Peter St John

Holloway Road may be rough and ugly but it repays closer acquaintance


First published in AT75, 1997

Someone once told me that to look hard and long at what you’re doing, it helps to rest and look out of the window occasionally… to a background. I’ve always liked spending as much time as I can gazing out of windows – whether of houses or offices, cars or trains – and dreaming.

That’s what I like about London. It’s almost all background. With no grand urban form and no picturesque topographical features, its fabric is the particularity of everyone else’s daily life. Every frame of the film from the window is a particular piece of time, without the beginning or the end.

The bulk of London is housing, and in few cities is housing so consistently distributed across the centre and around its institutions. The predominance of speculative terrace housing with gardens has meant that the city is low to the ground and shoulder-to-shoulder. And yet there is every type of housing. A tower block is like a terrace on end and in both types a home is a repeated piece of a large building the scale of which, when put close to other buildings, is always metropolitan. Everyone sleeps to the sound of fast traffic on a through-route a few blocks away.

To analyse London too much feels unnatural because its urbanism is anti-plan. Its condition reflects complex patterns of ownership and private actions, where neither crown nor state has ever held too strong a sway. Wandering through the city one can imagine a past landscape of fields, streams and tracks whose geography has determined an urban fabric in which you can never see far down a street, and the buildings change regularly. In diversity there is tolerance and my favourite pieces of the city are those in which change is visible and the ongoing negotiation between new and old is most extreme. Between the Angel Islington and London Wall, on my cycle route to work, there is dense public and private housing of every scale from the past 200 years. Sometimes the buildings face the street, sometimes they’re freestanding, but often you have an unintended, informal view of them. Seen together, the street has an unimaginable formal diversity. In this openness is space for architects to breathe.

Some people would laugh if you described my neighbourhood, Holloway Road in north London, as a university town. Yet it contains most of the faculties of one of London’s largest universities interspersed between commercial and public buildings, and a residential population to match that of a small city. There are parks and churches, factories and warehouses. But unusually for a town, they all front onto the main road, stretched out in a jumbled row, with no precedence given to any of them.

The road is wide, too rough and ugly to be described as a high street, but with useful shops. Its width and length give the road an epic quality with fast traffic, broad pavements and a fantastic variety of commercial uses. The dimension of the road and the slightly windy environment gives an air of slackness to many of the shops. Extremely peculiar window displays catch the imagination – some of them haven’t changed in the ten years I have known them. Everyone’s favourite is the bespoke shoemaker’s, which has a single red-sequinned high boot in the window, bending at the knee. Each time you pass it you can speculate on who asked for it to be made.

Although the mood varies, combinations of these crude characteristics give identity to most of London’s neighbourhoods, each of them accessible one from the other by Tube. This lack of a single centre is the best characteristic of the city. To benefit Londoners rather than tourists, architects of influence should spend more time thinking about London’s neighbourhoods and less about cultural centralisation.

I like the humming sound of the double-decker buses on the road and the way they lean impossibly over the pavements at the stops, bringing their front doorsteps right to you. Opposite the Hope workers’ cafe, an owner has cut a four-storey reinforced concrete warehouse building in two, taken away half, and is now building a metal facade on the exposed face. Out of the window of the cafe I watch the red buses go by and wonder why architects don’t make such extraordinary acts, when the city around them shows such imagination.


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