Off Beat August 2019


Jonathan Glancey, 21 August 2019

King’s Cross is an ambitious private development of showy new offices, shops and restaurants in central London. It occupies much the same area as 70 football pitches. In terms of planning, design and atmosphere it owes more to provincial English cities like Manchester than it does to London, or London, that is, pre-2000.

In a bread-and-circuses manner, King’s Cross appears to be popular with a new generation of citizen-consumers. It is, however, decidedly unpopular with anyone who takes seriously the premonitions of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The development is bugged with facial recognition cameras keeping a forensic eye on the identities and movements of those using this patch of privatised city.

Soon enough, Canary Wharf, an even larger development built as an annexe to the City of London among redundant docks (appearing to owe its new look to provincial US and Chinese cities), will follow the example of King’s Cross with its very own battery of facial recognition cameras.

Given the questionable architectural nature of both these developments, I wonder if their spy cameras could be turned around to face the buildings at King’s Cross and Canary Wharf. Renamed ‘Façade Recognition Cameras’, their new role would be to monitor and evaluate the architecture around them and to identify those responsible for their design, planning and funding.

While this is never going to happen, I found myself behaving like a facade recognition camera of sorts while in Rome in the summer. And here’s why: while it is perfectly possible for architects worldwide to design considered, elegant and even beautiful 21st Century buildings, these have the contemporary habit of being objects that – seemingly perfect in drawings and on computer screens – appear to be slotted into place, whether in cities or rural settlements, with little concern for context.

I am not thinking about height, proportion, building materials and juxtapositions of old and new structures, but about the way so few new city buildings appear to do what city buildings contributed for centuries in Rome, as in many other parts of the world. Those contributions are to do with turning corners, stepping down hills and steep streets, offering protection to pedestrians from sun and rain, or providing places to sit and rest, as with stone benches set into the facades of Renaissance and Neo-Renaissance palazzi.

More than this, the essential or archetypical buildings of Rome, both private and public, are centred on courtyards with trees, planting and even fountains. Their pantiled roofs are homes to the city’s sparrows. In many senses such buildings are good citizens. They are also, with the exception of the occasional visual trick by Borromini or sensational stair by Bernini, much more modest than the kind of gimcrack new buildings characterising King’s Cross, Canary Wharf, the City of London and all points east to Shanghai, south to Sydney, north to Helsinki and west to LA. Rooftop gardens, gained by high-speed lifts from air terminal skyscraper lobbies, are crude in comparison to a Bernini flourish, the stuff of funfairs and adventure parks rather than imaginative architecture and planning.

Imagine new quarters of cities – or in the case of China, new cities – where buildings, responsive to local climate and topography, climb hills, turn corners, offer shade and rest and include within their fabric small shops, bars and cafés, plus useful services like cleaning and mending and tending to minor medical ailments. Cities just like this have, in fact, existed for millennia. Even the grandest houses in the centre of ancient Rome included shops and public dining rooms in their fabric. Facades of such houses, unlike those of 21st Century urban interlopers, were modest. Splendour lay within.

And, of course, Manhattan boasts handsome 20th Century apartment blocks, built for the most part before the Second World War, with ground floors given over to cafés, delis and dry-cleaners. Here, too, are buildings with good urban manners. Long walks through Rome reminded me of how these different and complementary ways of civilising architecture and cities, in both small and grand ways, are possible. Rome is a reminder, too, of how streets of relatively simple, well-made and enduring buildings can be animated very happily with Baroque and Rococo flourishes, whether domes, bell towers, theatrical entrances to courtyards, steps and considered vistas.

Speed of new construction and a universal fast-buck profit motive seem to be two reasons why all too many new city buildings are more like consumer products than truly urban architecture. It is time to look at them afresh and with the scrutiny of facial recognition cameras.

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