Journalism

Goodbye

March 1st, 2004

The late Denis Severs, Canadian eccentric and Georgian fanatic, has just published a book titled 18 Folgate St, about the house he used to live in and open to the public.

Denis was barmy. He kept a horse and cart out the back, until the Council told him it was a health risk and a safety hazard. When he pointed that a horse wasn’t a fire risk, unlike the candles he used for illumination, the Council insisted he install what they call Utilities, so he stung them for a whopping grant to fit gaslight. They had to pay up; heritage innit?

One of Denis’s favourite phrases for people he didn’t like was ‘Go back to the suburbs – we built them for you.’ He reserved such snubs for those he called ‘Nouveau Slummers’, the ones who move in to a run-down area, because it’s so cheap and charming darling, and then proceed to remake it as a middle-class enclave. This has happened all over Britain in the last decade, – it’s even happening in Hull, but Spitalfields London has been a conspicuous example of the relationship between money and power.

Last week I wearily trudged round my house there, with surveyors Anstey Horne. There is a reasonable chance that when the multi-million pound redevelopment of the market site starts, my house will fall down. As I stand in the dust and ashes of my restoration project, a bit of paper saying the place was fine before the piling, may be the only way I will be able to claim compensation. Houses have fallen down round here before now – and I know that the only way to deal with developers is to employ some Yin and Yang – not a pair of Chinese heavies, but the Western route of sound legal protection, twinned with Buddhist calm.

Of course, if Denis’s prophecy comes true, nothing may happen to the market site. This is the third time the place has been about to be demolished, before being stymied by a freak economic downturn. If we are going into a recession, grand projects may look like new Titantics. Everybody wants to build when there’s money – what happens when the money runs out?

I am hoping that this recession will turn out to be a pause where we can re-assess our priorities. Debates on housing and office space are conducted by interested parties only, leaving the public to cope with the consequences of decisions in which it has little say. Public enquiries are expensive and frustrating; attractive to the sort of person who likes labyrinthine detail and long meetings, off-putting to the rest of us. Media involvement of a positive kind might be the best way forward – there was huge interest in the Today Programme Best/Worst building, and Piers Gough is right when he says that TV could change the way we think about architecture.

Building Design could take the lead here. Accessibility is important, but so is expertise – a style-led dumbed-down series would be a disaster, but so would a dull talking- heads affair. I’d like to see some of the challenges I read about in this paper, which manages to combine excitement and seriousness in no easy measure.

Which is to say I will miss you all. This is my last column, though I will be keeping a watching brief on the Spitalfields development.

I have had a wonderful year writing for Building Design, but no good thing is good forever, so it’s back to the drawing board. If you want to read me elsewhere – I’ll be in the Guardian on Tuesdays.