You might wonder why I haven’t updated my blog for over a year. The short answer is: I’ve been living in London! I’ve been ground down to the point where I realised that Dr Johnson’s pithy “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” does not actually mean it is impossible to get tired of London. Not in the slightest. In fact, it just confirms we all get tired of life from time to time. But slowly London is turning into little more than a dehumanising playground for the super-rich, with all of its rich heritage being buried under totems of steel and glass. This is why I’m going to break my fast of posting with an angry blog post that has nothing to do with churches!
I used to joke every time I visited London, there was a new skyscraper visible from Waterloo Bridge. Now I’ve actually seen the concrete cores shoot up in real-time, followed by inevitable dismay of a steel frame with ugly cladding, I can confirm I wasn’t exaggerating. I was living at the edge of Vauxhall for a while this time, which all the way from Nine Elms to Battersea is essentially one big building site. Many of these buildings, such as the Keybridge estate on South Lambeth Road (the UK’s largest brick tower – as if anyone asked) replace former mid-height tower blocks. It has taken around a year to reduce the post-war tower on its site to a sad lump of smashed conglomerate and twisted rebar. The rest is being built on lingering brownfield sites, regenerated by the gigantically oversized American Embassy in Nine Elms, and the promise of a Northern Line extension, which is currently boring its way through the subsoil.
The housing round here is the generic example of “shiny and new”. Its newness is all it has going for it. Flats like goldfish bowls are stacked as high as they can go, as close together as possible – one wonders how you’d get a fire engine in between some of them in a disaster like Grenfell. They might be luxury when they open, but with their lack of any real social cohesion beyond commuter hideaway, they’re surely the slums of the future. Battersea Power Station, sitting unused for what seems like forever, has required the unchecked greed of the luxury property boom to find a use for it. This largely consists of imprisoning it in walls of steel and glass, building unconvincing replicas of its famous chimney-stacks, and falling back on its promise about the amount of affordable housing.
Affordable housing: what a wonderful phrase. You would think it would be a passing phase too, but the bubble never seems to burst. The egregious Vauxhall Tower which adjoins the St George’s Wharf – clearly visible from the World Heritage Site of Westminster Bridge – is perhaps the worst case for this. A Guardian exposé revealed there is not a single resident registered to vote in the UK in it. Most of it is empty. Cars with blackened windows merely drop their VIP cargo off behind a closed gate at the base. It’s basically a huge folly, which houses little more than occasional entertaining suites for foreign executives when they happen to be in London, and properties for high-flyers’ investment portfolios. And a big “up yours” victory lap from the land-grab.
Next to it is what is, I think, without doubt, the most incompetently ugly building in London: St George’s Wharf. It is a grotesque complex, which neither has the conformity of a single block, nor the variety and interest in its grouping. The pyramidal arrangement of the towers – which have been described as butterflied prawns which I can’t possibly top – is unnecessary and aggressive. What do the towers even do? Why is all the glass green? Why is it so downright bloody awful and right at the edge of such an important city? It’s the sort of terrible thing you’d expect in the desert, where there’s not much to do except make an empty statement: but not in a place brimming with important buildings.
The City has become unrecognisably foreboding and suffocating in a very short time. Aside from Tower 42 (The Natwest Tower), the Swiss Re Building (now officially 30 St Mary Axe, but really, everyone calls it the Gherkin) was the first skyscraper to be built in the City. It was enabled by the regeneration of the area after the IRA bombings in the early ’90s: the 1992 bombing that all but destroyed the Baltic Exchange, and the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing near Liverpool Street station, the crater of which undermined the facade and north wall of the little medieval church of St Ethelburga, all but destroying it.
The thing is, the Gherkin is not a bad building. It’s not the best, but it’s good. The original plan was for a 386 metre-tall Millennium Tower – that’s taller than the 309 metre Shard. The building that was eventually built was a mere 180 metres, but has both a memorable and pleasing profile. It has solidity – the motif of the steel-frame construction giving it both an interesting surface texture and distinct visual character beyond its silhouette. But most of all, it respects its surroundings and earns its height. When you visit what architects call the “street interface” (the “way in”) the steel frame cleverly opens up, quite invitingly. The way in is clear, and the building actually has a presence on the human scale. The lattice work also draws the eye up to the building above. You know immediately you’re in the presence of an iconic building you’ve encountered first on the skyline. This is far from true for many of the other garbage skyscrapers going up in the City since.
The Leadenhall Building (the “cheesegrater”) is the first of the diminishing returns. It’s not terrible, but it does pretty much the same trick for the street interface as the Gherkin. You could be generous and say it is sublime – but it’s more overwhelming and on the side of ugly. But at least it makes a statement on the street. The main reason for its silly shape is to preserve views to St Paul’s: which in some ways is a worthwhile function but also begs the question why a skyscraper was allowed there in the first place.Now, this piece of crap I have no time for whatsoever. 20 Fenchurch Street is sited somewhat south of the city skyscrapers, and dominates the view from London Bridge. It has a particularly arrogant top-heavy look. This look is basically the only trick it has. With the bundled tube method of construction, buildings can be any shape they want. These doesn’t mean that they should. This building is a planning disaster – partly it got through with its textbook greenwash strategy of “London’s highest public park“, which is essentially an over-priced bar with a few bedding plants dotted around. Its shape – which goes against any good sense in design – has also caused quite serious problems: the well-publicised “death ray“, when magnified sunlight reflected down off it caused property damage around the City.
But I think that what really shows what’s bad about this building is its street interface. When you walk past it, there’s absolutely no interesting frontage. There’s no way, if you don’t know to look up, that there is a tower above you. It just looks like every other front. All it is there for is to make a jokey shape on the skyline. It oppresses at the human scale. Medieval cathedrals may dominate the cities they lie in, and make big statements with lofty steeples on huge towers, but no one can argue that can’t realise when you’re standing right in front of them.
A similar building to this in many ways is Strata SE1 at Elephant and Castle, apparently known as the “Electric Razor” but more commonly referred to as “that stupid thing with the fans in”. It is claimed that these turbines make the building sustainable, but since nobody has ever seen them actually turning, this is clearly a load of bollocks. Ironically, what the building does do is create a wind tunnel effect that I noticed when taking this photo.
Again, its street interface is so poor (although, admittedly, at least it has some reaction to the main elevation of the skyscraper, with the big vertical division that carries up to the top) the only way you’ll notice you’re at the base of what you wondered “what the hell is that stupid thing over there with the fans in” at from Greenwich is because it’s caused your bucket hat to be blown off into the worst roundabout in the world.
There’s so many more hideous buildings to complain about. In the City, three skyscrapers are currently going up on Bishopsgate (in addition to the already completed Heron Tower, the tallest building in the City), and the extra ones in the financial heart, such as the intimidatingly-named (and actually, for the first time, taking a shape-based name officially) Scalpel on Leadenhall Street. The poor city churches: often ones that survived the great fire, such as Katherine St Kree, St Olave Hart Street, and poor poor old St Ethelburgas, seem about the only buildings of any age around here. Blackfriars One, looming over the bridge, going against everything the Friars Preachers stand for in its vainglory. The Chelsea Waterfront. The Corniche opposite Tate Britain on the Albert Embankment. 121 Strand opposite St Clement Danes (which would have been one of the main beneficiaries of the most egregious vanities disguised with greenwash: The Garden Bridge). You might notice I’ve left the Shard out of this, which although I’m not a huge fan, I feel like it’s the Gherkin of the South Bank. It’s not brilliant, but it’s undeniably striking, has a few clever ideas (such as a successful street interface), and despite its height, doesn’t really spoil that many views. I could go on with worse. But it’s time to finish.
It is an unimaginative cliché to label these buildings phallic. They’re nothing like phalluses. Phalluses are useful, and perhaps even for some, pleasureable to look at. Nor these buildings more specifically ithyphallic: an erection does not always point up, and you don’t show it off to lots of people to show how important you are (not unless you want to be banned from every branch of Wetherspoon’s). These skyscrapers are like giant aggressive fists, shaking intimidatingly in the air, grasping wads of cash outside the reach of those below. They’re not progress: but are often mostly empty, built by people who don’t give a crap about anything other than money. The people being conned into giving these things planning permission are swayed by a Blade-Runner fantasy that the future must be vertical. But down on the ground, the housing crisis continues.
Essentially, these things aren’t that much more than overblown marquees like the Crystal Palace. Hopefully they will last as long as the 1960s-70s predecessors they invariably are built on top of, and the importance of preserving the human scale in architecture, as well as ornament, craftsmanship, and good design will some day return.