Ellis Woodman: On a new architecture manifesto for London
Compiled from footage shot over the course of 1992, Patrick Keiller’s melancholy, surreal and ultimately coruscating film London offered a blunt assessment of the British capital’s claims to civility as it approached the dawn of the 21st century. The director’s charge sheet covered the effects of years of underinvestment in public services; the dismantling of the Greater London Council; the decline in British manufacturing; the surveillance culture that had developed in response to IRA bombing; thuggish road engineering; and laissez-faire planning. It was a portrait of a city that seemingly had abandoned all ambition to serve as an expression of collective values.
Recently, I showed the film to a group of students - none of whom had been born when it was made - and was encouraged by how little this depiction of a city mired in parochialism, dereliction, homelessness and menace chimed with their experiences. In comparison, the London that they and I inhabit is a clean, safe and accessible city and one infinitely richer in its stock of public spaces, cafés and amenities. Those improvements owe much to the fact that it is a lot more densely populated. The number of residents in Greater London stood at a high of 8.6 million in 1939, but conscription, evacuations and postwar planning policies encouraging relocation all contributed to that figure dropping by two million over the subsequent five decades. Keiller’s film captured London at the very moment that this decline bottomed out. In the years since, the city’s increasing dominance as a global financial capital, an escalating birth rate, longer life spans and a planning culture geared towards densification have all contributed to a very dramatic population growth. Last month, that revival reached a milestone when the number of residents finally surpassed the 1939 record and the upward trend shows no sign of abating. At the present growth rate - which equates to the addition of an entire borough’s worth of new residents every three years - the population should hit 11 million by 2050.
The emergence of this cosier London presents cause for celebration but it has generated extraordinary challenges too. For all the building activity that the city has experienced in recent years, the supply of new homes has lagged well behind demand resulting in overcrowding and a stratospheric rise in property values. Less affluent residents - particularly younger ones - are being priced out of the centre, with many choosing to relocate to other cities entirely. The commercial value of domestic property is resulting in non-residential functions being displaced - a situation not helped by a recent regulatory change enabling buildings to be transformed from work space to housing without recourse to planning permission as long as their external appearance remains unaltered. In many parts of the city, work space is being diminished to critically low levels. Neighbourhoods that enabled a diverse community to work within walking distance of their homes are being transformed into commuter dormitories - a change placing strain on London’s transport infrastructure and flattening its social demographic.
In the coming years, the city also faces a transformation of its periphery. Densification is certain to be a hallmark of that change but without adequate planning, the outer-lying boroughs risk suffering a similarly devastating suburbanisation of use. London’s origins as a series of independent villages has imbued it with a polycentric structure that still informs the way many residents inhabit it. The defence and consolidation of that pattern of built form and daily use are essential tasks if we are to ensure the city’s ongoing liveability.
Next summer, Londoners go to the polls to elect a new Mayor. It is imperative that they understand the nature of the change the city is undergoing. As its director, I am determined that the Architecture Foundation plays a role in framing that discussion and demanding that candidates are explicit about their ambitions for London’s built environment. The transformation both socio-economic and physical that the city has experienced since Keiller shot his portrait of ghost-town London, is as nothing compared with the change to come. Great opportunities present themselves but if we are to capitalise on them we urgently need to ask what kind of a city we are trying to make.