The Anxious City

From the nervous nineties to the even more nervous post-9/11 noughties, we do indeed appear to live in anxious times. But neuroses have long been connected with urban space and living in the metropolis. And for Richard Williams, lecturer at the Department of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, there is more to our anxieties than fear of crime or imminent terrorist attack. He is interested in the more fundamental anxiety about where society is headed, crystallised he argues in the uncertain status of the post-War city.

Certainly, despite excited talk of urban renaissance, the city has struggled to find itself of late, a problem perhaps best exemplified in the distinctly English new urbanism of the Prince of Wales’ recent pet project of Poundbury in Dorset – a biscuit tin village of an ‘urban’ development if ever there was one. To Williams’ credit, he is careful not to underestimate the pervasiveness of this profoundly conservative outlook. Despite the rantings of HRH on the subject of carbuncles and suchlike through the 1980s and beyond, it is the work of the supposedly arch-‘modernists’ Richard Rogers and Norman Foster that have brought a very English restraint to the very heart of the metropolis.

English architects have sought refuge in what Williams calls the ‘architecture of civility’, primarily in the forms of the public squares and street cafes familiar on the continent. For Richard Rogers, these are the places where ‘citizenship is enacted’ (and, he forgets to mention, enforced). The transformation of Trafalgar Square into the centerpiece of a newly urbane urbanism – with CCTV, wardens, and GLA-approved festivities included – is indicative.

The problem with public life is not so much that we lack public spaces anyway, but rather that as the political sphere has narrowed there is little intellectual room for manouvre. For this reason, the imperatives of mobility and civil renewal are not – as the prevailing view would have it – opposed.

Which is why Milton Keynes – infamous 1960s ‘new town’ – is the most striking of Williams’ case-studies. It towers above the rest despite its low-rise and fundamentally suburban credentials, because it is unashamedly urban in outlook. Milton Keynes was built for the car, for vast and sprawling living, and it continues to be the fastest growing urban area in the country. The reality might not match up to the original plans, but that isn’t the point. In the not so distant past, this could have been the future.

Instead we have restoration and memorialisation. Williams cites Liverpool’s Albert Docks as an example of our anxious fixation with the past, and what it represents, to the detriment of building something that might endure in the future. The ossified ruins of the city’s merchant past weren’t ruinous enough for some mawkishly nostalgic commentators. The only way that this particular instance of the urban could be made acceptable was by denying itself and inhabiting the debris of something less fleeting or insubstantial than today’s confused culture.

This romanticisation of glories associated with more robust times is less evident though in the other Docklands – or ‘America, E14’, as one critic dubbed it. And it has invited the venomous hostility of the English architectural establishment ever since. Canary Wharf’s association with the rhetoric of the free market individualism of the 1980s partly explains this. As does the anti-Americanism that Williams also identifies. And there is more to it than financial deregulation and the suspension of planning law. The shiny new development starkly represented the kind of brash ambition and Wild West optimism that is anathema to a profession intent on purging itself of such hubris.

But even beneath the Pelli tower – Canary Wharf’s seemingly ballsy icon that so upsets its reactionary critics – anxiety abounds. For Williams, Docklands’ ‘super-modernism’ is as disorienting as it is impressive, its towering buildings and wide open spaces only exaggerating its uninhabited ‘alien’ ambience. The area is hermetically sealed from the rest of the city a few stops down the DLR or Jubilee Line, its stifling surveillance infrastructure ostensibly a reaction to the IRA bomb in 1993. America, E14 may not be as inward looking as Poundbury, but if Williams is right only, the buildings have sharp edges. It represents a hollow urbanism that is just as intent on disciplining those that enter its enclosures.

Despite the visual transformation of our cityscapes, punctuated as they are by these ever-more spectacular buildings and developments, there remains an underlying continuity with the typically parochial architecture of the past. Williams is impressive on the way that architects have articulated a culture informed by fear. What he doesn’t do is ask why this is happening now and – just as important – why we are more receptive to it than ever before.

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