Thursday, 22 August 2013

London's inhuman towers on the way out?

There I was trying to work in a Pret-a-Manger underneath the London Shroud on Friday (sorry, that should read Shard), and this conversation next to me kept butting in.

"I look at myself in the mirror and I don't recognise myself any more.  I should have stayed 34."

This was a conversation between an older man and a younger one, who must have been, say, 34.

"You're at the perfect age, you know."

"I don't know about that," said the younger one.  "I wish I was 18 again."

I thought about this conversation later, partly because it seemed to conceal a truth I could learn from (I will never see 34 or 18 again), and partly because of what came next.  "You know I look at all this new development round here," said the older man - and there certainly is a lot of it: hideous, glitzy, inhuman...

"And I think to myself: 'Who is all this for?'  It certainly isn't for me."

This seems to be rather an important thought, especially at the south end of London Bridge, once the venue for the heads of traitors, which is now facing development pressure from the City one way and the South Bank the other, with more from Bermondsey of all places.  But there is precious little for most of us: speculative flats for sale in the Far East, inhuman office blocks fated to lie empty.

London's new towers are so brutal in their joky design that they almost overshadow the smaller concrete monstrosities, equally inhuman in their own way, of a generation ago.

I say fated to lie empty because of the news today that the owners of the Gherkin are now seeking protection from creditors in the German courts.

Those of us who have written about the Twelfth Century (see my book Blondel's Song) will know that the era of tower blocks in the Italian city states came to an end and they were all pulled down.  I am looking forward to something similar happening here.

Which brings me to London's mayor Boris Johnson.  When he stood for the post back in 2008, he campaigned on a policy of reining in the towers, which had been promoted by his predecessor.  He was convincing enough for me to vote for him on that basis in the second round, after the Lib Dem had been excluded.

Well, there is a lesson there.  Boris is busily giving permission to as many towers, which will loom over London giving a sense of inhumanity - sponsored by semi-slave states and in the international style so beloved of financiers and architects - as Ken did.  The whole campaign appears to have been about positioning a political campaign which had almost nothing to say, and as a result nothing much to do.

I will not be making that kind of mistake about Boris again - and I hope nobody else will either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not sure I agree.

Many (most?) of the 'great architecture' which tourists visit in the UK today - from the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, to St Pauls, to Westminster Abbey - was, in its early days, inhuman in its scale and design. Perhaps they still are inhuman, but the point is most of those which survived have come to be appreciated.

The sharp, anonymous Shard may seem quaint in a century or two, when it's less shiny (or it may not). These things are hard to predict when the building is new.

Perhaps the Shard etc seem bad now because of their association with dodgy capital and autocratic financiers. But the pioneers of Westminster Abbey etc were no less autocratic in their day, funded by money extracted with menaces.

And let's face it - anything which stands out in a mega-city like London is bound to be dehumanisingly huge.

(From Iain King)