Sunday, 27 March 2011

Did the London protests make a political impact?

Much right-wing media coverage of the TUC's protest against the Conservative coalition government's public spending cuts focused on how some 200 so-called anarchists 'hijacked' a peaceful protest and rally in London by over 250,000 people. 
   Most London-based UK national newspapers said the 'anarchists' vandalism against property was indiscriminate. In fact, as these photos show they chose highly selected targets on Piccadilly, leaving other businesses and shops untouched.

The big question though is whether the peaceful march and rally - as well as the vandalism and violent struggles with riot police - actually achieved any ongoing political objectives. True, hundreds of thousands registered their protest against the cuts by simply being present on the march. 
   But when the latter third of the huge march reached Hyde Park they'd missed speeches by trade union leaders and by Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband. 
   The sense of anti-climax and 'what do we do now' was palpable.

All photos copyright of Paul Coleman. No re-use without permission.

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011

Saturday, 26 March 2011

TUC March for the Alternative to government spending cuts on public services

Young and old, men and women, they came from all over Britain. 
   Well over 250,000 trade unionists, community group members and uses of public services marched through central London to protest against cuts in spending on public services. 
   The three-mile March for the Alternative, organised by the Trades Union Congress, ended with a rally in Hyde Park.

All photos copyright of Paul Coleman. No reproduction without permission.

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The bones of St Bride's Church: Jelena Bekvalac reveals their story

German bombs virtually destroyed St Bride's Church - the journalists' church on London's Fleet Street but the damage revealed unknown sealed vaults in the crypt areas. 
   Archaeologists in the 1950s dug down and were soon stunned. They discovered thousands of human bones.
   "Some of the bones still have dessicated skin on them," said Jelena Bekvalac, the engaging Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum of London.
   Largely thanks to Jelena's enthusiastic research, we now know a great deal about these adult men and women, these boys and girls, how they lived and died. Born between 1676 and 1840, they ranged from nine to 91-years-old. Some were buried with dignity. Others with barely any recognition at all.
   Amongst them was Samuel Holden, a Governor of the Bank of England, William Rich, creator of the tiered wedding cake and the novelist Samuel Richardson (see photo).
   Jelena's account of her research enthralled tonight's 300-strong congregation. Jelena began to cough; she'd been speaking for an hour. "Maybe, it's the bone dust," Jelena said as . "I've probably ingested an entire skeleton during my research." 
   I wasn't too sure if that was a laughing matter. As we left Jelena to recover and filed out through the churchyard into the Fleet Street night, the sound of the spiritual song, Dem Bones or Dry Bones played out over St Bride's speaker system. Now that did tickle my ribs.

I'll add some more details to this posting in the next few days...

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The future of design review

Forty per cent of the commercial, housing and other development schemes whose designs were reviewed in 2009-10 by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) were in London, revealed Diane Haigh, CABE's design review director. "And the value of these schemes, when added up, was about £22 billion," said Haigh.

"Reviewing the design of these schemes cost 0.001 per cent of this total £22 billion," added Haigh, claiming that this was a tiny price to pay to make sure the designs of these huge schemes were successful. 

Thirty-nine per cent of the development schemes CABE reviewed that year were residential; 34% were commercial and 20% were civic, cultural and educational developments. Twenty-one out of 33 London boroughs received CABE reviews. Eleven boroughs run their own design review arrangements, according to research by Esther Kurland, director at Urban Design London.

Some schemes had multiple design reviews, even as many as four. "I think we reviewed Battersea Power Station six times," recalled Haigh. "Architect Rafael Viñoly was very willing to be part of that dialogue and responded to our panel, robustly at times."

"Design review needs to be more of a process and a conversation," said Haigh, who has been involved in over 1,000 design reviews at CABE. "Schemes typically come back for a continuing discussion, and our stats show, 72 per cent come back improved after that first review."

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011

Monday, 14 March 2011

Stockwell Bus Garage: Self's star fish in the South London sea

Will Self, the laconic and languid author of How The Dead Live and The Book of Dave, took thirty minutes tonight (Monday 14 March) to explain why he rates Stockwell Bus Garage as his most important London building. 
   "It looks like a pod of whales, a concrete Leviathan, frozen in mid arch as they swim through the rather choppy brick sea of south London," said the droll Self. "But that's a fanciful image that writers come up with...and frankly I wish we didn't."
   Self, a self-confessed south Londonphile, showed his affection for Transport for London's Grade II-listed bus garage to a polite Royal Academy of Arts audience in Piccadilly. He lives near the modernist bus garage in Stockwell, or 'St. Ockwell' as posher residents chirply re-name it.
   Self droned - albeit interestingly enough - about the surprising "beauty and spiritual uplift of the Stockwell Bus Garage". The building itself, built on the bed of the old River Effra, consists of a 120-metre long, unsupported roof, formed by ten arched ribs. It looks almost as tall as the lanky, lean Self himself. 
   The ribs of the 'whale' rise to an apex of 59 metres and cover 6,814 square metres of floorspace with no pillars. Each of the ten arched vaults formed by this arrangement is topped by a large skylight.  
   The garage was the largest area under an unsupported single roof in Europe when completed in 1952.
   Unfortunately, the bus garage is full of...well, as you'd expect...buses...and isn't open to the public, although schoolkids used it as a cut-through before Mr. Health and Safety came along with locking gates. The building's cathedral scale dwarfs the double-decker buses beneath that buzz all over London before returning to slumber at night.
   "It's a building that exemplifies what architecture can do," said Self. "It bears distinct affinities with the Pantheon in Rome and the skylights are reminiscent of the Pantheon's high central opening, the oculus...Unfortunately, unlike the Pantheon, it's a not a public meeting place for people but for buses, where buses talk unto buses, where buses mingle in their bus togas and discuss affairs of bus state."
   At this point, Self's language abandoned south London. His vocabulary clambered up Parliament Hill towards giddy Hampstead. But I'm glad I followed Self up his verbose hill as he nailed down one final definitive idea about the building. "It's vaulting representative...of the post-war settlement in Britain," said Self. "This, for me, is a concrete and glass Beveridge Report. It is the Welfare State, redolent of a society that believed in public transport. 
   "It speaks to me of a society that cares about its workers and believes its workers should have a beautiful and interesting environment. Its vast internal space a psychological level...a release for the drivers from the compression of the London streets that they have to negotiate all day."

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A view of New York - London's sister city - from David Bragdon, one its most powerful officials

"The best planning involves having one foot in memory and the other in prophecy," said David Bragdon, one of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's most powerful city officials. "We can learn a lot from London."

Bragdon, Director of New York City's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, heads up the PlaNYC initiative that aims to transform the Big Apple's land, air, water, energy and transport. At first, I wasn't too sure exactly what London could teach New York, especially during this week when councillors are cutting funds to community and youth groups across London's 32 boroughs. 

Bragdon, a passionate yet cautious figure, speaking to a London audience of architects and planners this morning (Wednesday, 2 March), explained New York City is undergoing its own political and financial turmoil.

"People don't understand the imperative of investing in infrastructure as a means to grow jobs," said Bragdon. "But Mayor Bloomberg is steadfast in continually explaining the importance of investing in our infrastructure and reminding people that many of the things that we now rely on are our greatest public works that actually occurred in the Depression of the 1930s."

President Obama supports infrastructure investment, such as on high speed rail and an upgraded electricity supply grid. However, a fresh, dogmatic legion of anti-investment Congressional  representatives, elected in 2010, looks set to resist spending taxpayers' dollars on transport, water, energy and other economic growth and environmental protection measures. It sounds like an echo of the turgid 'investment versus cuts' debate on this side of 'the pond'.

New York's massive 60-mile Water Tunnel No.3 is underway, just as London's Crossrail's seems to be well underway too but Bragdon conceded New York has suffered some setbacks. New Jersey state politicians rejected proposals for a much-needed Hudson River tunnel. Plans to "green" New York's famous yellow cabs - to reduce their emissions and increase fuel efficiency - were "invalidated" by a Federal Court.  Recycling and 'garbage management' aren't as advanced as in London. 

New York also lags behind London when it comes to road pricing - congestion charging' - and traffic management. "New Yorkers do pay though - but with congestion and pollution," said Bragdon.

New York enjoys some progress too. Oil-fuelled heating for major buildings is being replaced with natural gas. Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Square are now partly pedestrianised to encourage a café society look and feel. 

Some 150 disused schoolyards have been converted into neighbourhood playgrounds in the last four years. Over 300,000 trees have been planted in the last three years. "London's parks make the city what it is today," said Bragdon. "Our goal is for every New Yorker to live within ten minutes of a park. Now, eighty-one per cent do so."

In an echo of Prime Minister David Cameron's 'localism' agenda in the UK, Bragdon believes "many of our city-wide objectives can be best achieved by local civic organisations and property owners". Community groups, for instance, could win funding if they can come up with cracking ideas to reduce the impact of rainstorm run-off water on the city's creaking sewerage system, a scenario familiar also to Londoners. 

Bragdon suggests Bloomberg will want to sign off his mayoralty in three years by leaving behind a legacy of investment in economic growth and environmental protection projects. Crucially, Bloomberg took over as chair of the C40 Climate Leadership Group, a body of 40 world cities set up to tackle climate change by London's inaugural Mayor, Ken Livingstone. 

Bloomberg is C40's third chair after Livingstone and Toronto Mayor David Miller. "Bloomberg's vision is to create learning networks among cities where innovations are taking place where people live," said Bragdon. 

London leads on transport pricing. Stockholm on waste and energy. Chicago and Philadelphia on storm water and flood control. Tokyo can teach us a lot about building control. Melbourne is the city leading on urban reforestation. 

All of this C40 info-sharing sounded grand but, after Bragdon's interesting glimpse into the Big Apple, I was left trying to remember and then to prophesy, which city in the world can teach both London and New York that investment on infrastructure during an economic downturn can create growth and jobs?

David Bragdon's talk and seminar, New London meets New York, was part of the 'London-New York Dialogue' hosted by New London Architecture at the Building Centre in Store Street. Tony Travers, Director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, opened and chaired the session.

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011.