The illiteracy of uses

Long ago, before Brick Lane became internationally-renowned home of the ironic haircut, I attended a meeting between the Mayor of London and protestors from the Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) pressure group. With the protestors, who were seeking to preserve the former wholesale market on the edge of the City of London, was florid architect Will Alsop.

They had asked Will along, they said, to demonstrate how new commercial development could co-exist with, rather than destroying, the courtyard of 19th and 20th Century buildings, by then enclosing an \’alternative\’ market, selling everything from vintage clothing, to dream-catchers, to decommissioned pub signs. With a straight face, Alsop unfurled his plans. Over the nondescript market buildings towered a monstrous blob on stilts. One of the bien-pensant SMUTters coughed nervously, and explained that this proposal wasn\’t necessarily what they were actually proposing.

Straight face aside, I wondered whether Alsop was making a wry comment about the confusion of buildings and uses in the UK planning system. What the SMUTters wanted to preserve, I sensed, was not so much the decent but nondescript market buildings, but the marginal market uses that they accommodated, a messy bulwark against bland City expansionism.

But our planning system\’s \’use classes\’ are a blunt instrument: retail is retail, and drinking establishments are drinking establishments. Planners cannot discriminate, so protestors are forced to rely on heritage arguments, in order to defend the unique and particular against the homogenous and generic. They make claims for buildings, when what they are actually talking about is character – fleeting, intangible and easly destroyed. Spitalfields Market is now redeveloped (Smithfield is the new front); while many of the market buildings were saved, and a few token market stalls remains, they feel as forlorn and denatured as in a suburban megamall.

Reading this week about the Parisian proposal to designate streets and shops for specific uses (eg, as bookshops, bakeries, butchers or tabacs), I started to wonder we could imitate the initiative. Perhaps individual shop units could be designated for \’slightly funky coffee shop not owned by Seattle-based leviathans\’, \’old-fashioned hardware store where you can buy nails by weight in paper bags\’ or \’butchers with organic meats and straw boaters\’.

This type of positive discrimination is what the great estates can do; it\’s what Howard de Walden have sought to do (with some sucess) in Marylebone High Street. But this power seems unlikely to be granted to town halls even in our brave new world. It may be irreproachably conservative, and trendily localist, but it would be a heretical denial of free market ideology.

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