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An occasional recurring theme of this blog is my memories of places and how buildings and places themselves trigger memories. I alluded to this when I wrote a post about London’s Covent Garden Market a couple of years ago. The Covent Garden area has played a major part in my life. I worked for a publisher in Covent Garden for two stints in the 1980s and 1990s, and at the beginning of the first period, the Resident Wise Woman also worked nearby. It was also sometimes a place to stay on in the evening – I remember it for various meals, summer vertical drinking sessions outside the Lamb and Flag, opera performances, and plays in the Donmar Warehouse Theatre.

Before I worked round there I remember seeing a television film about the area and the market. In my memory, this film of the 1970s was in black and white and was structured around a day in the life of the market. I didn’t remember much else about it, except that it featured evocative shots of market and streets, and of market people and traffic in abundance…and that the background music was Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the three movements (fast–slow–fast) of which reflected the changing pace of life throughout 24 mostly hectic hours.

A few years ago it occurred to me that I might be able to find this film on the internet. So I googled it, and found Lindsay Anderson’s marvellous 1950s documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which covers a day in the life of the market in beautifully lit black and white cinematography. But it wasn’t the film I’d remembered. There was no Beethoven music, and Anderson’s film was made in the 1950s (I’d associated my memory with the imminent closure of the fruit and vegetable market in the 1970s), and it was different in other ways I couldn’t pin down. Could there have been another film? I couldn’t find it.

The other day I looked again. And there, among various links to Anderson’s documentary was another. This was a film made for the television arts programme Aquarius, just before the market closed in 1972. First there was a shock: a very staightlaced introduction by presenter Humphrey Burton, square black spectacles and all, revealed that it was in colour – but then in 1972 I was probably watching it on my mother’s television set, which was black and white, so my memory of it was naturally in monochrome. And when the introduction was over, the clang of a metal shutter resounded and the opening chord of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8 Opus 13, the Pathéthique, rang out. In no time at all, we were off with people drinking in the Essex Serpent at 5 am, vans being shoehorned into minimal parking spaces (to the accompaniment of much bleeped-out swearing), and business beginning and after the music’s slow, declamatory opening, film and music were off at a canter, and the market’s frenetic daily activity was underway. As it appears on YouTube the film still has its relentless timecode and a persistent background hiss, but was still good enough to make me gasp, ‘This is it!’

It was a revelation, as a succession of images unfolded and came back to me. Lippy greengrocers, old codgers in pubs, all-night cafés, men in a workshop making ballet shoes, other people making market barrows, ceramics, copper pans, bookbindings, suits of armour, and an aristocratic woman arriving for her job in a publishing company, something I’d be doing a decade after the film was made, although not in a chauffeur-driven car. Most uncanny for me was a point where they were talking about traffic and parked cars blocking the way and into my head came the thought, ‘In a moment some blokes are going to pick that car up in their bare hands and move it.’ And this is what happened. It was striking that there were still some vestiges of the old area very much there when I first worked there (but then I arrived in 1980 so this was not totally surprising): the ballet shoe shop, Collins’s ironmongers (‘Four candles’), some of the greasy spoons, Rule’s Restaurant (roast beef and suet puds for the well upholstered), the opera house, one of the pubs.

The film was made when there was a very real prospect that huge swathes of the area would be demolished to make way for better roads and modern office buildings. The Covent Garden Community Association made the case for more measured change, and this is what we got – the fruit and vegetable market went, and the boutiques and tourist shops arrived, but most of the streets were preserved and much of the area’s architectural character survives. But the community is different. Few people like those drinking in the Essex Serpent or dropping in to chew the fat at the barrow-makers could afford to live in the area now. That’s a cost of the crowded shops and gentrification and tourism on speed. The film’s last shot shows a graffito saying ‘This was home’.

My latest book, Phantom Architecture, looks at some of the great buildings of the world that did not make it past the architect’s drawing board. A skyscraper one mile high, a dome covering most of downtown Manhattan, a triumphal arch in the form of an elephant: some of the most exciting buildings in the history of architecture are the ones that never got built. These are the projects in which architects took materials to the limits, explored challenging new ideas, defied conventions, and pointed the way towards the future. Some of them are architectural masterpieces, some simply delightful flights of fancy. It was not usually poor design that stymied them – politics, inadequate funding, or a client who chose a ‘safe’ option rather than a daring vision were all things that could stop a project leaving the drawing board. These unbuilt buildings range from Boullée’s vast spherical monument to Isaac Newton to Archigram’s Walking City. Phantom Architecture shows why they still haunt us today.

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