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Chucking Out the Chintz

Christopher Fowler

In European cities, renovating and retrofitting old spaces brings new life -- and light -- to old buildings. Fowler's office in Soho is a former pyjama workshop, while friends live in converted toothpaste, false teeth and ice cream factories, complete with fireplaces, chimneypots and airy rooms.

It's a tourist FAQ in England; When you live in cities a couple of thousand of years old, how can you hope to maintain a modern outlook? The structure and geography of European streets are designed for the boulevardiers of vanished empires, so there are two choices; town planners can either draw a line around the most picturesque part and rename it the "Old Quarter" before throwing away building restrictions in the rest of the city, or — tougher, this — mix ancient infrastructure with modern living.

Rome and Paris have managed the latter, tucking nightclubs into the basements of 17th century banquet halls and official buildings, and they're not too worried about sub-woofer vibrations damaging the chandeliers. Shops fit snugly into homes once occupied by countesses, and courtyards make great open-air cafes. Belgium's formerly fashionable La Quincailleriez restaurant is now a converted hardware store, and in London, a retro club like Kitsch Lounge Riot can capitalise on the cozily and vulgar interior decoration of the Café De Paris, last redecorated just after the Blitz. Soho's oldest synagogue is now its latest theatre, while at Kettners you can munch burgers and pizza in rooms where Oscar Wilde once entertained guests — and why not, when such sumptuous interiors would otherwise go unseen by the public?

Having once been described as a country suffering from the weight of its past, England has learned to accommodate its back-story. Londoners are very good at destroying the old, probably because they've had so much practice; post-war property developers wrought more damage than wartime bombs, as any building with cracks was pulled down instead of being rebuilt. Now, the ancient sits comfortably beside the new. A city's skyline is best sensed along the edges of its river, and London's has changed dramatically in less than a decade, with the great ferris wheel of the London Eye lending a raffish fairground feel to a traditionally conservative area.

Throughout Europe the race is on to repeat "the Bilbao effect", where the radical design of the Guggenheim museum sparked the transformation of a virtually ignored Basque town. Around the same time that New York began converting its warehouses into loft apartments, London's perpendicular spice wharves switched from no-go areas to lifestyle-epicentres (trivia buffs note; the last film to be shot on location in those old buildings was The Elephant Man (1980).

But there are problems; old towns mean narrow, winding streets, unruly crowds, crime and grime, nightmare traffic. France is probably the last country in Europe where you can still triple-park to nip into the shops, but London charges drivers around $9 each day to cut through its centre, and the system has proven a surprising success. War has been declared on the car (the mayor can't drive) but public transport carries no social stigma and is used by everyone. European cities have markets in almost every neighbourhood, some surviving across the centuries (London's Leadenhall Market was once a Roman forum), and despite numerous attempts to clear them, they still remain, helping to keep inner city areas solvent and bustling. Since I began working in Soho, it has switched status from the capital's red light district to its main gay thoroughfare, reclaimed by pedestrians in streets where almost every old building hosts a bar or club, but it helps that the bars were already in place back in the '20s, and only the signs have changed.

Europe's jigsaw mazes of absurdly angled streets hide all manner of delights; I'm still trying to understand the business plan of a shop I saw in Rome that sold pasta and sewing machines. As if dead-ends and U-turn alleys weren't enough, there's water to be contended with, and lots of it; canals defy conversion, and can only be left alone to function as quaint aquatic arteries. Most modern Europeans are allergic to Victoriana. Childhoods passed in claustrophobic terraces surrounded by clutter and chintz (until the late '60s many families still owned upright pianos), so new urban interiors filled with space and light have automatic appeal. My own office is a former pyjama workshop, while friends live in converted toothpaste, false teeth and ice cream factories, complete with fireplaces, chimneypots, and airy rooms.

The last few years have brought the rehabilitation of former no-go stockyard areas, and railway arches house shops, bars, nightclubs and lifestyle-hotels. European buildings are often multi-usage, so you can find yourself attending one-off parties in engine sheds, schools, ships, law courts, dry docks and stately homes. Church properties host markets and clubs, although one South London vicar did lodge a complaint about the S&M club sharing his space, less because of the clientele than the unusual litter it generated. In the ancient smugglers' towns of France and Italy, where washing is still strung between tiny flats, the biggest problem is how to get chunky modern furniture up 10 flights of narrow stairs. Recently property developers were defeated when they tried to turn my local pub, The Pineapple, into offices. A council protection order transformed the building into a fashionable venue; proof that the buildings may grow old, but there's plenty of life in them yet.

The streets of London follow the lines of ancient hedgerows and the sites of underground rivers. The latter were impoverished areas mainly because they were damp. Fog brought illness and early deaths and created superstition; ghost stories, therefore, pursue particular seams through the metropolis. Property prices stayed low in such places, allowing for young, first-time buyers to move in, and regeneration to begin. No wonder, then, that new suburban developments feel so lifeless by comparison.

A friend from New York laments the passing of London's Victorian alleyways, but she has an idealised notion of bowler hats and fogbound streets that has taken us generations to shake off. The dead hand of the global chain store is ubiquitous, but because inner city architecture is protected, malls have been elbowed to suburbia, leaving the core of London as quirky as ever. The upstairs rooms in pubs still house all manner of esoteric club meetings, and email access in such places has increased attendance to record levels. I recently met with the Dracula Society — not to be confused with the Vampire Society; they're not on speaking terms — in a Paddington theatre pub where the barmaids joined in the argument (about Darwinism and the vampire, if you must know) between rinsing glasses. They knew that the next night their views would be canvassed by another arcane gathering.

While keeping alive old traditions, such cosmopolitanism also inspires modernity, and diverse neighbourhoods create rapidly evolving styles. Decanting new trends into historic properties becomes part of the challenge. If the price of urban living is that one should always know where one's wallet is, well, that's a small price to pay.

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