Context isn’t quite everything, but it sure does matter. And in this case the context is what came before Canary Wharf: I had spent the majority of the previous decade working on the South Bank and then Bankside, along with spells in Chelsea, just off the King’s Road, and in Soho, just off Carnaby Street. The London, that is, that is equally loved by tourists and locals.
From the Bankside office, with a proper hour-long lunchtime, I could make round trips as far as the Royal Festival Hall, to the west, Tower Bridge, to the east, Elephant & Castle, to the south, and Barbican (just about), to the north. So that meant a stamping ground that included the City, with its seemingly endless little Wren churches lurking under assorted glass towers of varying quality. And the South Bank, with such architectural marvels as the Festival Hall, Denys Lasdun’s beautifully assembled National Theatre (below), the Hayward Gallery (maybe an ‘eh’ on the outside, but a peerless space for contemporary art on the inside…) And the National Film Theatre – not a great building, but one of my favourite places.
And the still strange and hugely varied streets of Waterloo and Southwark and Borough, where you can stumble across weird, magical places such as the Crossbones Garden Of Remembrance, or beautiful spots like Guy’s Quad (see picture at the top of the page), Trinity Church Square (below) or the Hopton’s Almshouses, now so horribly overlooked by the hideous Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed Neo Bankside, a project whose aesthetic ugliness mirrors its ethical scuzziness.
In many ways, this is London at its best – with layers of history piled on top of each other, work and homes and culture jumbled together. Although it has an increasing number of absurdly expensive flats, it also still has a sizeable amount of what most people would slightly inaccurately call council housing (because it’s not just councils that provide it), what used to be termed social housing, but let’s use the ugly term non-open-market housing instead: in the immediate vicinity of the Tate Modern there are Southwark Council flats, Corporation of London flats and a Peabody Estate, plus those almshouses. That means for the moment, at least, there is still a good social mix – plus a huge number of tourists, of course.
Also, by and large, like most of central London, the area is what planners call permeable – if you set off in any given direction, you will be able to keep walking in that direction without having to do long detours. Although there are a number of major train stations, most of the tracks are above street level, with plenty of bridges to duck under. And the bridges over the river on this stretch of the Thames are at most 15 minutes walk apart, which makes the idea that there is any practical need for Joanna Lumley/Thomas Heatherwick’s expensive, destructive Garden Bridge (or not unless you consider central London severely short of space for corporate hospitality, which many suspect is the primary intended use for this final Boris Johnson folly).
But, but… that contrast with Canary Wharf isn’t as sharp as it once was. Both Southwark and Lambeth council, along with our unlamented former mayor, have welcomed large-scale development on the south side of the river, what at my bleaker moments I think of as the Dubai-sation of London. The Shard turned out to be just an early sign of what was to come: there are expensive flats being built about both ends of Blackfriars Road, which will spell the end for this glowering beast much admired by Barnabas Calder:
One of the buildings I used to work in has been converted in to flats that go for £5 million a pop – I rather hope that they are haunted by the spirits of the hacks who used to lurk in those spaces:
But as you can see, those shiny, exclusive buildings are rooted in the mess and life of London – it will take a long time for the grit to be cleared off out of Southwark and Lambeth. They are trying though – further west, around Waterloo, most of the vast Shell Centre has been cleared to make way for yet more flats priced far, far beyond the reach of the majority of Londoners, a project valiantly fought against by George Turner, but in the end he lost.
Whatever the next decade or so will bring, though, it remains an exciting, complicated part of London, one that you can explore for years and still be sure there are treasures you haven’t found yet…