I’ve been chasing images for an assignment in London this weekend, getting alternately baked and soaked, but having a lot of fun. I’ve been pondering the nature of architecture in London and the City in particular, where normal planning rules seem to have been put aside. There were a number of things that I’ve been pondering-
1) the most valuable land in the world currently is underneath a church in the square mile.
Why are churches apparently untouchable? I’ve been in conference offices and hotels where five-thousand year old ruins have been glassed in and built over. Yet dozens of fairly derelict or rarely used Christian churches are left standing surrounded by skyscrapers. Couldn’t the Anglicans or the Pope use the money, or perhaps it’s a long term investment. Maybe they think that when the City has five million people working in the surrounding skyscrapers that a few of them might return at weekends and go to church.
2) eighty new or recent skyscraper projects are in progress.
Haven’t they heard about the double-dip recession that they caused? There’s an exhibition in the Walbrook Building in Cannon Street that is impressive and slightly scary. The centrepiece is a model showing what the City will look like quite soon. The Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe, the Swiss Re building, will become even less visible, surrounded by even taller structures.
Five years ago I spent a happy birthday taking photos in the City and I remember sitting on grassy knoll looking at the Gherkin. That greasy knoll is gone, and where previously there was a very photogenic spot where you could shoot an old church with the Gherkin behind, now there is a new building between them, and the Gherkin has only a few feet around it on all sides. You can still see it from miles around, but it isn’t a novelty any more, and even seems a little obtrusive. It’s still the best looking glass structure but no contest with most of the brick oddities.
3) if you’re not rich, you’re screwed.
Nothing stands still except the churches. Everything else is torn down and rebuilt taller. In several cities any new structures have to conform with an existing aesthetic, Venice or the Pueblo Blancos of Spain for example. Paris too, to a degree, where in most of the city you have to know what you’re looking for. London seems to have gone in the opposite direction, anything goes. St Paul’s Cathedral and a few royal properties seem to have resisted any challenge to their dominance, but unless you live in a very wealthy area then your borough is ripe for rape and pillage by the finance people. Where once we may have believed that contemporary architecture was restricted to the City, now we have Arab owned structures such as the Shard springing up in all the worst districts. They bring no tangible benefits to the boroughs such as employment (other than cleaners), but one hopes that the borough benefits from a massive community charge. Westminster doesn’t need their money, but Tower Hamlets does. If the residents don’t like it then they can be re-housed in Walsall.
4) glass is the new brick.
My opinion is that the City looks like a circus. Every architect worth his salt is showing what a building can be, whether inside out, a solid block of glass, a salt cellar, or a giant transformer toy. These oddities are seen as conferring status on the tenants largely due to the architect’s reputation and what they cost to build. I find them interesting but I retain a preference for bricks and mortar for functional and sustainability reasons. Glass lets in a lot of sun (when we have it) and requires extra internal air conditioning, and then requires additional warming in winter while the heat escapes through the glass. Brick is much more energy efficient. I would like to see wood or straw structures but I suppose you can’t build them up to fifty stories just yet.
Will glass last as long as brick I wonder. I think the glass “City Hall” (the Onion) where Boris works is looking very tired now, dirty even. Brick picks up dirt too, and of course both have to be washed and perhaps glass is easier to clean. So why isn’t Boris having his windows washed? The building was supposed to highly energy efficient, but now that it’s built, it isn’t. It is quite energy inefficient.
When it was being sold, the Shard was billed as being almost invisible because its surroundings are reflected so it fades into the background. Well, it doesn’t. It probably is less apparent than a brick structure would be, but did anyone other than Prince Charles and his Arab cousins really want this here in one of London’s poorest boroughs? Too much to hope that some other Arabs will get permission to build Europe’s tallest building anywhere near one of Charles’s residences.
When the first skyscrapers were built they were visible for miles. Now that the density is increasing it seems impossible for any building to stand out from ground level. Yes they can be distinguished from the air, but what’s the attraction in having your own state of the art office space that can only be seen fully from the air? When you’re inside who cares? Google opened a new London office that seemed to consist of rest and relaxation areas inside while being fairly nondescript from the outside. Apparently that’s how they work, with their non-evil innovations spawning from very relaxed genius inside. I’d like to work in an office like that.
The planners, whoever they may be, are predicting a logarithmic increase in the number of workers in London for the next forty years, and therefore we must have even more office space to hold them. Firstly I do hope they’re right because the economy is predicting the opposite, but secondly, I find it very odd, almost worrying but mostly sad that office space is being prepared for millions of office workers who just vanish on Friday evening. The support services also close up on Friday evening, leaving the City a ghost town at weekends. It seems such a waste. But these are the bankers and finance people. They’re rich, and their friends and family are in government, so tough, there’s nothing you can do. Keep taking photos of these absurdities perhaps?