Saturday, 26 January 2013

Snow business...

Epping Forest, just a week ago, turned into a version of winter wonderland with every tree delicately piled high with snow, each little twig defined by its own crisp line of snow - and the open grassy meadows turned into an expanse of pure white. The Forest is managed, for strange historical reasons, not as part of Essex but by the City of London, so in a way it's a part of London. There aren't many hills but this little one is convenient for the pub car park next to the Queen Elizabeth hunting lodge, and it seemed to be the popular place to go sledging. In Wales, apparently, there was panic buying with supermarket shelves stripped bare for an emergency that didn't quite happen, but here - apart from a few school snow days - it's just a rare bit of winter excitement.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Fitzrovia reloaded

One minute the hoardings seem to have been there forever, then suddenly there are six tower cranes and some very substantial concrete shafts soaring skywards. This is the long-empty Middlesex Hospital site and development is powering ahead. Naturally this is not popular with local businesses and residents. Never mind the encouraging images of red telephone boxes and other heritage paraphernalia on those hoardings: you don't even have to look up the plans to know what it's going to be like. The giant stair cores say it all. It isn't going to be anything you would want to find in the wonderful and historic narrow streets of Fitzrovia, not refined small-scale buildings with unique businesses, art galleries and coffee shops and useful stuff that's been there forever. Inevitably, it will be just like all the other big developments, like the glass slabs of Triton Place on the Euston Road or the orange and green bulk of St Giles Place for example. There will be huge anonymous office buildings let out by the thousand square metres, flats that will be bought as an investment, and some other stuff tacked on. Of course there will be some supposedly public space and some grudging proportion of so-called affordable housing, probably even some coffee shops and a token art gallery, but it's also going to be big and unfriendly and contribute nothing very positive to the character of the area, apart from not being left derelict any longer. The public space will not of course be managed by the council, as a truly public space would be - it will be privately owned and policed by private security guards.

Back in 2011, Fitzrovia News reported breathlessly 'there is an emerging cultural shift where a wave of anti-consumerism has now penetrated mainstream thinking about cities'. That was before the friendlier version, which did have something to offer the local community, was ditched in favour of the maximum return for outlay model. Going up...

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Retro chic

Looking up at the unusually decorative ceiling at the branch of Byron in Rathbone Place, once a pub, now a reasonably good burger restaurant. A nice mixture of Victorian decoration with modern lighting and air conditioning, currently the conventional pattern for these places. You have to wonder what all those fashionable shops and bars would look like without the endless legacy of Victorian detail as a backdrop. You don't have to look any further than AllSaints Spitalfields, down the road in Regent Street, to find one answer to that. It's a chain and every store has the same interior design aesthetic: apart from snapping up every vintage sewing machine on the market, they have a severe industrial look. Walls are stripped down to messy bare brick encrusted with limescale, with old iron safes and various big chunks of iron held together with rivets embedded in the walls. Amazing what you find when you rip out the plasterboard and suspended ceilings? But even in modern shopping malls the look is the same. Just walk up to one of the brick walls and tap it with a fingernail. It's hollow, probably fibreglass. The same goes with the riveted iron, it's just MDF expertly painted. The sewing machines are real, and so are the bits of old machinery imaginatively made into display stands. Those decaying Victorian buildings, though, are just a theatrical backdrop.