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Matthew Beaumont on London: ‘Nothing fits in this city. Either the locks are too large or the key is too small’

Beaumont

How we feel we fit into our cities is changing with the relentless march of development

Recently, as I’ve ambled about the streets of central London, I’ve had the disconcerting feeling that I must have tumbled down a rabbit-hole – or its urban equivalent, a man-hole. Strolling through the city’s thoroughfares – it used to be called ‘vicambulating’ but is currently a far more embattled activity than the one evoked by this attractive archaism – is like encountering London in a dream. Buildings that have for hundreds of years imposed a monumental, if at times perhaps oppressive, presence on the people that inhabit the metropolis, or commute through it, have abruptly and inexplicably disappeared. Floating above their foundations, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, is the shit-eating grin of the anonymous CEO whose private developments are destined to replace them. ‘“Well! I’ve often seen a fat cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a fat cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”’

The semi-circle of stuccoed facades that comprise John Nash’s Park Crescent, to offer one example, constructed at the northern end of Portland Place in the opening decades of the 19th century, simply isn’t there at present. But the sudden access of air and light that, as a consequence, has transformed this section of the Euston Road, offers little relief from the feelings of claustrophobia that, along with the traffic fumes, and in spite of the pastoral promise of Regent’s Park, chokes this defile. It just reinforces a persistent sense of disorientation. Walking past Park Crescent on the way to work, I feel a little like Peter Rugg, the ‘missing man’ of William Austin’s strange short story from 1824, who searches in vain for his home, a missing building, amid the ruins and construction sites created by Boston’s rapid modernisation. Standing in a state of consternation on the street where his house once stood, he assumes that it has been destroyed by fire; but an ominous voice from the crowd tells him that he has simply failed to adapt to the development of the metropolis and therefore ‘can never be fitted to the present’.  

‘The architecture of the City, for example, conforms at present to a strange, contradictory logic both of gigantism and miniaturism’

On the western arc of Park Crescent, a single Neoclassical portico has been preserved as a metonymic reminder of what has been demolished. It resembles the entrance to an Egyptian or Roman temple preserved in the atrium of a museum. Apart from this portico, its creamy surface discoloured and dirtied as if by nicotine, there is very little – almost nothing. Blistered hoardings have replaced the buildings, and behind them is a cavernous, eerily silent construction site from which a couple of cranes from a vast Meccano set poke up. Beyond that, terraced Victorian houses present their naked backs as if they are lining up to be humiliated or punished. You can’t help thinking that, even if Park Crescent is to be reconstructed brick by brick by the private developers who have conquered this corner of the city, as so many others, something secretive and sinister is happening in plain sight. Central London, like central Paris, is itself becoming a museum; or an architectural theme park for those who can afford its luxury apartments. Certainly, even if their flats and houses have not been demolished, it is impossible for the city’s working-class residents to afford to remain in the centre.

Encountering for the first time a gap in the city’s fabric, like the one at Park Crescent, leaves me with the pervasive sense of spatial disorientation that is experienced in a dream when a familiar topographical feature is silently displaced. Elsewhere in London’s streets, it is not the absence of buildings but their sudden, obtrusive presence that creates phantasmagoric effects. The architecture of the City, for example, conforms at present to a strange, contradictory logic both of gigantism and miniaturism. As Will Self has remarked, ‘the London skyline now resembles a desk littered with crappy “executive” toys’. At ground level, too, various public spaces are cluttered with corporate knickknacks. Cumberland Gate, for example, like the central reservation of nearby Park Lane, is spotted with sculptures built to an overwhelming scale, including Nic Fiddian-Green’s 33ft bronze of a horse’s head, which carries the kitsch title Still Water. Passing them on foot you feel as if you are being shut up like a telescope, as Lewis Carroll puts it. Nothing fits in this city. Either the locks are too large or the key is too small.

Fpcj70

Fpcj70

Source: Stephan Karg / Alamy 

Nic Fiddian-Green’s horse head sculpture in Hyde Park, London

There’s a scene in Through the Looking-Glass that also comes to mind when I’m going about my everyday business in London at the moment. It’s the one in which Alice finds herself in a railway carriage, on a strange journey that takes her from one giant square of the chess board on which she finds herself to another, and it resonates because it dramatises the unsettling confusion of public and private space that is characteristic of the early 21st century as it was of the late 19th. From the 1860s, when the railway became a mass mode of transport, train compartments comprised an oddly ambiguous and unfamiliar kind of social space. First-class compartments in particular were built to resemble the parlours of bourgeois homes. They had pictures and elegant little gas lamps affixed to the walls above the seats that flanked the door onto the platform; and the seats themselves were heavily upholstered. In short, these compartments were designed and decorated so as to make the middle-class traveller forget both that they were temporarily part of an impersonal, industrial machine and that they had to share this mode of transport with the working-class travellers crammed into third-class carriages. The first-class compartment had the trappings of private space; but it wasn’t in the least bit private.

Alice first realises she is in a train compartment when a guard thrusts his head in at the window and demands her ticket. She doesn’t have one, and the angry people with whom she shares the compartment tell her among other things that the reason she doesn’t have a ticket is that where she came from there wasn’t room for a ticket office because ‘the land there is worth a thousand pounds an inch’. All this time, as the narrator informs us, ‘the Guard was looking at her, first through a telescope, then through a microscope, and then through an opera-glass’. Alice is under surveillance, and in John Tenniel’s wonderful illustration of the scene (below) she looks uncomfortable under the aggressive gaze of the guard, who is looking through a pair of binoculars. ‘I don’t belong to this railway journey at all’, Alice declares in desperation. Far from providing her with privacy, the compartment has exposed her to the hostility of public space that is evaluated in thousands of pounds per inch and policed as if she is a criminal.

‘The metropolis is peppered with publicly owned private space; that is, space that isn’t in fact owned by faceless corporations but nonetheless feels as if it is’

London today is full of pockets of space where the relationship between the private and the public is radically ambiguous, and the effect of this is to make the city’s ordinary inhabitants feel as if they don’t belong to it at all. There are of course places, like the piazza on the South Bank outside City Hall, which resemble public space but are in fact both privately owned, in this case by a Kuwaiti property company called St Martins, and privately policed, in this case by More London Estates Management, which has not only installed an extensive CCTV and security personnel system but banned numerous vital urban activities, including begging, busking, demonstrating, loitering and skateboarding. But in addition to ‘privately owned public space’ (known as POPS), the metropolis is also peppered with publicly owned private space; that is, space that isn’t in fact owned by faceless corporations but nonetheless feels as if it is.  It is as if this sort of space is performing an apprenticeship in  the hope that one day it will become a proper POPS.

Let me give one example, which happens to be close to my office. Byng Place in Bloomsbury, between Torrington Place and Gordon Square, has recently been reconstructed to look like a kind of urban beach that has been thrown up by the tide of one-way traffic that arcs round the Church of Christ the King as it travels east. Ostensibly, in minimising the dominance of cars, and in creating a little piazza in among various unrelated university buildings, it is friendly both to cyclists and pedestrians. From a distance, it looks like exemplary public space, especially on warm days when it is scattered with people eating sandwiches and buying comestibles from the artisanal van selling coffees or the rustic cabin opposite selling smoothies. But this is profoundly alienated space, and not simply because it is incipiently so commercialised. The wooden chairs that are nailed to the pavement, for instance, are slightly too close to the cyclists’ route to feel safe; and they are positioned fractionally too far from one another, and at faintly awkward angles, so that an arrangement of street furniture that seems intended to facilitate sociability is in fact subtly anti-social. These seats, moreover, are too big for one person and too small for two. Sitting there gives one the sense that one has momentarily held the fan with which Alice inadvertently shrunk herself. 

In this corner of London, as in so many others where the land is worth a thousand pounds an inch, where the dynamics of public and private space are cunningly intermingled, where the locks are too large and the key is too small, we stand outside the door to the city even as we walk about inside it.