Into the pockets of grey post-war London where the 1960s swung stepped a young man called Duggie Fields. Originally from Tidworth, a village at the edge of Salisbury Plain, he had considered moving to Liverpool but had, as he puts it, “discovered the Rolling Stones out in the suburbs”. So London it was, as, in truth, he had long thought it was going to be. Culture was the spur. Fields came to study architecture at what was then called Regents Street Polytechnic before taking a Chelsea School of Art course. “Queens Gate Terrace was the first place I lived when I moved here, when I left home in 1963,” he says. “It was random. It was a random find, with friends.”
Quite a find. Queens Gate Terrace, SW7, is an edifice of middle-Victorian splendour, home to foreign embassies and today described as “a prestigious, sought-after, South Kensington address”. But even posh London could accommodate questing, artsy blow-ins back then, and Fields has lived in and around Kensington and Chelsea all his London life, initially moving about – “off Gloucester Road, off the King’s Road and various places in between,” he says – but dropping anchor in Earl’s Court in 1968.
Now in his early seventies, his career as an artist has spanned successive decades, his work tagged conceptualist, minimalist, post-pop, pre-post-modernist and digitalist, rooted in Mondrian and comic books, yet somehow never looking old. He’s designed posters for Transport for London and had the nascent Pink Floyd as student flatmates. His work has been admired in many places, from Los Angeles to Japan, as well as in the city he made his home. Through all of this, the Earl’s Court neighbourhood has been a constant. “It has nurtured me and sustained me,” he says of his part of town. “I still love to walk along these streets. But I get irate about not being enthusiastic about the new.”
We meet at the Brownie Box, a congenial cafe on Old Brompton Road. Across the street stands Richmond Mansions, a classic, Edwardian red brick block of the type Fields inhabits not far away. We admire its timeless elegance and detail. But this spot close to Kensington and Chelsea’s border with Hammersmith and Fulham is a short walk from where the unappealing new has taking a destructive hold. The Earls Court Project is a 77-acre redevelopment scheme which has already brought about the demolition of the Earls Court exhibition centre and threatens to do the same to two council estates nearby. Hailed by Boris Johnson as “a landmark project” when he approved it in 2013, its progress has slowed as the market for high end residential property has cooled.
The resulting dead space and row of boarded up shops along Lillie Road, which Old Brompton Road becomes on the other side of the borough border and the tracks that serve West Brompton station, might be a price worth paying were something lively and inclusive rising to take its place. But the meagre proposed provision of additional affordable homes and the vacuum replacing the global magnet the exhibition centre had been since the 1930s suggest that a dull, “lights out” neighbourhood will form instead unless something dramatic occurs. Touted as a “re-imagining”, the project instead exemplifies an absence of the careful compromises between old and new that “regeneration” should be guided by.
Fields is part of the broad spread of opposition to the Earls Court scheme, a spectrum encompassing the “People’s Estates” of North Fulham, the events industry and the conservationists of Nevern Square. He fears the project is just a particularly large example of the wider enblandening of a patchwork of London districts once known for a blend of seediness, creativity and cosmopolitan energy as well as wealth, royalty and fine museums.
“Earl’s Court had a vibrant Polish community when I moved in,” Fields recalls. “There was a Polish supermarket run by three sisters with upswept blonde hair. They might have been the Gabor sisters. There was a Polish language newspaper delivered in the area. My building had lots of Polish people living in it. There was a Polish club and a fabulous old-style Polish restaurant, run by little old ladies and quite cheap.” He contrasts diverse fascinations of that era with the current one as it unfolds in his territory. “Recently I walked the Kings Road, Fulham Road and High Street Kensington, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many empty shops or places being readied for a developer. What is their future? So much of their character is going. So much of the architecture that’s being allowed through now is just generic. It looks old before it’s finished”.
Yes, Richmond House and others like it were “built by speculative developers,” he acknowledges. “Property booms are nothing new. But this one is on steroids”. He values the Brownie Box as an independent cafe on a stretch of road that used to have more of them. “They were always full of people hanging out. But the moment the exhibition centre went, it changed. Most of that life has disappeared.”
We walk across the borough border, past the station, and turn down Seagrave Road, where the only Earls Court Project buildings constructed so far have risen from the erstwhile exhibition centre car park: market price apartments in the newborn Lillie Square. “So many of these blocks look as if they belong in Torremolinos,” Fields remarks. “There’s this mythologised deluxe apartment concept, but they’re all just boxes with no detailing and those glass-fronted balconies, and full of the same modern furniture. It’s all a bit Stepford Wives. They don’t look like homes at all.”
After observing a gleaming estate agent usher a potential buyer into an entrance foyer, we wander back into the Grenfell-scarred royal borough and the oasis of Brompton Cemetery, where Fields, with his day-glo button badges and splendid rock ‘n’ roll hair, feels at one with its overgrown tranquility. “I like the balance between urban and nature,” he says. “We live in a city of incredible domestic architecture, going into Chelsea, going into South Kensington, things that are very particular to London. Then we also have this abundance of greenery and trees. The balance in the city is so good.
“I like the East End too, but on a different level. I don’t think I could live there because there isn’t quite the same greenery. The East End has a lot of social vibrancy, though. I bump into people I know more when I go east than I do around here these days. But I still think the essence of my area hasn’t changed. I’ve walked the same streets for 50 years and I can still find detail in the architecture I can admire. That’s why it’s a shame about the new kind. In 50 years’ time, if those buildings are still there, what are you going to admire about them?”
The London Duggie Fields arrived in, for all its Swinging Sixties allure, was a city that was emptying, not growing. How unlike the past 30 years, when it is drawn rich and poor alike from all over the country and all over the world. Contrary to curious reports that the city is in the grip of a mass exodus – there has always been an annual outflow – the adventurous and enterprising continue flocking and reproducing here in large numbers, pushing London’s population beyond its previous, pre-war high and towards a projected 10 million by 2025. This is a sign of a certain sort of success that brings with it certain sorts of pressures. With his seasoned sense of place and his searching artist’s eye, Fields detects with distinctive clarity the problems these can cause and in so doing highlights London’s growing need to find the right balance between the blessings of continuity and the benefits of change.