Saturday, January 28, 2012

Somerset House

Today we had a few hours to kill before getting ready for our party, so we walked down from Fleet Street to the Strand, and visited Somerset House.

There's a couple of very interesting exhibitions there right now. First we went to the black-bin-bag-clad Forgotten Spaces, which displays various ideas for regenerating spaces around London, turning unused or unlovely areas into things that would be good for the people around them again. There's a plan to build a microbrewery on the corner of Loughborough Junction, a cafe under Hungerford Bridge, and over a hundred other ideas to reuse spaces that have fallen into disuse, or were never anything more than dumping grounds at the edge of industrial expansion.

It's really uplifting to see the amount of creativity there. Rather than thinking we can solve our woes by constructing enormous phallic symbols like the Gherkin or the Shard, these projects all concentrate on creating small, achievable things that would make life more pleasant. Clapham High Street is a minor hell of fried chicken outlets and traffic; wouldn't it be improved by a subterreanean climbing wall?

At the same time, when I saw a project for Hackney Marshes to ameliorate the impact of the Olympics on community facilities, I was annoyed. When the Olympic project began, they demolished various communal facilities in order to build places for high-end sport, unlikely to be used much by locals. The promise was that afterwards, these white elephants would be accompanied by things usable by normal people as well as world class athletes, but with the economic crunch from 2008 and onward, that goal has apparently fallen by the wayside.

The legacy of 2012 will be that we demolished people's heritage to construct a velodrome that few residents of London will ever use, on top of the Eastway cycle circuit that was something for everyone. I suppose the Eastway track wasn't something that could display big corporate logos in the way that a shiny new building could. I still think that if you'd realised part way through that there wasn't enough money for everything, you'd concentrate on things that were useful for Londoners, not part of some dick-swinging exercise for a few politicians to show off about. But I suppose the IOC would have built some watertight contracts so the UK couldn't stop building white elephants just because it didn't make sense.

Perhaps we really do want some nice, Stalinist architecture, on a scale with the "Hello, we have no personality but we do have a really big open concrete space" Olympic stadium in Beijing. A shame we don't think of more things like Forgotten Spaces, and less of ways to shove concrete up in the sky.

After working myself up about that, we went to Frontline: A Year of Journalism and Conflict.

Sponsored by Sky News, it gave the impression that Sky was the only news organisation to cover the London riots or the Arab Spring. I suppose News International has to do something to improve its image after last year. Well, something apart from Rupert Murdoch's wife punching a pie-flinging bloke in the face.

It's still impressive to see a journalist brave or daft enough to film a gang of youths wrecking the shops around Clapham Junction. I was away getting married during the Great Riot of London so I'd never appreciated the scale of violence and idiocy that went on. Some things I found a bit off. I don't think it illustrates much to ask some teenagers why they're riotting and have them say because they wanted to; teenagers aren't paragons of morality or intelligent thought more than anyone else, so we shouldn't act shocked when they nick a widescreen TV "because they can".

Between that and the man using 'riot' in an innovative new way ("we're going to riot you back!"), and some coppers rather ineptly beating a youth with a truncheon (it takes five men in body armour to subdue one teenager in a tracksuit, which suggests that a productivity gap in policing is going to be a key problem in the UK's future) I felt a bit embarrassed for the country I came from. I wonder if all those Forgotten Spaces projects would reduce the feelings of rage across London to prevent future riots.

Or perhaps they were trying to commemorate my wedding, and misunderstood me saying it was going to be a riot and we'd all get on like a house on fire.

What, me, egocentric? I'm just in tune with the mood of the nation...


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