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Look up! A fresh perspective on London

Q&A with architecture Insider Sophie Campbell

For many of us, daily routines mean that all too often we close our eyes to what’s around. When we walk to work, take the tube or grab a sandwich, we tend to do so without paying that much attention to the many extraordinary things that fill our spaces. Sophie Campbell, travel writer, journalist and one of our Insiders, has learned a lot about the city from the many years she’s spent traversing it on foot. We were pleased to sit down for a chat to find out a little more about the unnoticed corners of the capital. Sophie will give you a fresh perspective on London!

Sophie Campbell SideStory Insider

I’m sure that many of us experience the places we live differently to the places that we visit as tourists. Do you think that your experience of seeing a city changes depending on your relationship to it?

I think we can all relate to that. If you’re going to and from work you tend to have a channel, almost like a rat, that you go along every day and because it’s so familiar you don’t pay attention in the way you would if you’re seeing somewhere for the first time. One of the most pleasing things to me when I’m on an Experience is seeing people light up because they’ve noticed something for the first time, in spite of walking past it every day for years and years. I’m still coming across things in London all the time that I’ve never seen before and I’ve lived here for thirty years and I walk everywhere.

What’s changed for you over that period?

One of the things I always kick myself about is that having lived in London and started my career in the 80s, I never actually saw Fleet Street. I never heard the printing presses fire up in the late afternoon and it’s something you hear people talking about – people who lived and worked through it. It was just so tantalizingly close and yet it never occurred to me to go and see all that. I was in my early twenties and probably concerned more with socializing: you take from a city what you need at the time and at that time I was concerned with work and home and the journey between was really just a means to an end. It’s brilliant that as your outlook changes, your surroundings offer up different things too. Part of the joy of being a tourist in your own city is to break or dissolve those patterns and tendencies and start looking at things and places you might have walked past.

What’s the easiest way to break that habit of the ‘commuter blinkers’, if you will?

I still look up – I know looking up is the obvious one – and I take a lot of buses, actually. Just being at a slightly higher level gives you a completely different perspective. When my goddaughter was about six, I took her into London on the bus and she got slightly bored during the journey, so we started counting statues. We stopped at about 150 and that’s a good example of how easy it is to go past something a thousand times and never see it…

So, give or take, presumably that’s 150 subjects, which 150 sculptors thought was worth spending time creating…

… and people thought was worth commissioning! Sometimes these statues have got incredibly moving stories behind them – and sometimes they haven’t, but the fact that they’re adorning our streets and buildings in such numbers is amazing.

Architecture SideStory London

Do you think that’s a case of things being hidden in plain sight? That we get so used to statues being everywhere that we just stop looking?

I think Edwardian architecture in particular gets overlooked, although it’s one of the main things that has defined the look of London, particularly the West End and a lot of office buildings: they’re Edwardian, but nobody really talks about Edwardian architecture, it’s always about Victorian or Georgian or Deco.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s not as instantly appealing as any of those. Edwardian buildings are quite plain but they have this huge Imperial scale to them with all sorts of bombast – like Habsburg architecture – unlike the Victorians who seemed to spend a lot of money on detailing (like tiling and mosaics and stained glass and decoration) I think with the Edwardians you get much more of a sense of a business-like, commercial city. It’s not always pretty, but it is impressive.

I suppose a good example of this – although it’s a bit later, around 1920 – is the Port of London Authority Building where there are huge statues of Neptune (or Father Thames, whichever you prefer) and it’s all about muscle. Buildings like that are fascinating to look at and because they’re so huge and so high up those details aren’t always very easy to notice and the perspective is quite hard to fathom.

The trend of rooftop bars and high vantage points is easy to understand: you can see all of these design elements and get more of a sense of how it all fits together, something that is really quite hard to do at ground level.

London is very much the cumulative product of many years and many aesthetic styles isn’t it? It’s interesting to compare a city like London which has developed organically over the centuries with the cities which have been purposely designed, like Canberra.

Well yes, although I’m sure somewhere like Canberra is growing into itself now. London for me always has this sense that while there are development protocols, you kind of feel that there isn’t an all-seeing eye over the whole city.

One of the things I love about London is that however exasperated I get about the mess and the traffic and the fact that it never seems to be finished, it’s never boring. It’s like digging in a really old garden: you’ll get all these layers of history. It’s the same with London, quite literally: there are thousands of years of history under foot.

Architecture SideStory

Is it a little like the town-planning version of the adage ‘nature abhors a vacuum’?

Yes, I suppose the developers step in and a lot of money comes in from above. I’ve noticed that quite often the problem with top-down funding is that it ignores what makes a place belong to people: we often find people utilizing the most unlikely spaces because they need to and in doing so, they somehow release the life of that area.

A great example of that is on the South Bank. I think they’d say they’re pretty in touch with the zeitgeist there, but they made an error of judgment when they tried to close the area the skateboarders used. There was a big campaign, thousands of signatures, by people like me who were fans of the South Bank Centre but felt the skateboarders has a right to be there after thirty plus years

If you’ve ever passed it, you’ll know what I’m talking about: the skatepark was something that had evolved naturally, from the grassroots up because nobody wanted the undercroft of this big, ugly, 1970s Brutalist structure, so they started using it to skate. What I love about that complex is that it may not be pretty, but it really works in terms of human use: it’s always energetic, there’s always stuff going on, and partly that’s because the area had allowed these little pockets of space to be colonized.

It’s really important to have those old bits of nothing. In fact, as I get older I think that ‘nothing’ is the most important thing in a city. Having these spaces – from the bombed out buildings to the undercroft to Battersea Power Station – they’re all kind of like a big lung, which the city can fill with whatever it needs at any given time.

That’s what fascinates me about London: it’s this relationship between these huge buildings and the space around them, and quite often it’s the space that gives us the context and the character.

Sophie leads our Secret City Experience where you can get into the history and heart of the capital’s historic square mile.