13th April 2014: In the last few weeks a ground swell of opinion has been gaining ground in the Sunday papers that the London skyline is about to be destroyed by too many high-rise buildings. So what is to be done?
London, we like to think, is a complex and romantic city. We believe in a deep history, of Shakespeare’s London, old London Bridge, the Thames freezing over, the Blitz, Monet, Wordsworth, and above all, Canaletto. London is both past and present – and always etched as such in our memories.
The photograph above shows the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater and the Walkie-Scorchie, as seen from Drake’s Golden Hind (a copy) on the south side of the Thames. From this angle these three buildings are definitely not the Three Graces. In fact, apart from the question of how we got from the timber construction of Drake’s boat to the engineering of these towers in less than 500 years, the big questions are: How did no one notice how awful these three buildings look together from this point? And how did it happen that three of the best firms in the world could mess up so royally?
The reasons are myriad and have much to do with how a free market operates as well as the way architects tend to get obsessed with the thing they are designing.
In a museum we curate the objects and make still life compositions, so why not curate the city in a similar way? Apart from the problem of who is going to do it, the idea that arrangements are made, that pattern books are used, that clusters and groupings are formed, is not unreasonable. Aren’t these big forms on one level just a still life group, a lovely cruet set, mummy, daddy and baby gherkin, the three cheese graters?
If the city were considered a work of art then the first architect would be asked to design the next two buildings so that they would form a cluster, hold a conversation, anchor a part of the city, like the three towers do at the Barbican, whose design is loosely based on a famous but un-built Frank Lloyd Wright project, St Marks in the Bowerie. What, three Gherkins? you say. Well not necessarily, perhaps one Gherkin and two whatevers, but in the same visual language so that they are clearly a dialogue?
But this is not the fashion these days. Even in one large development the work is usually divvied up, so that famous architects each get a block to do – as happened eventually at the World Trade Centre – although arguably, New York works better than London because it is a grid city and grids are very forgiving of the duds in between the great buildings. London has odd-shaped plots, an under grain of a medieval street pattern and all the bends in the river, whilst the Manhattan Grid strides across America.
The French took a different tack and put all the skyscrapers out at La Defense on axis with L’Etoile around a new grand arch, whereas the City of London has gone into competition with Canary Wharf.
So who should curate the city? Well, not an architect, planner or developer, I think, because it needs people or trustees who can rise above the fray – so why not a sculptor, a curator, a poet or a historian – or maybe all four? And what about the public? Are they not grown up enough to have a voice?
In the meantime the uproar is fascinating. So many artists and thinkers have put their signatures to letters or petitions, rather as Prince Charles once did because he felt that something should be done. (Although I am not aware that any of the architects concerned have spoken up? I keep wondering wouldn’t it be great if one of them had ever said, ‘My colleague should design this building, this group should all be of a piece’ – or better still, ‘Enough, let’s have no building here at all.’)
And we still have an opportunity to do all this on the South Bank at London Bridge. The Shard looks very beautiful, because like the pyramids, it has a shape and form that is scale-less from a distance. The pale glass makes it almost dissolve into the sky so that it looks like a spire from another time. If it is crowded with a collection of liquorice all-sorts surrounding it, that will be the end, and it too will become grace-less. No other architect should be let near this cluster.
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