The author presenting "On the Brandwagon"

The regeneration game

It’s a fantasy to imagine a single eye-catching building can reverse social and economic decline

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Peter Cook famously said of his Establishment Club in Soho that it was based on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”.

Heedless, a decade and a half ago I made a TV film called On The Brandwagon about the risible inanities of the regeneration industry. Stupidly, arrogantly, I believed it might play some part in quashing the then hardly burgeoning enterprise.

Well, so might a tick put a rhinoceros off its charging course. I guess I could say in my defence that I was too soon. In 2006 regeneration — the practice and the word — were not yet commonplaces. The “Bilbao Effect” was taking its time to trickle down to post-industrial conurbations across the planet. But a trickle turns into a brook, a stream and thence into a roaring river.

Today there is no former rust-bucket city, no sometime edgeland, no crumbling dock, no monument to asbestos that has escaped rebranding as a “creative quarter”. 

The “Bilbao Effect” is a coinage I have been blamed for. It was not intended to describe. It was meant to mock the boast of architects, the “regeneration community”, development agencies and planners that an eye-catching building — “iconic” of course, not to mention “pharaonic” — could reverse social and economic decline in a single act of architectural determinism. 

This weird gallimaufry is to a fake future what the Prince of Wales’s dire Poundbury is to a fake past

 It seemed a preposterous claim then and with the passage of time its vacuity is plain for all to see. Just how effective is the effect? What is the effect meant to achieve?

The answer to that is just about everything plus much much more. Peace. Prosperity. A 100 per cent increase in Vibrant Diversity. A 120 per cent rise in Interracial Harmony, literacy and ecumenical non-violent picnics.

Repeat offender suicide bombers will retrain as mine sensitivity operatives. The sea is cleaner. The trains run on time. Rusty needles are a thing of the past. Friendliness embraces everyone. The billionaire greets the street sweeper with a florin for a cup of tea. Affordable housing is affordable to all but the poorest high net worth individuals irrespective of political and criminal convictions. 

Dogs don’t foul pavements. The air is no longer a gauze of toxic particulates. The happy smiling people smile because they are happy and rich. They live longer. They workshop serenity and samplers. They are subjected to public art. As everyone knows public art is a Good Thing especially if it is composed in fun colours, is comprehensible to kiddies and is motivatingly interactive.

For full exposure to the mendacity of that paragraph, a visit to the North Greenwich peninsular is recommended. Eyes right as you approach the Blackwell Tunnel from the south. A few years ago, all that existed here was the 02 (né Millennium Dome), a mistake with an undefined purpose and the reek of McDonald’s. Nearby was a Holiday Inn whose ground floor was improbably given over to a Chinese restaurant which smelled and tasted pretty good. There were roads to nowhere, mostly unoccupied and thoroughly uninspired neo-modern apartments with structural problems, a scruffy ecology park. There was an air of freshly minted desolation which not even a butch yacht club on piloti could alleviate.

Today the environs of the Dome are a Design District. In the hierarchy of crassly named loci is a Design District on a higher rung of fatuity than a Creative Quarter?

The idea of buildings which are not “in keeping” with each other is commendable, in theory. When it is actually realised, the paramount impression is of a shrieking babel. Twenty or so buildings scream at each other in tongues that are mutually incomprehensible. Though the message is invariable: Me! Me! Me! 

The lack of consensus about scale, colour, proportion, materials etc., can only be regarded as a deliberate mistake

The lack of consensus about scale, colour, proportion, materials etc., can only be regarded as a deliberate mistake. There is no elision, merely collision upon collision. That evidently is what the Hong Kong developers want.

But architecture (a perhaps inappropriate word in these circumstances) is not merely an earner. Even in the laxest of free markets where no planner would dare offend a developer, it has a responsibility to the people who work in it, who live in it, who pass by it: it is seldom passive decor.

 This blingfest is an active assault on eye and brain. It attempts to reproduce lanes and alleys in a sort of non-orthogonal nod to unplanned places which have grown “organically” over centuries. But that ambition doesn’t accord with the buildings themselves.

No matter how different one is from its neighbour they are all very obviously of the early twenty-first century: gimmicky fenestration, a coyly daring lump of PoMo revival, roofs like the Argyle pullover of a giant golfer, tinted glass, a pointless elevated walkway, a giant slug with jaundice. The one quality which is so obviously absent is restraint. Still, since the lifespan of buildings diminishes year by year we don’t have long to wait.

Meanwhile we should consider that this weird gallimaufry is to a fake future what the Prince of Wales’s dire Poundbury is to a fake past.

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