Dereliction of duty

There is not a lot that connects my mum and Cedric Price – architecture’s best lateral thinker for nigh on 40 years – though just for a passing, fantastical moment, the idea of the brilliant and disorderly Price as a dad is a beguiling one. The only link is to do with the concept of dereliction. What’s wrong with it?

This mental connection spans 20 years. Round about 1979 – I can’t be precise about the date – I was at the launch of the London Docklands Development Corporation. Its then chairman, the now comprehensively forgotten Nigel Broackes, waxed lyrical about the beauty of the derelict Isle of Dogs (he was right, it was a magic kingdom where horses roamed, strange little communities lived in rotting boats, and Bob Hoskins was about to film The Long Good Friday). Broackes then told us about all the visionary new developments he was going to build there – which in those pre-Canary Wharf days seemed to consist mostly of tin sheds and cod-vernacular housing.

Up jumped Price at the back of the hall. If the Isle of Dogs was so lovely in its derelict state, he inquired, then why not leave it that way? Why the strange compulsion to redevelop it? Broackes treated Price as a politician treats an awkward heckler – which is to say, with condescension, and without answering the question. But Price made a good point. Usually, the answer to that question is that the land has a value, and that somebody must therefore maximise its potential.

Today, people might argue that London Docklands is a marvellous “brownfield” site where loads of homes can be built rather than in the countryside. But at the time, London Docklands actually had a negative land value, while pressure to build new houses was weak. Enormous tax breaks were necessary to persuade anyone to build anything there at all. It could well have remained beautifully and fruitfully derelict for 20 years, by which time someone might well have come up with a less hasty urban plan to put up some buildings that were slightly less nasty. The taxpayer would have been saved lots of money. But what’s all of this got to do with my mum?

Last weekend, I went to look at where her last house had stood. It and her neighbour’s house – both architect-designed and professionally landscaped in 1959 – have just been demolished. Various bulldozers and diggers stand around the site, which is now scraped into a different gradient and almost unrecognisable. As this was the place I grew up in, I have an interest. What I think about is all the personal energy embodied there. The energy that went into playing there as a child, the effort of maintaining the garden, painting and patching the house’s woodwork, stopping the gutters leaking, repairing the heating system – the usual stuff. And then the emotional investment.

Anyhow, mum and her neighbour chose to sell up, since the houses and their gardens were too high-maintenance for two elderly widows. They moved to smaller houses and a developer bought the site. Now there is a sign up advertising the seven “Regency-style” homes that are to be built where there used to be two modern homes with lots of land around them. Like Price, I begin to see the virtues of dereliction.

Whereas there is no ignoring the redevelopment value of a prime housing plot in the Home Counties in 1999, I still can’t understand why abandoned places with little or no value have to be flattened, incurring great expense. Apparently, certain parts of the north of England are depopulating so fast in the population shift southwards that whole streets have to be demolished. Why, exactly? Similarly, when I was at university in the North-east, I saw whole pit villages being systematically razed as their populations dwindled. I didn’t understand the reasoning then, either. Abandonment, I still think, has a lyrical quality.

With my mum and Price occupying my thoughts, I gave a rather dusty answer to a courteous Dublin-based developer who recently asked me to write up (favourably, you understand) his redevelopment scheme in Dublin’s docklands. His is one of a clutch of gargantuan, American-designed schemes of mind-numbing banality proposed there. Ireland is in the tenth year of an economic boom, they want to build stacks more offices, but they’ve just noticed that nothing much of any economic gain is happening down in the docks. I like those empty docks.

Most certainly not, I replied to the idea of writing a richly-paid encomium to his horrible scheme. Why not, he asked? Well, I replied, I remember the Isle of Dogs in 1979. Had he considered the alternative strategy of continuing dereliction?

Reader, he had not. Neither had the city council. No surprises there, then. No lessons learned, either.

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