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People Power Saves Historic London 'Village'

After many months of vigorous opposition from traditional shopkeepers and local residents, the plan to bury the historic South Kensington tube station under an 11-storey tower has been shelved. As many visitors to London will know, the bookshops and cafes (such as the famous Daquise Polish cafe) close to the station conjure a unique "village spirit" - making for a pleasant, slightly bohemian and old-fashioned atmosphere. From here, you can walk quite easily to the great artistic and scientific temples of "Albertopolis" - the museums and halls so associated with Prince Albert and the Victorians.

Nearby is the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial, the V&A;, the magnificent Natural History Museum, and the Royal Collage of Music. Yet a threat still lingers on the horizon... Even though the old tube station has been saved, there is - astonishingly - a plan to demolish part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and replace its elegant architecture with a hideous pile of metallic pyramids - the work of modernist architect, Daniel Liebeskind. To defile a well-loved London landmark with such an out-of-place atrocity is heartbreaking, and reminds one of Prince Charles's apt description of suddenly seeing "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend". It is a mark of how thoughtless, detached and downright arrogant our authorities have become that such "developments" are even seriously entertained in the first place. And it is quite extraordinary that anyone at the V&A; - a place devoted to aesthetic visionaries, such as William Morris - could have allowed Mr. Liebeskind to submit such crazy and inappropriate plans.

As the Architecture Correspondent of The Times put it: "It took a fight to preserve the delightful streets of bookshops in front of the British Museum from being flattened. A six-lane highway would have been bulldozed through the centre of Covent Garden market, if planners and developers had had their way. South Ken station stands in a conservation area protecting a neighbourhood full of life and bustle... Such contrasts will always have to be fought for against those who despise any cluster of lively small businesses as tacky, and see them only as an opportunity for vast overblown developments lacking any sense of place."

If only such sentiments had been more energetically aired in the early 1960s. This was the era when Harold Macmillan's supposedly "Conservative" Government set about ripping the heart out of English town centres; with shoebox offices and chicken-run estates replacing old residential streets and marketplaces. For Macmillan, "the winds of change" were blowing through Britain as much as they were through the continent of Africa. Historic, established buildings were callously reduced to rubble in the name of post-war "progress" - our politicians behaving like the East European Communist rulers who bulldozed villages as part of their "collectivisation" projects.

One of the most disgraceful episodes of Macmillan's tenure was the demolition of the great arch at Euston Station. Anxious to prevent conservationists from making this a full-scale political issue, ministers rushed through the demolition order before anyone could block the desecration. No doubt the present Government would love to do the same sort of thing today, preferring their futuristic Domes and Norman Foster towers to the elegant spires and Victorian grandeur of a once-great city. Thankfully, "people power" is not yet dead, and we may still be spared the indignity of living in a giant concrete shopping centre, flanked by car parks and crossed by ring-roads.

Well done to the people of South Kensington and their many supporters and petition-signers from all over the world!

Stuart Millson


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