Saturday, 24 April 2010

Pugin's 'Contrasts' Revisited: IV

A. W. N. Pugin's highly influential Contrasts, published at the tail end of the Georgian era in 1836, uses paired illustrations to demonstrate what he saw as a descent into degenerate design. It was also a manifesto for a return to proper, honest design, rooted in moral principles. In the run-up to the General Election on 6 May, we offer our own series of paired illustrations to show how design quality in the public realm has fallen off alarmingly; it is an indictment of recent practice, but also shows the huge opportunities for improvement. Civic space has been badly degraded, with a whole range of negative consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. The second decade of the twenty-first century should be a time when, individually and collectively, we get a grip on the design, management and maintenance of shared urban space.

Click on the images for larger versions.

Have planning controls over the London skyline worked? They focus almost exclusively on protecting views of St Paul's Cathedral, including from vanishingly distant points such as King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park, Surrey. All well and good, and it's for that reason that west London is so much less cluttered with tall buildings than east London. But the paradox is that having tightly-defined viewing corridors actually results in a skyline that looks very anarchic and random, because the logic and morphology of development only make sense from a distance - and then at a pinch. In today's view (top picture) from Primrose Hill, for example, St Paul's is just about visible after some searching, and in that narrow sense the tall buildings policy might be said to have worked. But it is not at all dominant, and in that sense the policy has failed badly. 

The classic Canaletto view of unchallenged Wren spires survived long beyond the eighteenth century. Even in 1960 (bottom picture) the architectural hierarchy was intact, with St Paul's dominant in views east past Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It may now be difficult to return to that, but the only sensible approach is to recognise that the existing tall buildings policy, though well-intentioned, has not delivered; and to adopt a Paris or St Petersburg-style prohibition on tall buildings within a defined central area. This would be easier if we could abandon the rather absurd and unnecessary competition between dual financial centres (The City and Canary Wharf), which has led to self-imposed pressure on the City to build big and tall in one of our key historic areas. Despite what developers say, it is not at all clear that provision of tall buildings has any beneficial impact on economic performance - we strongly suspect that the correlation barely registers - but if they are deemed necessary then there is ample scope for them in Canary Wharf, Croydon and elsewhere. And then we can begin to rescue the Cities of London and Westminster before the visual anarchy becomes irremediable.      

No comments:

Post a Comment