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Peter Cook: Peter Cook wonders whether we need downtown. Wake up and smell the curry.

A working summer that has seen contrasting views outside the window: from funky market stalls pitting their wits against the showers in Exmouth Market (London) to early morning mists on Venice Beach (Los Angeles) that always seem to give way to sunshine. Yet for heavy business one switches into very different territories: Olympic Games conversations will increasingly take place against the backdrop of London's Canary Wharf and the summer lectures that had brought me over were at SCI-Arc, on the edge of downtown LA.


Must my two favourite cities to be enjoyed or only tolerated? My two favourite cities coercing increasing numbers of people to be rational about space occupancy, health and safety standards, packed lunches (a pet hate), breakout spaces and poor attempts by a few individuals to hold their own against the creeping orthodoxy of downtowns, with a funny hat here and a hand-made sandwich there. A 'themed' diner here and a fragment of Will Alsop, Ron Arad, Ed Ruscha or Randall Wilson there. Wit and individuality permitted as a reminder of things past: just like Queen Victoria's statue in any old Midlands mill town.

When you step off the sidewalk (sorry, pavement) at Canary Wharf you instinctively look left for the traffic: it so resembles the office zone of St Louis/Cincinnati/Toronto/or wherever and contains the dumbest examples of the work of any of its contributory architects. By contrast, the old 'City' of London though it has several shockers, has the capability to contemplate a certain degree of personality in some of its buildings (a term that I am now offering as a more suggestive alternative to the overworked word 'iconic'). The Wharf meanwhile exudes that irritating combination of caution, blandness and avoidance of wit that surely echoes the business-speak that goes on within.


At least there's the rest of London where you're never far from something a bit daft--from any period. Similarly in Los Angeles you are very rarely far from something that still sustains the myth that in California you have the chance to live out a silly dream. I guess the equivalent of Exmouth Market might be the new strip of galleries dribbling out of old garages at the La Cienega tip of Culver City, but even the less trendy areas retain those clues of both successful and failed entrepreneurship or weird private lives. So it was that the Blue Whale (the Pacific Design Center) could, in the 1970s, set up its giant reflective mirror in which the ticky-tacky of West Hollywood could appear both picturesque and oddly heroic. No such luck in downtown: having celebrated the three special buildings of Gehry, Morphosis and Monco a year ago, I can only now report upon the lifelessness of the scene between. Can we really believe that the streets that are being progressively reclaimed from the down-and-outs will vibrate with bouncy boulevardiers and frisky flaneurs? California is the land of the patio, the fluffy drink up on the deck, so who wants to stride up a Chicagolike corridor? Unless some really imaginative rethinking of the 'lobby' typology could explode the dilemma, perhaps?

Some rethinking of the 'sidewalk' typology could explode it as well: hence the success of Santa Monica's Third Street with its kiosks and buskers and funny little pockets of action as well as its Apple Emporia. Hence the delight of Exmouth Market (p114), Charlotte Street, Old Compton, Marylebone Lane, Notting Hill Gate (stir according to taste).

How can we as architects--ideas people, city makers, manipulators (not only of space allocation and the tailored fit), coerce those guys in suits to get the message that real urbanism and its architectural handmaidenry can be so much the product of event, variety, social aspiration, ingenuity and real style. How can we draw their attention to the fact that the people in the queue for the sandwich and the elevator do suddenly march with their feet and head off to Wisbech or Sun City and whole companies do relocate.

I find myself increasingly thinking back to the Victorian or Edwardian era: not for pictorial models but with an increasing hunch that the entrepreneurs and the architects were often much more speculative.

We read of structures that went up for a few months--with the public squeaking and squealing with alternate dismay and delight in the background--as now. Yet it didn't put off the professionals on either side of the desk. So we get the daft canals of the Californian Venice or the Notting Hill racecourse with mud so soggy that the horses couldn't run: but in both cases bequeathing some pieces of original city with nooks and corners around them.

A bugle call then to remember the dynamic essence of the railyards of Los Angeles and docks of London and line them with things that do more with the human experience of everyday.

Of course, one cannot help having a further and perhaps more anarchic thought: why do we bother to re-create these downtowns at all? Perhaps the whole model was flawed? What's wrong with a continual quasi-suburbia with an odd high-rise here, an odd quirky museum/rock club/arists' co-operative/DIY shed there. A world where the coloratura soprano rehearses in the milk depot and the architect can smell the curry house on the floor below?


The deadline for entries for this year's Emerging Architecture Awards programme is Monday 10 September, so get weaving. And the AR has now left Clerkenwell for pastures new in Camden. Full details of the Awards and our new contact information can be found on
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Author:Cook, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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