Cities are ruthless with memory. Places loaded with personal histories disappear; neighborhoods transform into something familiar but less charged; venues of vividly remembered nights fade away.
For me, some of the most densely memory-loaded streets were around the perennially shabby Charing Cross Road. There were the guitar shops on Denmark Street – repositories of desire – a snooker club in a subway beneath Center Point, the dingy Marquee Club, the fading end of what had been London’s longest row of bookshops, including the chaotic Foyles and Collet’s with its mix of Marxism and music.
The last piece of that puzzle, the music shops, still manages to hang on. But otherwise the neighborhood has been murdered. A cocktail of Crossrail, economics, the internet and gentrification has crushed it into a cascade of corporate banality. The final insult is a gross, gold-tinted bauble dubbed – with full marketing honors – Outernet.
It is impossible to miss: seven storeys high and clad in glittery golden grilles framed in deathly black, an overblown funeral notice for the neighborhood. With a new 2,000-capacity live events venue, apartments, session rooms, restaurants and bars, Outernet is billed as “an immersive media and entertainment business boasting the world’s largest high-resolution wraparound screens”, confirming Guy Debord’s gloomiest predictions in which all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles ”. (The grilles can retract for the screens to be seen by passers-by.)
This was never a coherent piece of city. It was once the Rookery of St Giles, Hogarth’s Gin Lane, London’s worst slum. In 1814 it suffered a flood of beer when a brewery’s barrels burst, drowning residents in their dingy cellars.
The 1960s Center Point office building was an urban disaster, killing the city around it entirely, while the intelligence service’s anonymous buildings bled the area of atmosphere, eventually replaced by another kitsch monstrosity, Renzo Piano’s tutti-frutti-colored Central St Giles.
The first thing you now see emerging from Tottenham Court Road Tube station is Outernet’s executive-gift gold finish. What might have been intended to resemble a glamorous Art Deco cinema looks more like a nightclub in Reading.
Its architects, the usually reliable Orms, have overcooked it because, at heart, it is a real attempt to reinject live music into an atrophying scene. The owners, The Consolidated Group, have attempted to maintain the scale of Denmark Street and its music shops with covenants ensuring that tenants must be related to the music industry.
The density of pop history on Denmark Street is profound, from a wall featuring graffiti by The Sex Pistols (who recorded and lived here for a while at the start of their short career) to Regent Sound Studio, where The Rolling Stones recorded, to the “Tin Pan Alley” offices where everyone from Elton John to Lionel Bart churned out hits.
There were clubs and music bars, including the shabby, sticky Forge, a venue in a former blacksmith’s workshop which has, remarkably, been hitched up and shunted into the new development.
The work done in and around Denmark Street, including a new pedestrian arcade and a back alley in the white-glazed-brick functional anti-chic of the area, is fine; the scale has been preserved, as have the frontages. But that northern corner is a shocker. It’s true that the new venue in Outernet makes some attempt to address the loss of the old Astoria opposite and it will surely be popular, as will the smaller indie-pub type venue for live music.
It’s hard, however, to imagine that what the neighborhood really needed, at the end of a street of empty department stores, was a venue for overpriced corporate product drops. Crossrail, which might have been an opportunity, has resulted in the worst possible redevelopment of anonymous commercial buildings and the tacky golden nail in the coffin is this new venue.
It might have been conceived as a revival of the neighborhood’s live music heritage but it looks like the opposite, a massive billboard for a garish, digitized future in which London is reconceived as an advertising hoarding. Like Leicester Square, this is another place Londoners will now have to learn to avoid.
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