The absence of architecture

Community Garden, Lower East Side

Community Garden, Lower East Side

Nothing is better about contemporary London architecture than a lack of it. After the demolition of the Swiss Centre on Leicester Square, a beautiful rectangle opened up – eating dim sum in Joy King Lau we could look across the void to Whitcomb Street and see the jumble of mismatched adjoining buildings and balcony bars. The breathing space lasted barely a breath: now another soulless behemoth of a hotel is being assembled, consuming the space, chewing out the sky.

Meanwhile, the multicoloured slab-sides of Renzo Piano’s new Central St Giles development (the kind of building that makes you wonder if Al Qaeda does requests) are a grim reminder that the governing principle of urban architecture isn’t any kind of plastic artistry, but rather the brutal economics of floor space measured in square metres. It’s clear that we can’t hope for any more good buildings: the best we can hope for is that they demolish the awful ones we already have.

In Walthamstow, the site of a failed shopping development has been paved over and a few desultory benches added: the cheapest possible form of public space, a skatepark for empty crisp packets. On Oxford Street, Land Securities, developers of proposed flats on the site of the old Park House have run into trouble and want to turn the wasteland into a temporary corporate hospitality venue for film parties and reality TV shows. At least some are campaigning to turn the Middlesex Hospital site into community allotments. Better by far would be the kind of community gardens that the residents of New York’s Lower East Side have been developing since the 1970s. Community gardens don’t just provide for diversity, playgrounds and public art, but through their membership require intelligent and collective decision-making about the shared use of green space. London could do with some more of that, and a bit more demolition, too.

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