anthology of Ian Martin’s columns for the AJ, is published by Unbound


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