What went wrong with Covent Garden? 09.12.19

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The Covent Garden we know today is the direct result of successful community activism. So why is it so horrible, wonders Owen Hatherley

It is hard in Covent Garden to feel like you’re in a liberated territory, freed from developers by an alliance of concerned locals and ‘community architects’. There is probably no part of central London, outside the immediate vicinity of Buckingham Palace, that Londoners more commonly avoid.

The area has gradually become an overcrowded tourist trap, with its old alleys, warehouses and Georgian remnants full of nasty ‘heritage’ pubs, its former fruit and veg market selling vast quantities of expensive tat, and a variety of chain stores that you would expect to come across in Westfield. Yet almost all that you can see as you walk around it – literally everything except the already listed market and Inigo Jones’ Renaissance church – exists today as a result of a massive campaign of leafleting, squatting, lobbying and civil disobedience by the Covent Garden Community Association. This was once London’s showcase of ‘Community Architecture’. What does its transformation say about the legacy of that movement?

Read more: Do we all need to get closer to solve London's housing crisis?

Community Architecture was a creative response to the perceived failures of post-war big planning. The Greater London Council – then in Conservative hands – proposed at the turn of the 1970s to demolish much of the area as part of the transfer of the fruit, vegetable and flower markets to a new site in Battersea. The GLC did not intend, unlike in its projects in, say, the East End, to replace the demolished warehouses, Peabody Trust estates and houses with anything residential.

Covent Garden Piazza with London Transport Museum geograph.org.uk 215169A view over Covent Garden Piazza. Photo by David Hawgood / Covent Garden Piazza with London Transport Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0

Instead, a new office, arts and retail complex, designed in vaguely brutalist form, with a nice big road running underneath, was to be inserted. We’ll never know whether we missed a Central London Barbican or an early Canary Wharf, because the Community Association’s campaign was ultimately successful – partly because of a change at the top in the GLC’s architects department, many of whom were fervent supporters of the Community Association.

Among them was Brian Anson, an Architectural Association lecturer and founder of the short-lived Architects Revolutionary Council. Under the slogan ‘ARC IS COMMUNITY ARCHITECTURE’, its manifesto called on ‘architects and others involved in the built environment who believe that we should cease working for a rich powerful minority or the bureaucratic dictatorship of Central or Local governments and offer our services directly to local communities’, in order to join ‘an international movement towards community architecture’.

They declared: ‘We wish to create a situation where every time an architectural student passes a building like Centre Point he vows that he will never work in a practice that is involved in such obscenities. Whenever a student walks through a gentrified area where massive improvement grants have enabled landlords to evict longstanding tenants and raise the value of their property a hundredfold, he will vow never to work in firms that engage in such activities.’

So looking around Covent Garden, you would easily assume that it was the victim of yet another of London’s housing counter-revolutions.

Odhams Walk Covent Garden, a housing estate that is protected - ICONThe corner of Odhams Walk and the estate that is now protected. Photo by Amanda Slater via Flickr

That’s not entirely true. Of the CGCA’s demands, almost all were fulfilled – except one, with the market moving to Battersea and being filled with a naff gee-gaw emporium, ending the much-beloved cross-class collision of wholesale market and opera house. Not only was the demolition programme stopped, almost everything in the district was listed – an influential precedent of the total listing of a historic area, as opposed to the old GLC approach of listing monuments and replacing housing. There’s another example of their victory too, that is much closer to how we conventionally think of post-war housing – Odhams Walk, opened in 1979, a wonderful council estate, the GLC’s last, in a style that combines the futurist-casbah metaphors of Habitat 67 with the brick monumentality of the local warehouses.

Some indication of what really went wrong can be found in the fact that a Right to Buy flat in Odhams Walk recently sold for £1.3 million – the most expensive sale of a former council property (it was already surely the only council estate with a branch of French Connection). Aside from the Peabody flats and the community centres still provided by the CGCA, all is left to the market.

But the problem is wider. The sheer focus on this one small area is the reason why it became one of the dullest, most homogeneous and corporate places in London. All that investment was supposed to be ‘good for Covent Garden’. The area’s residents, with their protected council or housing association flats, weren’t forced out, though there was certainly no attempt to expand their social gains by building new council flats in the area, in a city that is desperate for social housing.

The point was not the city as a whole, but the community; not the metropolis, but the village. The problem with villages, pretty as they can be, is insularity – and boredom.

See more about London, gentrification and housing in the October 2019 issue, Icon 196

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