Monday, 17 May 2010

The Ruins of Oxford Street

Old advert revealed by Crossrail works on Oxford Street. Image taken from the Flickr stream of John O'Shea and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Like space, London is curved. It sits in a bowl-shaped valley, curving it one way, and the river adds its own magnificent curves. This curvature throws up unexpected views - you find yourself in west London looking at the City with south London somehow in the way. These surprise alignments are probably the reason the city is such a super-locus for the psychogeographers. They are also an essential element of the city's guile. Even familiar places can suddenly look at you with a new face. Wait, you can see the Telecom Tower from here? But ...

On Saturday, I went for a long stroll, walking an indirect route from the Royal Academy (where I had been attending a symposium on JG Ballard and architecture) to Centre Point. Nearing Oxford Street, I remembered a DVD I wanted to buy, and decided to pop into HMV.

I was surprised to find that it no longer exists - it's among the shops being demolished to make way for Crossrail. I've been through the area on numerous occasions recently, but never really took in the extent of the works; so surprising was the removal of HMV that I took a walk around the nearby streets to see how the city had changed. The entrance to Tottenham Court Road Tube station on the south side of Oxford street is now a faintly absurd toy - I never before appreciated what a bad match the 1980s perspex-looking porte cochere was with the decorative stonework around it. Now the surrounding building has been removed, leaving just the stone arch and the porch, it's a outstanding architectural oddity. An old painted advert, for Veglio's restaurant, has been revealed (more on old adverts, "ghost signs") in a forthcoming post about Gavin Stamp's Lost Cities). Standing just off the Charing Cross Road, I saw a striking brutalist building that was completely new to me - except that it wasn't new to me, it was the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road, seen for the first time from the south, and at an unaccustomed distance.

My grandmother was in London during the Blitz. She remember how strange it was to have the city transformed nightly, with new views opened up. I'm struck by how much of our image of the city is made up not of the buildings that we can see, but what they obscure - they city behind the city.

Updated 25 May to add:

The Festival of Britain opens new views of London. "This chaos made a vantage point for London to admire her finest profile; visible before to few, seen by fewer, the 'North bank from the South' is now a sightseer's dream." Image from, via Things.


Kosmograd said...

There hasn't been an HMV at the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street for as long as I can remember. Ever since Virgin Megastore (sorry Zavvi) closed, and the shops on south side closed for the demolition, the whole TCR/Oxford Street area is looking increasingly barren.

The YMCA is an intriguing building, a bit of a hidden gem.

Will said...

Huh. I last bought a DVD in HMV (certainly not Zavvi) in January and I could have sworn it was closer to TCR - on Saturday I walked down Oxford Street as far as the awful Plaza shopping centre before convincing myself that I had missed it. Google Maps tells me I should have gone on another block. Surprising. I must have fused Zavvi and HMV in my memory. (I'm not a frequent visitor to HMV, as you might have gathered.)

Jack Self said...

I think HMV has been closed for some time, a year at least.

And if you want to talk about transformations around that junction, have a read of what was there before the Dominion theatre: Comestible Catastrophes

Jack Self said...

2006. It closed in 2006.