One of my date destroying, oh is that the time, 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, it is always flowing, always different. *
It is the same with urban architecture. Cities constantly change and the only thing that tricks us into thinking they do not is that bricks and mortar typically change more slowly than humans (or rivers) and so we don’t see it.
When I was eleven, I used to walk through a housing estate on my way to school. Every day I would pass 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.
Stuff in transition is more interesting than in a resting state.
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 and was being used as a temporary car park. My limited proposal was to build a hall of residence for the polytechnic (Brighton University now) as you couldn’t give away flats or office space in those days. But what’s most interesting now to remember, is that this site – right in the heart of historic Brighton – lay abandoned for years. It’s 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. I found it the time-honoured way 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 stalking through the narrow streets of tall warehouses, wielding his knife on unsuspecting late night revellers.
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!
Walking past ‘my’ building these days, I experience several emotions. Firstly, pride in my accomplishment, of course. Then, reflections about how this decision influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. People met people, people left people, new jobs, new connections. Oh, the power! Yes, the beginnings of my nascent God complex…
But what strikes me now - as I walk around - is the contrast with my first impressions of this central London area, next to the Thames, that – 20 years ago - had no tube, no intrusive glass towers and no high rise and unoccupied apartment blocks. No wanky baristas in small batch coffee shops. Back then, the area was covered with post-war Corbusier-inspired brutalism, but also, some rather marvellous backstreet pubs filled with growling cockneys and cigarette smoke. All gone now.
It’s not just buildings that change the character of cities!
In that period – mid 90’s - I couldn’t give away office space in Argyll Street or New Bond Street. Can you imagine that? I’d go up from Brighton to meet the agents – in Brook Street no doubt - who’d tell me how my space, right opposite the Argyll Theatre, amongst all the high-end fashion shops, was difficult to shift.*** That I’d have to lower the price and give rent free periods. Them was different days! This was before the internet really got going and everyone became their own start-up.
Property – in particular commercial property – exists in periods of feast or famine. Under supply and over demand lead to oversupply and under demand. And the cycle repeats itself. It’s like some visible manifestation of capitalism.
Here in Clapham I walk the same route up and down Lavender Hill / Wandsworth Road twice a day. I get to see the urban environment incrementally change. Scaffolding erected, demolitions, gangs of labourers, white vans. For instance, the nearly complete new Premier Inn off Cedars Road. The whole of the last year this old temple / church has been patiently restored and extended. Even the derelict Victoria pub next door has been spruced up for a new leasee. It looks good. **
And the point? For me, it’s stories, it’s backdrop. Someone once said that it’s almost impossible to write a history of an event because history is not neatly divided. There’s always a back story and there’s always consequences afterwards. The same applies with the built environment. And so it reveals to me stories. Streets challenge complacency, they show progress (or regression). But the urban environment is never still, never complete.
By this time, my date has left and I’m left with the bottle and the sock. T’was ever thus.
* The wisdom of Disney. I use the best and I use the rest.