Doctor Samuel Johnson once provided a characteristically vivid description of some of the rather more…erm…slapdash construction work in London, painting a portrait of streets where ‘falling houses thunder on your head’, reflecting the fact that it was not uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth century for buildings to simply collapse without warning – a famous fate that befalls the Clennam household at the climax of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’.
During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe gave hundreds of the capital’s buildings an almighty push and shove, but the post-war era has seen the redeveloper and handy little compulsory purchase orders accelerate the process. In the 1960s, this was done with a blatant disregard for public opinion, erasing such landmarks as the Euston Arch, the Billingsgate Corn Exchange and the St James’s Theatre, King Street. Following a growing public outcry that led to the birth of the conservation movement and successfully halted the planned redevelopment of Covent Garden in the 1970s, the redevelopers retreated back behind the scenes; but they haven’t gone away. They’re still at it.
This week, the bulldozers will descend on Earls Court Exhibition Centre, which – for all its faults – has been virtually the sole notable attraction in SW5 for over a century. Resident since 1887, the edifice underwent an Art Deco facelift in 1937 and has remained one of London’s finest examples of that whole architectural movement ever since. A true multi-purpose venue, Earls Court has hosted the likes of a rally for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the Ideal Home Exhibition and the Motor Show, events at the 1948 and 2012 Olympic Games, the Royal Tournament for fifty years, and the Brit Awards for ten. David Bowie was the first rock act to play at Earls Court, kicking-off the UK leg of his Aladdin Sane tour in 1973; although the acoustics at the gig were apparently appalling, the problem was hastily fixed and the venue soon became a premier fixture on the rock and pop circuit, with everyone from Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen and Slade to Oasis, The Arctic Monkeys, Morrissey, Take That and The Spice Girls adding it to their itinerary. But perhaps the most memorable concerts to be hosted at Earls Court were Pink Floyd’s legendary six nights of ‘The Wall’ in 1980. Not that such an impressive roster counts for much.
In July 2013, London Mayor Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead for the exhibition centre to be demolished and for the site to be redeveloped as…you guessed it…residential flats and retail outlets. Of course, such a scheme is not unique to the capital; major cities across the country are awash with riverside apartments and shopping centres that have sprung up over the past fifteen years like great glass blots on the landscape. But London has more to lose in that it has a greater proportion of outstanding, historic and iconic buildings than anywhere else in the UK and is also currently suffering from an acute affordable housing crisis. Will the residential flats scheduled to stand on the same location where Bowie Freaks flocked to kiss the hands of the Leper Messiah in 1973 be within the budgets of ordinary Londoners or will they provide further ‘holiday homes’ for Oligarchs that stand empty for half of the year?
Any regular reader of the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column in ‘Private Eye’ will be familiar with the sneaky tactics local councils employ to ensure profitable contracts from foreign property speculators and home-grown redevelopers triumph over the concerns of conservationists. First, a building is closed to the public; then it is allowed to descend into dereliction; then a mysterious fire always seems to break out, something that gives weight to council plans to demolish on health and safety grounds. The excuse is put forward that renovation would cost more than demolition and, hey presto, within a year or two the land is available for redevelopment. In the 1960s, they were less underhand; these days they have to use cunning to combat conservation.
In some respects, London has always been in a permanent state of transition; architecturally, it never sleeps and the litany of lost landmarks stretches back much further than the mania for redevelopment that characterised the first couple of decades after the Second World War. But lately it does sometimes feel as though the city is a grand old lady forever popping backwards and forwards to her cosmetic surgeon for endless injections of Botox she doesn’t really need. Were redevelopment restricted to housing the capital’s resident population in decent homes at reasonable rents or prices, most of it would be permissible; but all-too often, this is rarely the motivation behind such projects.
What falls beneath the wrecking-ball can also reflect what is or isn’t currently valued within architectural circles. In the 60s, anything Victorian – with beauty blackened and buried by a century of soot and smog – was fair game; today, it can be anything from pre-war Art Deco to 60s and 70s Brutalism that is viewed as undesirable and bereft of merit. Battersea Power Station, which appeared on the London skyline in the early 1930s like a giant’s upturned dining table, closed for business as far back as 1983, yet has remained one of the most recognisable constructions in the capital. Again, this is another London landmark boasting a musical connection, famously captured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ LP with a flying pig overhead. But the unmistakable brick cathedral is not as intact or secure as it might seem from a distance.
The roof was removed in the late 80s during eventually aborted plans to convert the empty premises into a theme park, leaving it open to the elements and thus incurring substantial interior damage. Endless proposals and plans have since been put forward without success, but despite its Grade II Listed status, the building has been allowed to decay whilst consortiums, councils and corporations dither over what to do with it. Meanwhile, claims that the four chimneys have corroded beyond repair and would be better demolished and rebuilt have been contradicted by parties interested in the preservation of as much of the station as is feasibly possible. The latest scheme is spearheaded by a Malaysian company, legally bound to retain the exterior and chimneys, though such rules and regulations can be carefully circumnavigated by those who place profit over aesthetics.
Whatever kind of complex emerges in place of Earls Court Exhibition Centre – and I have a distinct feeling huge panes of glass will play a part in it – the loss of the venue itself will not even be compensated for by the materialisation of a strikingly fresh London landmark. Instead, we will be left with yet more apartments and outlets for the retail industry that will no doubt be indistinguishable from all the others that litter the London landscape. When the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn railed against the increasing uniformity of what he called ‘Subtopia’ sixty years ago, he probably had no idea that the capital would eventually succumb to the same careless nonchalance and absence of imagination that had fatally transformed the provinces in his lifetime.
It would be nice to think the pop culture colossi who once bestrode the site won’t give up the ghost yet. Maybe one night in the not-too distant future, when a block of luxury residences in Earls Court are occupied for the summer term, Oleg and his third wife Natalia will be woken from their beauty sleep by the eerie echo of Mick Ronson strumming the riff for ‘The Jean Genie’; or a pistol fired by Buffalo Bill; or perhaps even Mel C challenging Liam Gallagher to ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’.