Once a week, on my way to teach architecture, I would climb the steps at Baker Street Tube Station. Silhouetted against the Marylebone sky was the unmistakable figure of Sherlock Holmes. Except it wasn’t the historical fictional detective made flesh but a tall boy in an ill-fitting costume holding a pipe and looking bored. Like this faux-Holmes, much of the area around Marylebone is littered with Sherlockania. At almost every turn there are pipes, deerstalkers, aquiline profiles applied to all kinds of stuff. From the tiles in the underground, to the statues, hotels, bars, cafes and streets, the shadow of Conan Doyle’s detective falls long and dark over Marylebone.
Sherlockopolis is an ephemeral crust applied over a pretty grim junction of two arterial roads. Here north London’s East-West and North-South routes collide at the fictional location of Holmes’ home, 221B Baker Street. But the Baker Street of Conan Doyle’s stories is not really here (and perhaps it never really was – 221B Baker Street was never a real address). In any case, this part of London was completely transformed by blitz and development through the twentieth century. The reality of the location and its imaginary version exist in perfect isolation. There is, quite frankly, nothing real to see here. The veneer of Sherlockopolis is a kind of invocation applied as if an accumulation of enough stuff will somehow make the fiction palpable. It’s also a touristic flypaper designed to make these unremarkable places sticky with Holmsian myth.
So lets take a quick tour. Maybe we should start at Sherlock Mews, just of Paddington Street, where myth is summoned by name: An atmospheric alley that becomes, under this moniker, a piece of Victorian scenography rich with imaginings of crime. Perhaps you might stay at The Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes Hotel, which toys listlessly with Holmsian iconography. It’s name is applied in corporate lettering with an ‘E’ missing. You might dine at Sherlocks Bar and Grill, enjoying the current half price deal (£5 supplement for Rib Eye Steak, offer not valid 14th February). You’ll have to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 239 Baker St (though through a loophole in legislation which allows a limited company to display its name without planning permission, its address reads ‘221B’ in historically authentic gold script). Inside, more period costumed youths staff the shop where you can browse arrays of ceramic Holmes & Watsons, pipes of varied sizes, stacks of deerstalkers and so on. Upstairs, room sets stuffed with junk-shop Victoriana approximate an idea of Holmes’ quarters. Bad waxworks act out dramatic moments from the Holmes canon. After, you might head to The Sherlock Holmes Food & Beverages! where you can order double egg and chips surrounded by low-grade murals depicting Holmes’ adventures.
Through all of this and more, the urban reality is warped by a fictional idea. We might wonder however how this differs from real, authentic historical places. Perhaps heritage as we understand it in architecture and planning is not real either – that real history can’t help but become fictional when it is articulated and represented. Perhaps all cities exist between narrative and the physical reality of stuff. And that’s why Sherlockopolis a more than an ephemeral joke. Though its own story is fictional, its cultural meaning is concrete. We might think of it as fictional-historical-futurology, a retro-projection that maps out potentials.
Maybe the idea of a retro-applied foundation myth of place is a means of rewiring urban situations, a way of liberating the meanings and uses of a place from their physical constitution. Much like the Cedric Price/Reyner Banham/Peter Hall Non-Plan project, the cultural meanings and references of a place might be used to drive its future – a narrative that anyone can plug into. In Sherlockopolis, this character leaps in scale from pipe to landscape. It plays a narrative that evolved out of the technological, social and political turmoil of the early 20th century back on the city of the early 21st century.
Detective fiction from Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler to the Wire always contains a form of urban critique. Through its narrative we read our way through the conflicts between the hopes and fears of a city. The Holmes stories were written at a time of urban turmoil, amidst the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the massive Victorian expansion of London. The urban landscape was in rapid flux, transformed by modernity. This new metropolis was shot through with fear which detective fiction articulates as crime. In urbanism, the very same fears drove the development of the suburbs (an escape via infrastructure) and later the Modernist utopian visions – remember Le Corbusiers warning “Architecture or revolution”. In this context, we might read Holmes as a figure of urban salvation. As he remarks in the Adventure of the Copper Beeches, “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Maybe that silhouette at Baker Street tube was there to remind architecture tutors heading to the University of Westminster of the dramatic imperative of urbanism.