Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The sanitisation of Soho

Walker's Court
Soho looks its best at night when it’s raining. The neon lights glisten with greater intensity; the corners become darker adding a hint of danger. Noise and laughter emanate from pubs; the flashy, drinkers, stragglers, queens and strays carouse through the narrow, low level streets, all hunting their next party. It can feel as though you are walking through a John Deakin photograph or witnessing a Julian McClaren-Ross story brought to life. Its romantic history becomes tangible; a rich legacy of immigration with bustling, vivid, delis and cafes, restaurants and bars, strip clubs and revue bars, basement clubs and drinking dens; all smells and steam and chatter and sweat, following the steps once walked by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, George Melly, Nina Hamnett, Henrietta Mories, Muriel Belcher, Soho Pam, Jeffrey Bernard, Dylan Thomas.

But the square mile of sin, already a shadow of what it was even ten years ago, is in very real danger of losing even more of its historic saucy charm, of being sanitised out of existence and becoming much like any other district of London. At the end of last year, Westminster Council gave the go-ahead to let bulldozers roll in and flatten much of the block surrounding Walker's Court, perhaps the seediest little backstreet in London, but one close to the heart of Soho’s reputation as London’s red light district.

There are good aspects of the application; the lights of the Raymond Revue Bar will be restored and an ‘off-Broadway’ theatre would open. But in almost every respect the redevelopment is an example of arrogant philistinism, showing utter disregard for the area’s history, architecture and spirit - and people.

The new buildings from Rupert Street

In its wisdom, Westminster Council thinks removing the ‘sex-related uses’ around the streets outweighs the cultural and social harm of demolishing these buildings. Robert Davis, the deputy leader of the council, even went so far as to welcome the new building’s use of glass for its transparent quality. No secret sex, there, then.

After telling members of the English Collective of Prostitutes, protesting at the planning meeting, to be quiet as it’s 'not the way we do things here’, Mr Davis voted in favour of the plan.

He said: 

’The new designs are very exciting. They are very open and I like the idea of a lot of glass because it does allow a great transparency in the area. I’ve no problems with the height, the design or the demolition of the new buildings.’

The lack of architectural, cultural and historical knowledge on display is quite extraordinary - let alone the apparent glossing-over of what happens to the current denizens of the area. The idea that Walker's Court will become a ’transparent’ area with ’a lot of glass’ seems both perfunctory and inappropriate.

Permission was granted to the application despite failing planning guidelines in a number of ways. In their report, planning officers acknowledged the excess height of the proposed buildings, the failure to replace buildings of merit with anything worthy in the design of the new buildings and the lack of mix in the residential plans. Only the ultra-rich need apply, even for studio flats.

How Walker's Court will look

The council report describes many of the current buildings as lacking architectural merit, though it recognises the character of two unlisted blocks. One of the few great legacies of Paul Raymond is he did little to alter the fabric of Soho streets. Individual buildings themselves may not, strictly speaking, have ’architectural merit’, but collectively, the retention of a mainly seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century streetscape is of huge significance. Soho derives much of its character and vitality from its architecture and of, course, from the historic pattern of its warren of streets; the collective is of huge architectural significance. English Heritage acknowledged this but its objection to the scheme was overlooked.

The view of the new plan from Berwick Street

The green light to the plan has more intense, individual implications. Earlier this month, police raided brothels around the area, insisting this had nothing to do with emptying the buildings after the planning application was passed. Well, they would say that wouldn't they? One of curious aspects of Soho is the solidarity shown by local residents with the women who work in the brothels. Indeed, many of the more than 50 letters of objection to the redevelopment plan worried about the consequences of forcing these women on to the streets, where they are more at risk of violence and exploitation. Rupert Everett wrote movingly about this in The Observer on Sunday.

Elizabeth Valad

Take the case of Elizabeth Valad, for example. She worked in a Soho brothel, on Windmill Street according to a friend, but was forced on to the streets after Westminster Council ’enforced closure orders on premises used as brothels’. Tragically, she later became one of serial killer Anthony - the Camden Ripper - Hardy’s victims; her dismembered body found stuffed in bin bags, discarded in bins after Christmas, 2002, reportedly found by a homeless man in a cowboy hat. The implications for these women seems to be blithely ignored.

This isn't a plea for no renovation, redevelopment or refurbishment, much as shabby chic - at which Soho excels - is in. But developers and the council must show knowledge, sympathy, intelligence.

Soho has long posed a problem for such an officious organisation as Westminster Council. The area's determinedly relaxed individuality is a counterpoint to the council's ruthless desire for efficiency and squeezing as much as it can from the city, a geographically tight - but extraordinarily valuable - area. Paul Raymond certainly allowed aspects of Soho's fabric to decay, yet his resistance to redevelopment protected its character. But, despite at one stage being Britain's richest man, it doesn't appear his granddaughter Fawn James intends to follow his example. 


There's a pertinent little passage by Piloti in this fortnight's Private Eye. While refereeing to Oxford, it remains relevant:

'To Oxford - and yet another example of the ineptitude of so many modern architects when having to deal with an older building.

'Faced with a problem, all they can do is introduce large sheets of glass. In fact, they almost seem to worship glass as they drivel on about "light" and "space". They do this partly because they have no understanding of historical languages of form and are uncomfortable handling traditional materials; but also because they fall for the delusion that glass is invisible. It isn't. It reflects, and it gets scratched and dirty.'


  1. Brilliant and thoughtful piece. Well said. We are going to lose something really valuable and historic in the heart of our city. Shame on Fawn James.

  2. all started changing when they shut down the intrepid fox on wardour street back in 2006...

  3. The closure of the Intrepid Fox really was a piece of cultural vandalism. Used to love that pub

  4. The speak-easies are all gone and the characters are dying off. We need more smut and a new generation of low lifes to maintain the delicate balance that has for so long existed there.

  5. Intrepid Fox, now there is a blast from my distant past. Not been there for about 15 years... Nice piece, Joel.

  6. What did you think of the West End Extra's close down the clip joints campaign some years ago?

  7. I presume you are referring to the West End Extra’s campaign to close clip joints. It's an entirely separate case.

    Clip joints are, or were, entirely crooked establishment where staff would demand cash from punters with threats of violence. That they were able to get away with such practices was due to the council struggling to identify freeholders to whom they could issue compulsory purchase orders and lax policing - complaints were fe considering the victims we'd invariably embarrassed tourists or young men.

    The West End Extra’s campaign - which, I reckon, was ahead of its time - particularly focused on the clip joints which operated around Soho Parish School; there were two either side of the main front door and one opposite. The campaign never, as far as I remember, ever campaigned for the closure of legitimate sex shops or cinemas. Or indeed called for the buildings housing clip joints to be replaced with bland glass structures.

    It’s only a shame that attention on clip joints only ever became truly focused after the tragic murder of one of the street girls, Camille Gordon, at the Blue Bunny club in Archer Street. Her killer was one a gullible young men who had earlier been ripped off at the same club.


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