I grew up in Edinburgh and London, and it is perhaps this early exposure to two complex, distinct and beautiful capitals that has given me such a strong love of cities. I have yet to find a one that did not enthral me, from Delhi to Milan, Nairobi to Istanbul. The countryside is wonderful to visit, but give me a city with all its human complexities as a place to hang my hat.
Of all of those I have visited, London remains for me the ideal; not for the historic architecture that cradles our modern democracy, nor the centre of commerce which now straddles the first city walls, but for what lies beyond Zone 1. The south side of the Thames in particular is an interconnected set of villages and towns swallowed by the city, but which retain their individual characters, from the towers of Croydon to the green hills of Brockley. This city of many centres is a web of urban microsystems joined by residential sprawl and defined by a historic landscape.
The landscape hides memories that have left visible marks. Like ghosts at the banquet they hide in plain sight, waiting to be discovered. Stand on a manhole cover on Peckham Rye and you can hear the River Peck running underneath. Culverted as a sewer in 1823, it still springs from under an oak on One Tree Hill and rushes northward to join the Thames, undaunted by the city that now surrounds it.
The landscape hides memories that have left visible marks. Like ghosts at the banquet they hide in plain sight”
The landscape reveals itself further in place names: Herne Hill, Gypsy Hill, Forest Hill and Denmark Hill all describe undulating topography, while Deptford and Catford remind us of crossings of lost rivers. It seems we cannot help but recognise and preserve these memories, no matter how much we have obliterated their origins.
South London’s historic memories are preserved on a grand scale at Crystal Palace, where the footprint of the Great Exhibition building is still visible. But for me this is also a patchwork of personal memories, and it is those that hold the most fascination. In a city of so much history and millions of people, how do you find the individual? Perhaps it is because the history of south London is domestic, with smallholdings, market gardens and optimistic post-war housing, that the personal is much more evident here than elsewhere in the city. Growing up I would look out of our attic window as the sun set on a thousand rooftops and imagine the lives taking place underneath. The particular architecture and density of London’s clerk-housing suburbs reveals this domestic terrain more than the true suburbs, where lower densities prevent the patchwork quilt of architecture, or the higher densities of inner London, which don’t allow the panorama to unfurl itself. Here is a unique chance to study human life – of which there is an infinite variety.
Growing up I would look out of our attic window as the sun set on a thousand rooftops and imagine the lives taking place underneath”
Communities from across the globe have found a place to call home in south London. This part of the city has been particularly good at absorbing changing populations, and its streetscapes and architecture have proven flexible and accommodating to changing needs. Human ingenuity has changed many buildings’ purposes in my lifetime alone. The conversion of a Peckham multi-storey carpark into an arts venue and bar is among the best-known of recent reinventions, but one might also point to the Georgian mansion in Vauxhall that is now an architectural salvage showroom, or the subdivided shop units of Rye Lane selling foods from around the world.
For me south London will always be a special, sacred place embodying thousands of personal memories of a life lived here, where I grew up and where my own children were born. Perhaps these personal memories – the most fleeting echoes of human existence – are in some ways the most powerful curators of space.