Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 January 2014

Look up, look around, there is a building falling down. Well, not really falling down – more knocked down, more ripped apart from the inside out with its skin torn off. All of that scaffolding and netting that seems to go up overnight looks innocent and orderly enough but some very nasty and brutal things are going on behind it.

Just like a sheet that obscures a particularly bloody operation, scaffolding also hides the gruesome operation of deconstructing buildings, only in most cases the patient has very little chance of survival. Yes, some elements might end up being recycled and some finer features might well find their way to a warehouse belonging to an architectural salvage dealer. But, generally, nice slender buildings in Sydney, Toronto, London and Stockholm find their way to the local landfill. And oddly, it’s the lean and elegant that are most at risk.

I’m not talking about steel-and-glass spires that climb to 60-plus storeys, I’m talking about the friendly neighbourhood building that can be anywhere from four to seven levels. You know, the one with the shop or restaurant at street level, the offices above and maybe a few apartments on top. These buildings look innocent enough, also abundant, but they’ve now become prized targets for developers and are fast moving onto architecture’s endangered list.

Tour London and you’ll see a plague of new, bland blocks that have taken the place of what were once diverse streets dotted with various façades and mixed rooflines. In their place are monotonous walls of sheet glass, lobbies filled with dreadful art installations and those ridiculous turnstiles that are supposed to deter terrorists and monitor cigarette breaks. And then there are shops and services that look generally as uninviting as every interior, be it sandwich shop or nail bar, that have turned into overlit showrooms. Gone are ledges and recessed entry ways, light and shadow, window boxes of flowers and places to perch to rest weary bones. Most importantly, gone is variety and punctuation. Instead, we’re left with razor-sharp walls devoid of personality, sharp breaks between pavement and forbidding walls of glass and no sense of transition between inside and out.

Developers will say that these hulking blocks are necessary because tenants all want sprawling floors – as if every potential occupant will be a brokerage house or running a newsroom. Architects will tell you that all the glass is there for one simple reason: it’s cheap. Much easier to put up 85 metres of glass flush with the pavement rather than add architectural detail. For sure, it’s cheaper for the developer but the cost to the tenants to maintain all that glazing can be staggering and for the passerby it’s just uninviting.

London, of course, is not alone – the eradication of small buildings in favour of sprawling blocks is occurring the world over. Melbourne, Vancouver, Düsseldorf and Helsinki – take your pick. Smart planning departments should be rushing through zoning laws to put a stop to such wanton destruction and instead encourage restoration and refits rather than knock-downs. Not only does this potentially keep rental costs down for tenants, it also allows neighbourhoods to maintain a sense of character and personality.

Next time you see an elegant, slender building on your local high street, perhaps pause and take a longer look – its destruction may well be shrouded from view next time you pass.

Tyler Brûlé is editor in chief of Monocle.

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