Lewisham: Barbed wire and roses

Owen Hatherley, a young writer who never saw a failed brutalist post-war estate he didn't live in but couldn’t nonetheless get nostalgic about, has been to Lewisham and written an assessment for The Architectural Review of the new developments taking shape. He is not impressed.

Lots of people have sent me his article, which has been passed around on social media by self-flagellating locals. So let's take a look at whether the criticisms are fair. He writes:

"In promotional images, it combines the rectitude of the ‘New London Vernacular’ with the soaring, ‘aspirational’ world of roof terraces and floor-to-ceiling views of the City skyline. Yet in Robert Clayton’s photographs, taken on the street, it looks a townscape disaster of aggressive fences and stark architecture."

To be sure, Clayton has rooted around the back of some of the buildings and found a couple of shots of unlovely walls and fences - two of which protect the fully-functioning railway track just behind them. He has also pointed his camera at some bin bags strewn around one of the local streets. That the offending street is Victorian and clearly some distance from the development being discussed, does not stop it being used as a ponderous metaphor. He goes on:

"It makes an interesting contrast to, say, King’s Cross Central – there, a long-running project was finished by serious architects working for developers held under pressure from local authorities and campaigners to unusually high standards, befitting the entry into London on the Eurostar. The entry into Lewisham is another matter."

Kings Cross, one of the biggest, best and most ambitious regeneration projects in Europe, is a high bar to set for a relatively modest development next to a zone 2 commuter station. The entire Lewisham Gateway site could be comfortably swallowed up by St Pancras station alone. He turns first to the Renaissance development by Barratt (full disclosure, a client of my employer's):

"What is clear on the ground is how pitiful the public space is. A wedge of asphalt with a sad little kids’ playground, fiercely gated in; a door inset into a blue-grey barcode facade with the sign ‘Danger: 11,000 Volts’; the ubiquitous granite setts; metal gates enclosing giant pot plants; three layers of fences between some flats and the street, planted with creepers in the hope we won’t notice."

He's referring of course to the pocket playground, set between two of the buildings. It's certainly not a place grown-ups want to linger, but it has entertained my kids plenty of times. More importantly, on the other side of the building is a large green space (complete with another, much bigger, playground) that serves as the centrepiece for this area. Facing on to this square are a newly-expanded school, a tranquil stretch of riverside, new social housing and Renaissance itself. As ever, it's what the writer doesn't tell you that's most important.

"Just behind Renaissance SE13, past a still extant retail park with Poundland, Matalan and Sports Direct, is another cluster, this time divided between two clients – housing association Family Mosaic, and American student housing developer Chapter... the [Mosaic] development is darkened by the canyon-like effect of tall blocks looming over a narrow service road, something avoided by postwar council estates, what with their green space and carefully arranged orientation to the sun."

The Loampit Vale approach and the buildings themselves are undeniably dark and the plastic-silver finish is not to my tastes, but post-war council estates (sometimes) avoided the canyon effect by building over huge, bombed-out sites, bulldozing any communities that got in their way. This development was a bit of opportunism, whose only victim was some trading estate.

"The last part is so far unfinished – the towers of Lewisham Gateway, by PRP Architects in the tripartite Vernacular style, with penthouses on the top. And that’s it – that there is the new centre of Lewisham, and that is what we’re meant to want a lot more of."

No, that isn't it. The 'new centre' hasn't even begun to emerge from the location of the roundabout, which carved the area in two. None of the new buildings being erected are intended to serve as the new centre, they are meant to act as a bridge between the station and the traditional centre, which has been in long-term decline.

The towers springing up by the station are, in my view, particularly handsome and they will sit on top of what we must hope will be some decent public space. When Lewisham Gateway is finished there is more to come. We won't be able fairly to judge the new Lewisham for years.

"Some of it – the park, at least – is passable, and it’s easy to say it’s ‘better’ than the sheds that were there before. But it makes very clear three things. First, is that the result of a numbers game is always going to be grim, with any sort of attempt at character and liveliness being fairly irrelevant."

But it is a numbers game and we have to admit that. We have huge targets to hit, simply to keep up with London's booming population. The article acknowledges and downplays this brutal fact at the same time. The Council evidently is trying to build character and liveliness into Lewisham, but to get liveliness you need people - and that's what the housing will bring. The most lively parts of Lewisham are those that owe least to the planners - the street market and Model Market. They work because they have customers. They are the product of a numbers game.

"Second, expecting that ‘more’ will mean any help for anyone other than the already affluent, is optimistic. Here, council housing was actively erased from the site, and for all the involvement of the housing associations, this place will not even make the tiniest dent in Lewisham’s council waiting list."

Lewisham is an area of high deprivation. The new schemes are a well-balanced mix.

"Third, the new vernacular, so long as it coexists with a developer-driven urbanism which sees spaciousness as so much wasted, unrentable space, means little more than politesse curtain-walled over plutocracy. If the New Lewisham is anything to go by, New London will consist of high-security, high-rise dormitories, built right into the inner city."

It is clear Hatherley wishes he'd managed to find something that he could call a poor door, but in the absence of that he will settle for loosely implying social segregation. The charge is unfounded. As for the "dormitory" label, where should we put housing if not within easy reach by public transport of two of the biggest jobs markets in the world - the City and Canary Wharf?

It's not hard to focus your camera at every overturned wheelie bin or water-stained wall and make the facts fit a pre-determined political narrative. But on a walk through Lewisham on a sunny day, my camera saw kids playing, yoga classes decanting from the gym and people having fun. No filter.

A photo posted by Nick Barron (@nickbarronldn) on

A photo posted by Nick Barron (@nickbarronldn) on