Before I went to the University of Essex to study sociology, I was working in the City of London as a very junior member of a prestigious firm of stockbrokers during 1973 and 1974. This was a period of rapid redevelopment within the Square Mile, when gracious 19th century buildings were being torn down and replaced by brutalist constructions of concrete and glass. Some, like the Nat West building were already displaying the sleek elegance we would later see transforming Canary Wharf but regrettably, most were like the unlamented Stock Exchange tower on Broad Street, massive, dull and ugly.
When I started work on the tenth-floor of the building in July 1973 it dominated the skyline, giving a panoramic view in all directions. Most impressive was the view across the river, to the Bankside power station (now the Tate Modern) that belched smoke into the already polluted air.
I was not cut out for working in the financial services industry which was at that time dominated by ex-Guards officers and snooty ex-public school boys who thought the world owed them a living. This was of course pre “big-bang”, when computers took over the trading floor and the “Old Boys” were ousted by computer geeks. I would long for lunchtime, when I could disappear from my desk and enjoy what I considered the biggest perk of the job, walking around the architecturally magnificent City of London.
Within spitting distance of where I worked were places with wonderful names like Austin Friars and Telegraph street. Some of these have survived redevelopment but others like Angel Court have not. Gone are the fine stone frontages with their Portland stone architraves and fluted pillars. In their stead stands yet another phallus of stone-clad concrete. What a shame.
At that time, the City of London wasn’t just a place of banks and insurance companies, there were small businesses dotted between the offices. Places like the long-gone Jon Ash Books, where I bought antiquarian books on Victorian sports and back-copies of Punch from the 1860’s, pubs down dark alleys like The Ship Tavern on Lime Street that was home of Laing and Cruickshank’s darts team.
I remember people saying that these modern developers had wrought more damage to the fabric of the city than the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. They were right as well, as I watched fine old buildings and whole city blocks crumble into dust. Now it appears I am to witness the same thing all over again.
Baku is an oil-rich boom town, that is leaping in one bound from the 19th century into the 21st. Years of neglect towards the built environment meant that although there are some grand pieces of model Soviet architecture from the 1920’s until the mid 1980’s, the fabric of the city remained virtually untouched since the early years of the 20th century. Had Baku been in the so called free-west during this period, there would have been an ongoing process of urban renewal, that would have given the city center a “patchwork” feel. That was not the case here and as such, you progress from a medieval “old city” through a ring of mainly Victorian buildings to a sprawl of 1950’s and 60’s Soviet apartment blocks.
Now there is money in the kitty and Baku wants to catch up. That means the replacement of whole areas of buildings from the last oil-boom with constructions from the current oil-boom. Seemingly overnight, Victorian terraces disappear to be replaced by huge apartment blocks and fancy hotels.
Some like the astonishing “flame” towers and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center are at the cutting edge of technology, twisting into the air or curving back on themselves like CGI constructions seen in science fiction movies. Other however like the new Four Seasons Hotel are throwbacks to a previous time and are full of classical allusions. Indeed, some buildings are built in such a convincing vernacular style, that I think architectural historians would have difficulty telling them from original constructions built in the 1890’s.
I really like good, contemporary design and am daily astonished by the changes I see around me but am concerned that as in London during the 1970’s, we will lose an irreplaceable architectural heritage that will change the city forever.