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Wednesday23 July 2014

LECTURE

Jonathan Meades & Will Alsop, The Free Word Centre in association the Little Atoms radio show Urban Renaissance?

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Jonathan Meades & Will Alsop

The Free Word Centre in association the Little Atoms radio show Urban Renaissance?

60 Farringdon Road, EC1

November 19

Cultural heavyweights, Jonathan Meades and Will Alsop faced each other at Farringdon’s Free Word Centre on Friday night to debate the extent and success of a British urban renaissance. They remained almost motionless, straining not at the leash but the girdle.

By comparison, bearded, bespectacled host and event organise, Neil Denny was polecat-thin and a blur of movement as he shuffled his papers, grinned into his lap and poured his guests water from a wine bottle, which they eyed sadly.

Denny did not stay on the swell of conversation but left the think-tankers, Meades and Alsop, to their wide conversational turning circles. When either came to his eventual halt, he asked few follow-ups, but many of the same questions he had used to sell the event.  Questions about the “Bilbao effect in Barnsley,” about PFI and New Labour style and about plans the coalition – a “government of the Shires” – had for our cities. The oeuvre and opinions of Alsop, meanwhile, had been comprehensively Googled.

In short, no one would have mistaken this for a nimble debate about regeneration and New Labour’s legacy. But there was much to be entertained by here, much of it about the built environment, some of it on-topic .

The guests generally agreed that little of quality had been built under New Labour and that the future would bear similarly bitter fruit. Meades, whose Left Bank looks have given way to those of a forlorn, uncuddly teddy bear, comes to this conclusion chiefly because he revels in the squalid and fetid. “I like sordid alleys,” he said. “There’s nothing that pleases me more than a horse shivering under a blanket surrounded by barbed wire in a muddy field near Heathrow.” He was never going to warm to the original Bilbao Guggenheim, a “3D logo” and the result of the “ETA-infested” authority bribing the New York-based museum. Although he claimed to have coined the term “Bilbao effect,” he denied that there had been an effect. He didn’t tell us why or outline its limitations. Anyway, he believes the effects of regeneration are “immeasurable.”

Alsop, meanwhile, decried the homogeneity of much architecture. Sweetly charming and sporting a bright orange watchstrap, he frequently touched our energetic host on the knee, leaning in to say that public space had been corrupted by designers and landscape architects. “You can find slate sleepers and revolting lighting right across the globe.” He also confided in him that National Curriculum-educated pupils in identical BSF classrooms “assembled from bits of accepted Cabe good practice” are being raised as accountants. The growing influence of the commercial and the waning ambition of local authorities would exacerbate the situation, he intoned.

So while Alsop and Meades agreed there was much mediocrity, the two varied on what – if anything – should replace it. Alsop clearly has no problem with grands projets provided he’s being paid to do them, but argued that the best regeneration takes place over 10 to 15 years, like Shanghai waterfront. Ideally, any new building would be germinated from ideas already existing in the community so “everyone is smiling”, such as happened with his Sharp Centre for Design, Ontario College of Art & Design.

In the odd instance where everything can’t be allowed to rot for his sensory amusement, Meades would commend Alain Juppé’s improvement of Bordeaux: “Loads and loads of small-scale interventions, trams and stone-cleaning and tiny, tiny bits of traffic management.” But he doesn’t think any British politician would be up for the required micro-management, anyway.

It was Meades who stole the show, with his polemical arguments, which had enough substance to be plausible: that contemporary modernism is just another iteration of post-modernism, that the Cotswolds is one of the most boring places in the country and that the current crop of northern urbanites has disrupted the natural order by choosing to stay in central yuppie flats rather than moving to the suburbs like their forebears.

Alsop, conversely, showed why he’s popular with clients. He paints a picture of unmitigated gloom while remaining utterly delightful and he suggest that there might, just might, be a better way: his.

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