Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Reading Copy

A young man, rudely naive then, was I 
Struck dumb in love with London. 
Neophyte, uncertain, painfully shy; 
Rough-hewn, obtuse, Australian.

In publishers’ offices we laboured
Ill-paid, in sub literary endeavour,
Harbouring wishes poignant, unfulfilled,
Plotting sly our restless forever.

In crumbling characterful houses I perched,
Penniless, rootless, weary of rented rooms,
Giddy, it may be, at enticements unmeasured:
Musicals, dramas, galleries, museums.

Sabbath devotions then were all idleness,
(The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Fair),
Where filed such votive book-worshippers 
As me: in bleak, unglamorous, Russell Square.

But as for the aesthete’s haughty rejection
Of all but unread, pristine, mint condition,
I demurred, and fell upon unseen treasures:
A Nonesuch Donne, a paperback Borges.

And thus I conceived there my love of England, 
With like-minded book people tolerant of me
When, poor as I was, I might weigh in my hand 
A first edition Voss - then and now: eternity.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Speech to GLA Hearing for LFWE, 10 October 2012

I am owner and creator of the English Restaurant (formerly Market Coffee House) on the corner of Brushfield and Crispin Streets, directly overlooking the Fruit and Wool Exchange Building. My wife and I have owned our listed building since 1994, restored it from a ruin, and lived in it upstairs with our three children since those times. I am a builder turned restaurateur and, by my reckoning, a plain-spoken conservationist.

The Fruit and Wool Exchange had been a magnificent building in its day, when the auction room was the centre of a nationwide industry. But since the closure of the wholesale markets it’s lost its key function, become muted and sad and, in the view of many, save for its handsome, in-context facade, and iconic public house, not widely admired. This is not a building which it is beholden on us to rescue, like Elder Street was, or Liverpool Street Station. If Spitalfields, on the fringe of the City, is to move forward and stay vibrant - potent, not atrophied - then an appropriate use for this site needs to be found.

It’s a big-footprint site. Taken together with the car park, and empty service road between, it is a truly vast site. There’s a great appetite for this type of modern office accommodation just now. Also there’s a demographic shift, as the City, and financial district, move east. No wonder the Mayor’s Office deemed this a ‘strategic’ site. With our quirky, Bohemian neighbourhood and traditional brick-built buildings, maybe we have something special to offer. Should we feel bad about attracting the brightest and the best? Of course not. We should be proud to play host to such high-quality tenants as have been mooted for this project. These companies recruit here in the East End, and help nourish our community. This is but the latest twist and turn in our centuries-old, ever-changing Spitalfields. We should not fear it.

We have seen a succession of schemes brought forward for this site, each of them pretty bleak and awful. Exemplar's early plans, presented in consultation exercises, were not at all to my liking. It seemed to me the architect, with his starkly contemporary design, was attempting something inappropriate in our historic built environment. I wrote to Tower Hamlets voicing these concerns. At that time I did not think I could ever be reconciled to the destruction of the Fruit and Wool. The plans were withdrawn and developer and architect went back to the drawing board. The opinions of me and others were sought and we expressed ourselves freely. One tends to be cynical about these consultations, but in this case they did appear to listen. The scheme did evolve and, by the end, had made much progress in meeting our objections. I was pleased that proposed elevations were now stepped, not uniform. We saw stone string courses, soft red brick, revised fenestration, and stone with hardwood joinery for retail at ground floor level. Here was an act of humility on the part of the architect. This at last was a design simple and intuitive, and sensitive to the context and texture of buildings it stands in relation to.

I like the retention - indeed enhancement - of the Brushfield Street facade, the public-space loggia formed behind it, the now-smaller retail units in a court yarded arcade within, the part-subsidised SME's, the broadly permeable ground floor. I don't like the loss of The Gun pub, that emblem of East End tradition, four generations in one family, but am heartened by the promise of its return. Distinguished elements of its interior (bird’s eye maple panelling, glass-panelled ceiling etc) must be conserved for eventual reinstatement. I shall miss the Fruit and Wool’s wide and rangy double staircase, with oak handrail as thick as a thigh. I don't much like the massing of the upper floors, but I do understand the economic truth that any scheme with some hope of getting built must deliver value to its sponsors. Is there a better design for this site? Almost certainly, yes. But that design is without a brief, and simply won’t get built. Of course we all mourn the streets of early Georgian terraces which the Fruit and Wool once swept away. But no amount of wishing will bring them back. Dorset Street is gone. All that remains today is its memory – no houses, no buildings. 

If this scheme should go through tonight, we should compliment ourselves, objectors and supporters all, on having extracted a far better design from the developers at the end of this long, wretched process. We should agree to set aside our differences, better to deal with what lies ahead. And we should unite to bear down on the detail of this new building to be certain that, within the parameters that are set, we get the best possible outcome we can.