How should London evolve?
A walk throughout the modern city raises many questions about the benefits and downsides of the evolution.
Which changes are for the better, which for the worse? The overall evolution is one of sanitisation and order. Good thing, bad thing, indifferent thing?
Where small passageways crammed with danger and interest once stood, we now have big, clean corporate buildings for international accountants, lawyers, bankers. Where once a Sunday stroll would have offered an opportunity for the unexpected, good and bad, now the walk is entirely predictable. Closed and swept streets, immigrant contractors cleaners maintaining near-identical buildings.
In the St Brides quarter a foundation and the church maintain the two last links with a colourful past. A bar, "The Press House", plays on the modern history of the area. It is shut on a Sunday. The significant history of the church area is almost ignored.
At the corner of New Bridge Street and Fleet Street I found a nondescript pub that could serve a beer and snack, looking over a busy junction that was once a bridge over the notorious Fleet Ditch. Modern peoples of London walk, anonymously in the street. They buy pre-made sandwiches, they hurry up and down, left and right. They are for the most part safe and healthy. In the pub music is between 15 and 25 years old - Prince, the Lightning Seeds, U2. The few exclusively male, middle aged customers watch a widescreen television, showing a cricket match between England and Sri Lanka. The beer is poorly kept, the nuts pre-packaged in a bag that proclaims meagre health benefits for me, the almighty consumer.
Further along the street, buses and cyclists cross the Holborn Viaduct, oblivious that they would once have been crossing a river. The buildings almost all post-date the burying of the river, yet faithfully follow the lines of their medieval predecessors. There is innovation and sanitisation, but strictly within historic lines, set in the last 300 years.
300 years ago people walked carefully on the narrow roads either side of the repugnant ditch, or crossed via the narrow bridge, well aware that anyone interested in their progression across the city could catch them here. This was a place of danger, but a place that was alive.
If you lived in London in 1711, and wanted to go somewhere on a Sunday, it is extremely likely you would have passed by here. Today the many occupants of the city mostly give this spot a wide berth. Those who leave the house will stay in their suburb, or travel to another via trunk roads and an extensive railway system. But tomorrow, a working Monday, many will return to this area. They will occupy desks and conference rooms in the big modern building, many will fetch a sandwich or some simple cooked food at lunchtime. Most will arrive after 8am, and leave before 7pm. For 13 hours the city will be dead.
During their brief visit here tomorrow, the new Londoners will mostly engage in commerce of a thoroughly modern kind. The same could be said of Londoners in 1711. Progress, but within historic lines.
It's an odd compromise. Is it truly the best way?
300 years ago this was an academic question. London was considered by many to be the capital of the world, with unrivalled economic and transport ties to the rest of the world. Now it ranks as the ~20th biggest city by size, at the edge of a continent in decline, physically removed from the world centres of population and innovation, with transport links commoditised by plentiful jets. According to Airbus, in the next two decades Europe will order less than a quarter of the world's aircraft. China ordered 50%??
Ten years ago I spend a week in Beijing. Yet to embark on my career, I was at the end of a long trip, and almost penniless. I filled my days were by riding through the city on a rented bicycle, following the path of the population between new office developments, brutal modern housing estates, small ancient zones. A major feature was zones of cheaply built housing, interspersed with basic eateries, and many, many small trading stalls. The Victorian British called these areas slums, and the modern Chinese have since demolished them.
There is innovation in Beijing. And little respect for historic lines lines. Many Chinese believe they have little to be proud of in the last 300 years years - their major achievements were in earlier dynasties. They can bulldoze 300 years of history.
Meanwhile, in Paris new building since the mid 20th century has been confined to the outskirts, within new development zones such as La Defense. Very few new buildings are built in the centre of Paris. There is little progress, but upmost respect for successes of the 18th and 19th century.
For me, the approach in London looks like an ugly compromise. We're just another medium size, developed city, housing the same multinational companies, architecture and ways of thinking as every other medium size, developed city.
We must decide: Are we proud of our achievements in the last 300 years?
If we are proud, we should nurture those achievements. We should preserve and restore the ancient streets, and innovate within those constraints. We should build a distinctive, wise London, with a unique mindset and a physical streetscape that builds on the lessons of centuries at the centre of world trade. We should reassert that we know better than other cities, then work very hard to live up to that ambition. We should not just preserve, but strengthen the historic lines, and rediscover the wisdom of our history within them. We should build a distinct London, not import another chunk of New York or Paris or Tokyo, or Shanghai.
If we're not proud, we should embark on more radical change. More should be demolished, both physically and in our ways of thinking. We should give up on the historic lines, in favour of the boldest innovation. We should take risks, as we did 300 years ago, and as the big developing markets do now. We might have to accept a medium-term reduction in our standard of living to achieve something greater and more sustainable.
I would be excited by either approach. I have little interest in the current compromise.
Do you like the current situation? If not, which route would you choose?
Posted at 15:29 BST, 31st July 2011.