Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Ruination of London

I was going to write a blog post about what's happening to London, but Alain de Botton has summed up the problem far more eloquently than I ever could in this excellent short film:

I don't agree with everything he says. There is a place for the occasional 'fun' building and the view from the Shard is one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had in recent years. But if developers have their way, that view will become an increasingly depressing one, as a great, historic city gradually becomes subsumed under a tidal wave of skyscrapers.

I had hoped the the global recession would call a halt to this madness, but instead London has become more attractive than ever to investors, few of whom have an emotional investment in the wellbeing of the city. London has effectively become a high class hooker, flaunting its wares before a parade of wealthy clients.

But I'm now in danger of writing the blog post that I said I wasn't going to write, so I'll stop now.


Rog said...

Shocking. I suppose most Londoners become so used to the gradual daily changes they don't see the big picture that very infrequent visitors such as myself witness.
De Botton's plea for altruism from the property architects does sound a little unlikely to materialise but I'm almost ready to forgive his misuse of the word "decimated" in the film.

Steerforth said...

Yes, I didn't notice the pace of change until I left. At first, I liked the new buildings, which added something to the tradition Thames Television montage, but we seem to have reached a tipping point where monstrosities like the 'Walkie Talkie' are dwarfing buildings like St Paul's and ruining the view. I thought that they'd learned their lesson from the 1960s, but apparently not.

joan.kyler said...

Unfortunately, it seems to be happening everywhere. Here in Philadelphia, they've been tearing down entire blocks of lovely late 19th century / early 20th century buildings and replacing them with what I call 'mine's bigger than yours' buildings. The architecture is so unimaginative and ugly compared to the buildings they've torn down. My beloved city of Boston seems to be holding the line better, but I'm always worried about what I'll see when I go back.

zmkc said...

Dubai, someone said the other day, the only city that wants to trick you into thinking it's an airport. And now London wants to too. Eurgh

Steerforth said...

Joan - I find it extraordinary that people are allowed to get away with it, particularly in such a historic city. It's a massive two fingers up to future generations.

Zoe - I was in Dorset last week and it was a delight to see do many well-designed buildings, made from local stone (nearly all pre-20th century, of course). The use of local materials made the buildings seem an integral part of the landscape. They'll endure, long after the 'Walkie Talkie' has been demolished.

Chris Matarazzo said...

I think every great city should take a good look at Boston. I visited there for the first time this spring and I was incredibly impressed by the graceful juxtaposition of the new and the old. Not once did I see something new that seemed to bully or steal the power from the historic sites. Philadelphia, which is very close to me, has not been as successful in that sense.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Alas, the planning commissions which Botton sees as the last ditch for controlling building size and scope are the very last public servants to want to help the average person. It's the same in every large city in North America: Vancouver, Seattle, San Diego, to name three. In these cities, cosy liveable neighbourhoods are being crowded out by huge houses. In the suburbs of Seattle, which used to be a fairly calm and peaceful place, the building commissioners have rubber stamped huge houses on miniscule lots which are totally out of keeping with the existing area. Yet, when the home owners queried this, we were steamrollered, and now our one little street has seven new, huge houses (which replaced three smaller ones) and which sell for five times the price of the houses which already exist on the street. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, and to be told that our ordinary house is too small and an eyesore and needs to be torn down so that it can be replaced with a couple of million-dollar-plus homes.

Deshan Tennekoon said...

Dear Steerforth,

There are still people in London fighting the good fight. I stumbled on this today:

That gent's entire blog is well worth reading. Wonderfully ambitious scope: "Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months. Who knows what kind of life we shall be living in 2037 when I write my ten thousandth post?"

That made me think of something you spoke about on your blog - whether book selling was to be your future. You're an accomplished writer; perhaps there's a similar project you could undertake in your part of the country? It may not make you a millionaire but it may help you stay sane and happy.

Kind regards from the tropics,


Steerforth said...

Thanks for the link Deshan - I'm shocked that a local authority could be allowed to consider destroying such a historic area. Once again, Wilde's quote about knowing "the price of everything and the value of nothing" rings true.

I've just written a tweet with a link to the blog and it's been retweeted umpteen times, so hopefully there'll be some extra members of the human chain on Sunday.

As far as your suggestion goes, that's an excellent idea. I'm probably too mercurial to stick at it, but I'll certainly give it some thought.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Funnily enough this was going to be my very next blog post! Every time I visit London an extra bit seems to be missing. It's like someone is determined to stamp out all heritage piece by piece.

The worst of it is that all the ugly new blocks going up are apparently being snapped up (even off-plan) by wealthy foreign buyers who have absolutely no intention of ever living in them, but rather regarding them much as they might gold bars in the bank and waiting for them to go up ever higher in value.

Steerforth said...

Laura - It's very depressing. I thought we'd learned our lessons from the mistakes of the 60s. Our property market is far too liberal and I find it obscene that whole streets can be largely unoccupied because the properties owners merely use them as part of an investment portfolio. I'd make it far more difficult for non-doms to buy UK property and introduce a points system for prospective buyers. I'd also knock down the 'Walkie Talkie'.

Dale in New Zealand said...

You talk aesthetics, very correctly, but there is another argument here as well. Funny you should mention the problem of non-dom foreign investment. It is a furious national debate in New Zealand at the moment, and in Australia also.

Money flooding out of the Chinese stock market, or worse, being laundered by China's criminal classes, has completely knocked the Auckland housing market out of shape in the last two years and is shutting locals out of home buying - and that includes shutting out local Chinese whose forebears arrived in New Zealand 160 years ago. On local wages we cannot possibly bid as high as foreign investors can - there are more millionaires in China than people in New Zealand. There are auctions where all the buyers are phone buyers from China, who have no intention of living in the property and leave it vacant, so we are told.

We do not know what is happening in the commercial property sector because the government is refusing to collect official data on it, but anecdotal data indicates a similar situation there.

I believe Canada has recently acted to close down its property avenue for Chinese investors, and that Singapore, Hong Kong and Switzerland have acted as well. Maybe we should not wait till the next Commonwealth heads of state meeting to talk this one over.

London of course being so large attracts buyers from all over, not just China. And its money market is a world money-laundering centre, isn't it? It certainly does make one wonder how much of the laundering is going through political parties' pockets, for them to take so little action on a property situation that is really, really causing their citizens grief.

Steerforth said...

Dale - I also wonder that, as the lack of action is quite extraordinary. A friend in Notting Hill tells me that she's one of a couple of people actually living in her road - the other properties are all owned by overseas investors, some of whom use their homes for a month a year. Add a net immigration of around 300,000 per annum, and you're heading for a crisis. The only solution is to reduce immigration, stop overseas investors buying property and build more homes, but the political will isn't there. In the meantime, we now have a situation in which even a well-paid lawyer can't afford a small semi in one of the roughest parts of east London.

The father of a son's friend has made a small fortune selling London properties to people in China. He's a really nice chap and I appreciate his generous helpings of champange when I visit his perfect Edwardian home, but I really have to bite my tongue when he talks about work.

Lucille said...

May I ask a question off topic? A new bookshop has opened in Rye. It's called The Rye Bookshop but is actually a Waterstones. Why do you think they do this? Is it a new marketing strategy? If so, to what end?

Steerforth said...

Lucille - Yes, it's the culmination of a change of direction that took place after HMV sold Waterstones and James Daunt became MD. Under HMV, the senior management largely came from a non-bookselling background and the emphasis was very much on achieving a consistency across the group. This hard retail approach resulted in a chain of very bland, unexciting shops and Waterstones nearly disappeared from the high street.

James Daunt knows that you can't compete with Amazon on price, so you have to come up with quirky, interesting shops that are a pleasure to browse in. Therefore the emphasis has been increasingly on tailoring the shops and their range of titles to their local market.

It was, I think, felt that in certain upmarket towns, people might feel hostile to chains so it was decided to take the local element to its logical conclusion and remove the Waterstones branding altogether. There's another branch in Southwold that's doing this. I suppose that if it works, there'll be more non-Waterstones Waterstones.

I think it's an inspired move and although James Daunt isn't a particularly charismatic leader, apparently, he has made some astute business decisions.

Lucille said...

Thank you. How interesting. So this is quite a new move. It was a pleasure to browse in but I nearly used it as a showroom with a view to beetling off to Amazon. But then I did buy a book even though it was double the price I could have had it on Amazon by the next day. I paid for the advantage of seeing an attractive shop where premises had once stood empty. I wonder if everyone else will. It's a tough call. Two doors down, The Martello, a family run bookshop closed its doors after nearly 20 years trading, unable to find buyers who would continue to run it as a bookshop.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I just spent 5 weeks in London. I had last visited in 2004. The city has changed a lot. Waterstone's was a delight, however. A decade ago a book shoppe like Waterstone's might have existed in many mid-sized American cities. The changes in London were numerous and many vibrant book stores I remember have disappeared.

Steerforth said...

It's interesting to read that from someone who hasn't visited London for 11 years. I'd love to know more. What were the main differences you noticed and would you say the London of 2015 is better or worse?