Thursday, July 31, 2008

Buildings for Blairism

This is the first in an irregular series. Being a bit worried that I might be giving the impression that no decent buildings have been designed in Britain since 1979, and as (given the imminent electoral slaughter) an appraisal of the architecture of the vacuous, horribly destructive 11-plus years of New Labour 'Social Thatcherism' (in Meades' phrase), in which the rhetoric of social concern has gone hand in hand with an obliteration of the remains of the public sphere. So, the criteria - the buildings in question must have been constructed since May 1997, and be particularly exemplary of this low, dishonest decade. I'll also be forcing myself to actually go and visit, and hang around the sites in question, with photographer (or my own poxy Canon) in tow. Photographs here are by the inestimable I.T girl.

1. Greenwich Millennium Village, Ralph Erskine, Proctor & Matthews, Edward Cullinan, 1998-present

North Greenwich is a Blairite tabula rasa - a whole swathe of decontaminated land, on which essentially they could have done anything they wanted. So on the one hand, they built the Dome, the 'David Beckham Football Academy', and further down the peninsula, two strip malls and a hotel that could easily be overlooking Heathrow. But these were never the trumpeted achievements - instead, the Millennium Village was the prestige project. Announced by Prescott in 1997, funded by PFI/regeneration quango English Partnerships and the usual coalition of privateers, it was designed by the octogenarian Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine - whose Byker Wall council estate was famously a critical response to top-down prole-stacking blocks. In theory, something similar would happen here - except, rather than clearing out Greenwich Council's waiting list, it became yet another convenient place by Canary Wharf. Other parts of the scheme were a school by Ted Cullinan, blocks and houses by Proctor & Matthews, nicely desolate parks, and finally some blocks imitating Erskine's originals.

What makes the Village the perfect place to start this series is the way it prefigures so much of what would come next. The use of a formerly toxic brownfield site, lots of wood detailing, rhetoric of sustainability rather undermined by the huge car parks and malls built adjacent, water features, brightly coloured rendered concrete, irregular windows, and the estate agent cliche of the 'urban village'. The estate agent misnomer is also appropriate - like Ballard's 'Chelsea Marina' in Millennium People, this is not quite where it says it is. Difficult to reach on foot, this is more Charlton than Greenwich, and one can only get to The Greenwich World Heritage Site via an infrequent single-decker bus. Yet most luxury flats that have re-used these elements are only parodies of this first effort. What we have here is really the best and worst of Blairism in architecture, as (in places) the Millennium Village works very well indeed. The original Erskine blocks overlook a relatively untamed, swampy nature reserve (sorry, 'Ecology Park') and a curious boathouse which seems to merge into the industry nearby. They're dense and complex, but with an order that would be absent from their successors, and even the touches that scream hypocrisy (the car parks are hidden in little pine alcoves) are at least ingenious.

The Proctor-Matthews parts across the road are less cloying than Erskine's, and are also more interesting than the run of the Docklands des res. There's a variety of tall blocks and low-rise terraces that, if stretched out on a larger scale, would be quite something: curious tech-eco-De Stijl hybrids of metal and wood. Unfortunately, they're never quite given the space to set up a rhythm, stopping abruptly after 5 or 6 units. A shame, as if any part of it could do with extension, it's this section, rather than the simpler perimeter blocks. Perhaps this is because these are complicated things, with a tendency to flake. The most recent sections, which are stuck on the ends of both Erskine and P&M's areas, are merely clumsier, brighter, flatter versions of the riverside blocks, with cubic executive 'Uberhauses' sticking ostentatiously out. Before the Dome became 'the o2' a certain post-apocalyptic eeriness settled quite pleasantly on these parts, something that the promised squares and restaurants- apparently finally on the way, although currently there isn't even a corner shop - will no doubt reverse.

But the real horrorshow is Cullinan's 'Millennium Primary School' (which, famously, originally had to import children from far-off areas of the borough). It never ceases to amaze me that Cullinan is presented as a 'humanist' architect, when the effects of his buildings are so often - from UEA in the 60s to UEL in the 00s - practically dynastic in their sense of intimidation. So the expected undulating, pine-clad walls are punctuated by concrete watchtowers which are redolent of nothing other than the West Bank 'Separation Wall'. Nearby, a square is filled with 'interactive' sculptures, but the sense of being watched overrides the intended jollity. There's a persistent hint of the not-right in the Village, of civility on the surface and other tensions not far below. Once, when the lifts were being renovated and the walls covered in padding, there was a sudden flurry of violent, illiterate graffiti - and apparently, the all-but-unused roads are starting to be used for drag racing. Little by little, the Village is being dragged back into London.


Blogger Matthew said...

'a Blairite tabula rasa'

A phrase that has made my day.

As Prescott himself would say, at the GMV there is a 'lot done and a lot left to be done'. I've only ever passed by on a bus via the fringes, seeing the ghastly Cullinan school at close quarters but not much else (I was en route from a friend's place in real Greenwich to North Greenwich tube), though it strikes me that the place is most Blairite at it's highest point of conception rather than just at the level of on-the-ground architecture: this is a pilot project, a consultation on what housing could be, a ring-fenced exemplar of PPP fudge. Where is the real plan to make this a real place, to connect it to other real places and to stand as a Lansbury-type model for similar sites?

It is most Blairite in how it fails conspicuously to follow through because it didn't know what it wanted to achieve in the first place.

2:38 pm  
OpenID architectureinberlin said...

Good to hear that the place is just as vacantly awful as ever (takes me back to those 108 bus trips on days when, typically, a trainline was out of action and I'd reroute via the Jubilee...). Another fine post.

Apropos of something unrelated, have you looked at this? Thought it would interest you re your post about the Leon Krier piece in AJ:

Jim H

6:43 pm  
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Blogger kevin said...


5:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to Cullinan's 'Millennium Primary School'..That place is really beautiful..The designs are lovely..

estate agents greenwich millenium village

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