Upon Westminster Bridge
The sun is glinting off the bubble carriages of the London Eye as it slowly, almost imperceptibly rises on one side, and falls on the other. And every other second, these blazing ref lections are matched by f lashes from within, as the occupants of the carriages photograph the views all around them. To those of us watching from below, the Lon- don Eye sparkles like a gigantic silver bracelet.
The London Eye has been called iconic since it was a glint in its architects’ eyes. And it has gone on to fulfill this prophecy. It is world famous. Rare is the day when there is not a lengthy queue at its entrance. The building has performed for the nation as the framework for fireworks displays at significant events, and has stolen scenes in famous films and live theatrical acrobatics, such as the unfurling of political banners by demonstrators brave enough to scale its height; or, in 2003, the balancing upon one of its carriages by the magician David Blaine. The Eye has even received the ultimate accolade of modern celebrity – emulation – having being cloned in cities all around the world. Facsimiles also appear in miniature within snowglobes or on china plates commemorating Historic London, sold in the tourist shops underneath it, a modern interloper beside familiar olde worlde icons such as the Tower of London.
All around me, on the pavements of Westminster Bridge, tourists are sharpening their elbows for the best position from which to photograph it. There is quite a throng among the Peruvian trinket-selling hustlers and the busking bagpiper. About halfway across the bridge there is a sweet spot where the canny photographer can get the best shot of both the London Eye, and, if he or she nimbly swivels, that other sightseer’s icon, Big Ben, without shifting position. The tourists ignore the less pic- turesque prospect to the south, of luxury apartment complexes that have sprouted upriver in recent years, which also take advantage of the spec- tacular views, though more permanently, and rather more expensively.
In recent years, Westminster Bridge has become less a crossing, and more a promenade suspended over the Thames. The London Eye is an extension of this promenade, only circular and constantly rotating, almost infinite. On some days, so thick are the crowds on Westminster Bridge that tutting Londoners hurtling to get to important meetings at the Houses of Parliament or St Thomas’s Hospital spill onto the road to get past, swerving to avoid the buses and lorries. The pavements on the bridge have become the sole habitat of tourists wielding selfie sticks and smartphones who, if you stand back and observe them, enact a curious kind of performance en masse. The photographer of the party crouches, or stands on one leg like a f lamingo, bends this way and that, trying to squeeze into the image both the view and their friend, their mum, their entire family or school group – who, in turn, strike whatever witty pose comes to them, which must make sense viewed through the camera lens but looks perverse to the world out- side. One man is trying to line up the London Eye so that it forms a halo around his friend’s head: ‘Left a bit . . . That’s it, that’s it, ha! Now, look like a saint.’
Westminster Bridge, with its constant supply of tourists, has become the very epicentre of world city London, city of icons, city of spec- tacle. It is a strange place. Let me show you around.
Let’s follow the crowd off the bridge, as it swirls past the London Eye and eddies in its shadow. In the two decades I have lived in Lon- don, a vast landscape of amusement has been built from here right along the south side of the Thames, entirely given over to encourag- ing the crowd to experience . . . anything: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. It is a route of permanent passeggiata. A tide of humans f lows from here downriver with the water from dawn till dusk and into the night, experiencing the thrills put on for their benefit, set against the picturesque background of the sights of London on the other side of the river, obligingly lit by the southern sun, like one of those painted backdrops on old movie sets.
When I arrived in London in the 1990s, the river was mostly ignored, unsure of its role now that the trading heart of the British Empire no longer bobbed with clippers and watermen. Well-meaning articles in newspapers would implore us to use the river better. In 1986, the famous architect Richard Rogers came up with plans for riverside piazzas, promenades and café-bars, called ‘London as it could be’. And now it is. It soon became the policy of local and national governments to encourage this promenade, and extend it, ever since Margaret Thatcher, having abolished London’s administrative gov- ernment, sold its historic seat beside the London Eye, County Hall, to the Japanese that same year. County Hall now houses the kind of souk of attractions you might find on a seaside pier: an aquarium, pubs, a McDonald’s, amusement arcades, bowling alleys, shops selling trin- kets and sweet treats, bumper cars and Death Trap, a ‘Live Horror Show’. Only the Japanese tea house offering a ‘Zen Universe’ seems out of place.
But the unexpected is ordinary in this landscape. These tourists haven’t come all this way for the kind of humdrum they can get in their everyday lives. How about a giant, upturned inf latable purple cow housing comedy events? Of course. Outside it, living statues dressed as Captain Jack from Pirates of the Caribbean and other popular shows entertain the crowds; one dressed as Yoda from Star Wars tickles ladies dressed in burqas with his light sabre; a half-dressed Phantom of the Opera, off duty, off his makeshift stage, smokes a cigarette through his mask; a headless giant f luffy duck, sweating in the sunshine, is groomed by his or her partner.
One could, perhaps, date the emergence of this landscape to the 1951 Festival of Britain, which turned a bombed-out old industrial neighbourhood here on the South Bank into a festival of modern design, illustrating new directions for the country after the Second World War. As it turned out, though, the new direction for the coun- try proved not to be what was contained inside the pavilions – efficient modern methods of sheep farming and coal mining – but what was created outside them, the act of visiting and experiencing: the very act of festival itself.
Today, all manner of kiosks and pop-up installations on our Thames promenade, sponsored by various corporations, offer entertainment both temporary and permanent for all sorts of festivals – world pov- erty, dance, poetry. There is food from every corner of the world. There are lurid banners encouraging to you ‘Touch. Explore. Play’, or ones offering visitors’ smartphones websites and apps to improve their promenade with multimedia fun. The more up-to-the-minute vis- itors, possessed by Pokémon Go, dart about like f lies, hunting virtual phantoms only they can detect in the physical world through aug- mented reality games on their phones. Even alienated urban youth can enjoy the public theatre. A cave of concrete beneath the Queen Eliza- beth Hall is home to things which in most places are now actively discouraged – graffiti, skateboarding, brutalist architecture – but which here, officially sanctioned by the cultural elite, are, for the time being, permitted.
At moments the melee of festival reaches fever pitch. But it’s only ever a street or two deep. Walk back from the promenade and you’re enveloped back in the undazzling city of brittle new loft apartments and hulky council f lats. And there are moments, just moments, where even in this landscape of spectacle, the dun-coloured dreariness of ordinary life kept at bay by this new urban skin surges forth again: say, when the Thames is at low tide, revealing its riverbed of rubble, shopping trolleys, traffic cones and mud; or when you happen upon an occasional, un-regenerated building dating from one of London’s gloomier periods, such as the 1970s, when the city seemed destined for a future of motorways and concrete, until a brighter, shinier future was fixed upon.
The city of mixed metaphors
But let’s not look that way. Let’s cast our eyes instead across the river to the north bank of the Thames, where the tourists’ cameras are pointing at that film-star backdrop. London’s centuries-old financial district, the City, has lately been fashioning itself a new skyline, build- ing new speculative office developments in all kinds of shapes. Judging from the number of photos being taken, this dazzling new look is a hit with festival-goers on the Thames promenade, its image destined for countless Instagram, Twitter or Facebook accounts. Viewed from this side of the river, these unusually shaped new additions to the skyline look unreal – cut, pasted and Photoshopped – like dinky ornaments lined up on a mantelpiece, or a huddle of toiletry bottles on the bath- room shelf. You could almost reach out and grab one.
These new arrivals all have nicknames. There’s ‘the Gherkin’, of course (or 30 St Mary Axe, as it is officially known). Everyone knows the Gherkin. Norman Foster’s skyscraper opened for business in 2004, and is now reproduced on adverts, television programmes and T-shirts as an instantly recognisable symbol of modern London, financial power- house. Muji, the Japanese homeware shop, includes it in its ‘City in a bag’ toy town, alongside Big Ben. The skyscraper’s fabulous, crystalline zenith, seemingly f loating in the sky, is used to entertain high-end corporate clients. Foster has, rather grudgingly, learned to accept its nickname.
A nickname for a building used to be a sign that it had entered popular culture, been accepted by the general public. Nowadays, though, buildings – especially ones likely to be controversial, such as a skyscraper – often come ready-equipped with them courtesy of their developer’s marketing department. Nearby, developer British Land is sticking to the rather dour ‘Leadenhall Tower’ for the Gherkin’s neighbour – ‘the Cheesegrater’, a 48-storey wedge fashioned by Nor- man Foster’s former business partner and his British rival on the architectural world stage, Richard Rogers. A few streets away looms Uruguayan star-architect Rafael Viñoly’s ‘Walkie-Talkie’ (real name 20 Fenchurch Street) – an oddly old-fashioned nickname for a 160-metre skyscraper that looks more like a curvaceous smartphone. That’s right, a skyscraper shaped like a smartphone. Anything goes in spectacular London!
There is logic behind its strange shape – economic logic, naturally. Skyscrapers commonly narrow with height, out of aesthetic tradition and engineering sense. But, since the rental price of upper storeys is greater, thanks to the views, such shapes, despite the demands of grav- ity, do not make economic sense in these financial times. So Viñoly, a most commercially savvy kind of architect, has reversed convention: his skyscraper bulges at the top to maximise premium rentable space. ‘The curve that’s ahead of the curve,’ toots the building’s advertising slogans: ‘The building with more up top.’ Apparently, and stretching credulity somewhat, ‘the slight curves of the facades’, explains Lon- don’s Evening Standard newspaper, ‘complement those of the river and follow the geometry of the medieval streets.’
Those futuristic, concave curves, however, turned out to ref lect not only the historic neighbourhood, but also the sun in high summer – down onto the streets below in what newspapers came to dub the ‘Death Ray’, when a ref lected beam of light reached such a tempera- ture that it melted the bodywork of a parked Jaguar. The Walkie-Talkie was renamed the ‘Walkie-Scorchie’, the ‘Fryscraper’. Media outlets sent their reporters to fry eggs using nothing more than the ref lected power of Viñoly’s architecture. ‘[I] didn’t realise it was going to be so hot,’ the architect explained to the Guardian. ‘When I first came to London years ago, it wasn’t like this . . . Now you have all these sunny days.’2 The building has been fitted with sunshades to prevent such a regrettable incident from ever happening again. After all, the build- ing’s tenants are some of the City’s most prestigious insurance firms. Anticipating risk is their stock-in-trade, though they didn’t see the Death Ray coming.
A skyscraper so dazzling it melts Jaguars – in spectacular London, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. In that same Evening Standard article cited above, Peter Rees, for two decades the City of London’s chief planner responsible for the skyline’s new look, explained his ‘fruit basket’ approach to town planning here in London’s ancient heart, encouraging in the architects whose buildings he approved or rejected an eclectic, fruity kind of design, and a variety of architectural metaphors – walkie-talkies, gherkins, cheesegraters, helter-skelters – all on the same stage. He is the man who decides what fruit to put in the bowl, which ornament to put beside the next on his urban mantel- piece, which showstopper to put on this most public of stages. But why adopt this approach at all?
The City was once the unassailed centre of Britain’s financial indus- try. Since Canary Wharf was built further east in the late 1980s, though, it has had to cope with a local rival that can offer nomadic global finance all the space and privatised bubbles of wealth it needs. The ancient heart of London had to get with the programme. It began doing so before Canary Wharf even existed. In 1986, when the ‘Big Bang’ first modernised financial transactions in the UK, it ushered in huge new trading f loors, which wedged themselves, sometimes uncomfortably, in the City’s protected tight-meshed medieval street pattern. A third of the City’s land was redeveloped during the 1980s, forcing a clash between the two poles of conservative politics. Encour- age the free market and allow developers a free hand? Or conserve the status quo of the past and protect the City’s heritage? Skyscrapers – too reminiscent of the f lashier sort of capitalism – were discouraged in what, for all its technological reforms, still remained a bastion of tradi- tion; in their stead were built ‘groundscrapers’ – vast, squat developments that contained these new trading f loors without troubling the skyline. Three decades on such thinking seems quaint. These days, places in Britain – even ones within the same city, such as the City and Canary Wharf – compete for investment and property taxes not only with next-door neighbours but also with investors from Tennessee to Uzbekistan. Modern-day international capitalism needs elbow room, and freedom to build and rebuild as it sees fit – creative destruction. Heritage and sentiment just gums everything up.
The City not only needed more space, it required a new look. Downriver, Canary Wharf offers its corporate tenants a steel, glass and marble facsimile version of downtown Anywhere: comforting, its luxurious, bland, international-style magnolia minimalism demand- ing little acclimatisation for financiers swooping in from either Notting Hill or more distant time zones. During the Noughties, the City, in response, has encouraged international property companies to redevelop the Square Mile likewise, with quality materials and designs deployed in little utopias of untroubling luxury. Old developments from times less concerned with public relations have been demolished, or, in the case of the once concrete-fronted London Stock Exchange, given a new, glassier, sparkling skin. The City already beats Canary Wharf in terms of heritage and authenticity, vital commodities to a certain connoisseur class of international capitalist. Now it has an updated, instantly recognisible skyline, too, to beat Canary Wharf’s dull blocks.
The City, though, has a new rival much closer to home. Just across the Thames, in an entirely separate (and considerably poorer) local borough touting for international business and collecting its own property taxes, there is a building to beat them all. For now.