Politicians come and go (or not in this case) but, as a practising architect, I thought the destruction of the GLC was an act of vandalism. Unfortunately, that great institution is not remembered as being a hugely enlightened client (which it was: witness any 1920s fire station) but for its black lesbian disabled co-ops. The idea of such things seemed far more outrageous then than they would now, but the most important aspect of the GLC was that it treated London as a special place (which it is).
Can a new mayor repair any of the damage caused by the dissolution of the GLC’s responsibilities among the 32 boroughs, an arrangement that obviously fails to reflect the nature of the city as a whole?
The GLC used to deal with all of London’s listed buildings. The people who worked on historic buildings knew what they were talking about. You would deal with a professional person who usually understood the issues better than you did. As officers were employed by an organisation with an overview of the whole of London, they had a better understanding of the relative quality of the buildings under discussion – building contractors could not understand how the schoolmasterly queens who pitched up on site with their tweedy trousers tucked into their socks on ancient bicycles with chain guards could wield the authority they did.
Now that the responsibility for most listed buildings has devolved to the boroughs, one’s chances of dealing with an officer of genuine academic understanding are much reduced.
This is a serious problem, given that the conservation versus development struggle is taking place in an old city, yet none of the candidates seem aware of it.
It is now not unusual to be dictated to by a local authority minion who is unable even to put components of the building in chronological order. If you try to explain that the window you want to alter is not an original but a 1969 Boulton and Paul multibar with spiral balances, they immediately reach for the borough’s guidelines which say KEEP IT WHATEVER IT IS. This can make life extraordinarily difficult for design professionals and their clients.
As a practising architect, I thought the destruction of the GLC was an act of wilful vandalism
The same attitude applies to building control. Although the GLC used to run the district surveyor’s departments on a borough-by-borough basis, it was still a huge repository of experience relating to the construction legacy of the biggest city in Europe.
District surveyors were usually trained structural engineers with whom you could negotiate. Many of the building control officers who took over were formerly drainage inspectors. They may have known everything there was to know about barron bends, but they knew bugger-all about foundations.
“The book says you’ve got to dig at least a metre down,” they would say, looking into a trench 300 mm deep exposing solid rock. “Tell me when you’ve done it.”
The advice one received used to be based on actual experience, as opposed to the rule book. This attitude may not make much difference to the Fosters and BDPs of this world, but to those of us earning a living amid the collapsing 19th-century building stock it means the difference between 20 minutes of amicable negotiation on site and 10 hours of writing chapter-and-verse letters in the office.
It is the same with fire. In the days of the GLC, you just had to make an appointment for an informal visit to go down to Middlesex House where extremely helpful professional fire officers would guide you though the regulations and suggest waivers. Not only that, they had drawers full of accurate drawings of buildings all over London, which were an invaluable help in cross-referencing.
Today, you can only get to the now-fragmented brigade through building control departments and you have to deal with all 32 levels of experience that will present themselves there.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.