Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Decision: London should not try to be perfect
London is an old city, that continues to succeed because of its constant reinvention. It has developed as an adhoc patchwork of buildings and spaces - formal and informal, rich and poor, speculative and prescriptive, big and small, restored and renewed.

It has been designed through evolution rather than revolution.

The 1666 Fire of London destroyed 60% of the City of London. Almost instantly three plans for a perfect future were drawn up by Christopher Wren and others. The cost and time predicted to build these ideal citys-in-waiting ensured that they were largely ignored. Instead the businesses and lives where largely rebuilt on the basis of the existing property boundaries. Despite this, a French visitor at the time commented, “At three years end near upon ten thousand houses were raised up again from their ashes, with great improvements – a full and glorious restoration of the city”.

This congestion of difference is what fuels London’s social, economic and cultural vivacity. It shapes culture and it shapes change. It is also the source of many of its problems. It demands ingenuity. The foreword to the 1943 County of London Plan lamented the missed opportunity of not following the Wren plan, suggesting that post-war rebuilding was the next opportunity not to be missed. “We can have the London we want; the London that people will come from the four corners of the world to see; if only we determine that we will have it”.

15.2 million tourists visited London last year but I think it is the fantastic, eclectic experience of the city, rather than its image, that everyone comes to visit. You can make your own path through the plan-less patchwork. It is individual buildings and spaces that define your narrative, and your own city.

A different city for everyone.

BUT CHANGE IS COMING

Current proposals for tower developments on constrained sites seem more compatible with the evolution of the past - where land owners make the most of what they have got and what they can get away with. New developments coming up - Thames Gateway, Stratford City, Elephant & Castle, Kings Cross - are typically planned in a different way.

Will it be possible for London and Londoner’s to grow into these new bits of city?

Fundamental to the evolution of the city is the ability for it to slowly change. Darwin’s fortune ensures the worst mistakes we make now can be edited out in the future, without starting from scratch.

LEARNING FROM THE 1960’s

AOC are currently working with difficult bits of the large scale revolution planning of the 1960’s – on housing estates in Elephant and Castle and Peckham. When built these new bits of the city were new ideas - well planned, formally progressive, socially aware and generous investments in London. However within thirty years they had failed, and it took another fifteen to find the funding to replace them. They could not be edited.

FUTURE CITY

You can’t help but imagine for a better future, but we should be aware that our imaginations and intentions will be, at best, only partly right.

The future always changes.

Our future city should be shaped and sized to have the same capacity to edit itself through use.

Like the streets of Victorian or Georgian terraces that have adapted to cope with social change.

Like the reinvigoration and extension of the suburban semi-detached home over the last fifty years.

Even the set pieces of the city are not set. Nash’s ceremonial promenade down Regent Street has been carefully built twice since its conception in 1811 to meet the shifting needs of London (1927 and 2000). London has the tenacity to absorb variety and difference - more so than we give it credit for. The older streets of the square mile, like Cornhill, are packed with offices on top of banks, next to shops, by the church, with a pub and a cafe down the alleyway beside.

Our masterplans should provide the groundwork for the same tenacity.

We should be making opportunities for future radical evolutions rather than trying to predict a perfect stasis.
   
Published by Tom Coward
Notes from a speech presented at Debate London, Tate Modern Turbine Hall
23 June, 2007