One of my passions is urban architecture and how cities change over time.
Take a large corporate plc with many employees. Staff come and staff go. There is no such thing as ‘the staff’ over any period of time. There can only ever be a snapshot of employees at any given moment.
As Pocahontas said – I paraphrase – you never can put your hand in the same river as, it is always flowing, always different. Yes, the wisdom of Disney.
It is the same with urban architecture. It is always changing and the only thing that tricks us into thinking it is not is the fact that bricks and mortar typically change more slowly than humans (or rivers) and so we don’t see it.
I first became interested in this subject when I was eleven. I used to walk through a housing estate on my way to school and every day for months I passed a house - a house where a rather large extension was being built. Day after day, I would trudge past with my briefcase and French horn and for a few months, this state of incompleteness was my experience of this house and this journey. Now, of course, the extension has been built for thirty odd years and has taken on a look of permanence. But I remember a time when it wasn’t there and a time when it was incomplete. My ‘snapshot’ is different to most.
This little experience gave me a love and interest in the urban built environment. Hey - it’s better than watching football or soaps! Old pictures of Rochdale, Brighton or London, for example, excite my interest. I found a picture once of the Houses of Parliament being built in the 1850’s with Big Ben only partially constructed. How the Londoners must have marvelled and how that incomplete tower must have been their reality for months, if not years. History literally in the making.
So urban architecture in transition is always of interest to me and if I see something being built or changed I try to snap a picture and record that moment of transition between one solid state and another. Capture the ephemeral nature of the built environment.
Unsurprisingly given the above, I did a master’s degree in portfolio management in the 90’s and, as part of it, authored many theoretical projects to develop the South London and Brighton built environment. This was an interesting period – right after the property crash of the early 90’s – and there were many underused or derelict sites lying undeveloped, in places we would now see as property hotspots.
I especially remember the site at the bottom of Edward Street opposite The Royal Pavilion in Brighton. It had been a derelict shell for years with a short term use as a temporary car park. My limited proposal was to build a hall of residence for the polytechnic as you couldn’t give away flats in those days. But what’s most interesting now to remember, is the fact that this site – right in the heart of historic Brighton – lay abandoned for years. Hard to imagine now, but cities ebb and flow with the years; we, who live in them, just don’t recognise this.
An interesting aside to this period in my life was that I was in charge of real estate for American Express Corporate Travel - the division with the largest portfolio of space in the UK. When the lease of the HQ building in the Haymarket ran out, I was tasked with acquiring the replacement. And I found it by walking around the then unfashionable district of Southwark - south of Blackfriars Bridge. This was the real old London experience where you could still imagine the Ripper wielding his knife on unsuspecting late night revellers unwisely walking through the narrow streets of tall warehouses.
I acquired a building on Blackfriars Road that was – in Amex terms – incredibly cheap. At that point the Jubilee Line extension hadn’t been completed and Southwark tube station – just yards from my building – wasn’t yet complete, let alone open. Today the area, with great tube links, is a thriving commercial part of London but when I was in the market, it was a backwater, and - as some eminent real estate professor at my university told me like the perennial late night black cab driver - no-one wants to go South of the River!
So when I walk past ‘my’ building these days, I experience several emotions. Firstly, pride in my accomplishment, of course. Reflections about how my decision influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. About how I changed their lives permanently. Oh the power! Yes, the beginnings of my nascent God complex… But what I really remember - as I walk around - is my first impressions of a central London area, next to the Thames, with no tube, no intrusive glass towers, that was covered in post war Corbusier inspired hideous concrete offices but also rather marvellous back street pubs filled with growling cockneys and cigarette smoke.
It’s not just buildings that change the character of cities!
Do know what? In that period, I couldn’t even give away offices in Argyll Street and New Bond Street. Can you imagine that? I’d go up and meet the agents who’d tell me how they couldn’t get rid of my space – opposite the Argyll Theatre, amongst all the high end fashion shops. That I’d have to lower the price and give rent free periods. Different days. Different times.
More tales from the life urban and architectural soon.