When I moved to Bow ten years ago, I liked the fact that I was moving somewhere with a bit of character. Not a huge amount, nothing truly outstanding, but enough to reassure me I wasn't moving to a dull identikit suburb. Ten years on, as major housing projects infill here, there and everywhere, that character is slowly ebbing away. Shame, that.
I live in the heart of a 14th century village, not that you'd easily tell. The church is two months short of 700 years old, although now cut-off in the middle of a dual carriageway. In Victorian times the church used to be the nucleus of a thriving commercial community with shops, pubs and a theatre, but today people merely live here. The south side opposite the church was entirely wiped away in the 1930s by a development of austere council blocks, eradicating centuries of history. The north side retains some character and the occasional listed building, thank god, but the locale's a shadow of its former self. All of this I can cope with, none of the immediate area has changed substantially since I moved here. But step a short distance down the road, and the landscape is inexorably changing.
Take the western corner of the Bow Flyover roundabout for example. First they snuck a McDonalds drive-through on a patch of redundant wasteground, imposing a chunk of mid-Atlantic architecture (illuminated 24 hours). Then they worked out there was room for a 14 storey tower block, so they built that, in a boxy and rather uninteresting yet unavoidable way. And then the church nextdoor sold up, allowing developers to build a tower even more nondescript than the first, with fresh space for their congregation on the ground floor. That's nearly finished now and, although the old church was little more than an uninspired box, its replacement is much the same only harder to miss. There's nothing here now that couldn't be somewhere else - nothing memorable, only bland.
The Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road wrecked this neighbourhood in the 1960s. Whole streets were eradicated, a major roundabout and flyover constructed, and a chain of motley warehouses and businesses constructed alongside. Nothing lovely, unless you're a fan of galvanising plants, office blocks, transport cafes and biker hideaways. But a damned sight more interesting than what's lined up to replace it. Because 2011 is the year when the developers moved in to remove all traces of the late 20th century and replace it with the future. They've been demolishing a string of properties along Hancock Road - one day standing, the next a pile of broken masonry. Scaffolding's just gone up on the block that housed the greasy spoon ("Breakfasts, Lunches, Open 6am-pm") so I guess that can't be much longer for this world. A major regeneration is afoot, generating a 35 hectare "homezone" along the banks of the Lea. By my calculations only about a dozen homes will be lowrise townhouses, while all the other 680 dwellings will be in multi-storey blocks, with the tallest wall of steel and glass reserved for the aspect facing the main road. Massive, generic, worthy, commonplace.
A few hundred yards further down the A12, that's where Tesco Town is planned. You remember - Tesco want to build a new superstore by the river, then knock their old store down and build residential units by the road. They're throwing in a hotel, library and primary school for good measure, but only to maximise the proportion of local disposable income that shops here. There's not a hope of the project being complete for its original 2012 deadline, indeed there's very little forward movement at all. For now the old Tesco continues trading, and the old office block opposite Bromley-by-Bow station stands bereft and empty with its windows smashed, awaiting demolition. But one day the entire swathe of land from the railway line north to the flyover will be refreshed and rejuvenated, allowing thousands of new residents to live where currently only a scant hundred work. The future here, and in so many other parts of London, is piles of tiny boxes crammed onto the site of something that used to be more interesting.
I was in Woodbridge at the weekend, a delightful Suffolk market town whose heart has somehow avoided being ripped out by commercial interests [photo]. The High Street still winds in a too-narrow-for-traffic way, because nobody insisted they knocked the old shops down to make way for cars. A ring road bypasses the town centre without wrecking the outskirts. And the houses along Cumberland Street, well, I sighed with pleasure as I looked at them. A higgledy-piggledy collection of old cottages and Georgian terraces, of an enviable kind that nobody builds anything like any more. Instead we get eco-homes and piled-high apartment blocks, because in the future it's more important to build more than to build better. Obviously I can't equate historic East Anglian townscape to my inner-city patch. But when it comes to designing the buildings where Londoners get to live, economics dictate, and aesthetics come a poor second.
My neighbourhood's been changing fast, and it's about to change faster. St Andrew's Hospital beside Bromley-by-Bow station has almost completed its transformation into brick-pile Barratt tedium. Stratford High Street is rapidly turning into an incoherently designed highrise highway. Most of the old factories on the Sugarhouse Lane site are being demolished in readiness for their rebirth as yet another upstanding residential estate. Then post-2012 the development of the Olympic Park, just across the road, will vastly increase the acreage given over to relentless conformity. I understand the pressures that London's increasing population brings, and maybe it's good that the Lower Lea Valley is seeing a big share of that growth. But cramming thousands of people into architecturally suspect boxes, replacing interesting old with tedious new, risks turning my corner of Bow into Anywheresville. Alas, I doubt there's any force can stop it.