Would Francis Bacon prefer the London of today to the London he actually grew up in? That was the question posed last week at the second of two Architecture Foundation panels at Tate Britain, this time featuring architects Nigel Coates and Denise Scott Brown, critics Joe Kerr and Joseph Rykwert, and former mayor Ken Livingstone.
Londoners, argued Coates in his opening keynote, often feel a great excitement about the fact that the city decays faster than it can be rebuilt, and Bacon’s attraction to the “entropic aspects” of cities comes through clearly in his paintings. So does his attraction to cramped, crowded places – pubs, butcher shops, boxing matches and back alleys - all of which anticipate the claustrophobic spaces he put down on canvas. Also influential were the possibility of impending doom that characterised much of the 1950s, and a certain disillusionment about the concrete sterility of what was being thrown up to repair the destruction of the Blitz.
In the clean, safe, prosperous modern London, of course, all that darkness is mostly gone, but the sterility is still here, simply transfigured from concrete into glass and steel. Kerr drew a parallel between the way that, in the Thatcher era, the city became predictable and therefore lost a certain complex, inscrutable eroticism, and the way that, after the passage of the Wolfenden Act that liberalised homosexuality, gay people were no longer driven into the small, dark, weird spaces that many of them came to relish. But is it dangerous to be nostalgic about a vanished London? Yes, said Rykwert: every generation thinks that London isn’t as good as it was.
Ken Livingstone, addressing this issue, described himself as an ‘urban chauvinist’, for whom cities are all that really matter. He argued that the post-war Abercrombie plan to reduce the population of London to five and a half million would have led to a horribly dull capital, and that, although today’s London may have lost some of its looseness, it is at least full of human diversity, which Bacon would have appreciated; and the real challenge for cities like Shanghai and Mumbai is to be open to population change, as well as population growth. Livingstone admitted, however, that there is one aspect of modern London that he’s glad he didn’t grow up with: “None of us had our own flat or our own car, so thank god there was no CCTV in alleys back then or we all would have been 25-year-old virgins.”