"TUBE AND TOTEM.
"High buildings in London"
by a Paddington Householder.
Click once on the pictures to enlarge them to full screen size and bring up the Captions
Dear Members of Westminster Planning Committee,
Normally I keep out of controversies concerning the building proposals of my Architectural Colleagues. I made no contribution to the debate concerning Liebeskind's Spiral for the V&A, my 'local' Museum. It was not easy to refrain. For its lack of 'narrative weave' will render it unusable for a Museum that is structured around ideas, or 'themes' and must therefore be able to sustain whatever structures of narrative sequence its Curators devise, and seek to change from time to time. For this is how Museums are used today - so as to 'communicate'.
CONDEMNED TO BE NEVER ASSIMILATED TO THE UNDERSTANDING
The Berlin Holocaust Museum, to take it as an example, by seeking to appropriate the significance of its contents to its own contorted and inarticulate body, betrays not only an ignorance of the semantic and iconic limits of architectural discourse but an arrogance towards the loquacity of its contents and the capability of the Curators to communicate ideas.
By placing its contents into the realm of the urbanistic irrational it prevents them from being grasped by the rational exhibition of all of the converging tendencies - nationalism, racism, cameralism, eugenics, chiliasm, totalitarianism, and so on, that, when the one was added to the other, ultimately achieved the seemingly improbable 'critical mass' that resulted in the genocide of the Jews, the Gypsies, the Slavs, and all of the others denoted as 'untermenschen' and placed into the state of being so outlawed that anyone may kill them with impunity. Murders, wars and genocides - which have many other categories than the antipathy between Christians and Jews - are as old as human culture. They cannot be prevented by placing them outside reason. Only an understanding of the processes that support these acts, and the actions needed to counter, and re-direct, these deep cultural currents, can fight against their endless recurrence - in, for example, Yugoslavia.
By building the museum of the genocide of the Jews as an exercise in post -deconstructive counterformalism and contra-functionalism, Berlin has cast the subject, presumably for ever, out of the realm of the reasonable, the rational and the understandable. It will be lodged, in its state of disinterment, scarred by the spade-marks of the excavators, and exhibited as a relic of some incredible, entirely alien, and indecipherable culture. This will not help people to understand it. It will place it, like the cocoon of some frightful epidemic, in cold storage. But such 'freezings' do nothing to engender a 'resistance' to a disease, should the cocoon 'thaw out' - as such cocoons can always do - history being in the habit of repeating itself.
What is needed is to develop, by exposure to the disease, a mental resistance to it. This exposure can only be achieved by showing that the genocide was an event that was profoundly conceived, carefully argued, founded on juridical theory, passed into law and organised on rational lines. Only by uncovering the deep-rooted thinking behind it can an understanding how a complex of ideas, that were spread all over the whole Western world, both 'went bad', and still remain within our culture, is it both possible to contemplate the Holocaust and develop clearly understood principles that may avoid it occurring again.
URBANISTIC BANKRUPTS ROOT IN THE RUINS FOR 'GENIUS'.
London's Art establishment has, it seems, welcomed this grossly-over built fragment from the planet Krypton, home of the Superkinder, whose original had, at least, the virtue of its Greek etymology. But then what can the our leaders of taste know of either Urbanism or Architecture when the chief quality of the last Century was a determination to trash all received knowledge of the Medium, the 'mother of the arts'? The 20C ended with neither the support of 'tradition', nor of a new theoretical foundation for either large or small scale operations in the design of the human lifespace. What theory that there had been invented, by the 20C Modernist project, had, by the year 2000, decayed into the reduction of Architecture into a 'Fine Art' and the desperate hunt for 'Genius'.
THE 'HAT' OF THE 'HOUSEHOLDER'
These two giant towers cause me to abandon my 'professional' reticence. They encroach upon an area in which I have lived for 42 years. Nevertheless, although I wear the hat, here, of a mere householder, the 'professional' mind under it is burdened with more information concerning the conceptual infrastructure of town planning and architecture than needs to be carried by most local residents. I put this knowledge at the disposal of my neighbours for them to employ as they choose.
This contribution to the debate on 'High Buildings Policy' is, therefore, provoked by the 'Detailed Planning Application' for two 47-Storey 'towers' on the Paddington Canal Basin Site. These very tall buildings, which a few years ago would have been dismissed out of hand as wrecking views from all over the place, but particularly the great public amenity of Hyde Park, has to be taken extremely seriously when seen in the context of Prescott's admission of the architecturally-illiterate (but technically sophisticated - it is always supposed) Swiss Re 'gherkin' and the rash of other Tall Building Planning Applications, amongst whom is a real giant, again in the City of London, the 'Eco-Tower' by 'M3' Architects (Third Millennium Architects, I suppose, modesty was never an Architect's strongest suit!) which would be the tallest in the whole, wide, World.
OPEN SEASON ON 'HIGH BUILDINGS POLICY'.
One should also be very well aware of the well-attested enthusiasm of Mayor Livingstone for Towers as a manifestation of a 'modernised' London.
The Public should also be aware that any interest in 'History' is now abandoned by most of the Architectural and Design Professions. There is a strong current of enthusiasm for 'Retro-Revolution': a marriage of Green Culture and Contraformal Chic which usually births to the light of day as a 1950's, and even a 1960's ('cooler', more Minimalist), style revival. Everything that the Public thought was abandoned as the 'unacceptable face' of the Twentieth Century is back in fashion with the Architectural and Design Professions. 'Modernism', now that its forms have cooled to mere picturesque ruin, can be added to that long list of 'period styles' to which our aniconic Native Culture prefers to reduce the powers of any vital, intellectually predicative, art.
Supercharging this wide spread of personal Power-Ploys, Professional supremacy strategies within the lifespace development industry and counter-generational fashion cycles, is the widespread sense, due to the Millennium, the EEC, and so on, that a 'newness', even a 'New Britain' of some kind, is in order. As one of the Planning Officers in Westminster said to me: "It is 'open season' on High Buildings Policy".
'SITUATING' THE TOWERS.
Let us then take a step backwards from the examination of the two planning applications, one called "Paddington Phase Two", designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, and the other called "Grand Union", designed by Richard Rogers. Some building projects may be examined in close focus, but towers, especially, are so extended in their effect that they demand a wider context. To give them the level of criticism that such huge changes deserve, one is duty bound to examine them in the wider context that City Planning deserves, but seldom gets.
PART ONE: TECHNOLOGY
THE TWO 'MODERN' TOWER-TRADITIONS: THE CONTINENTAL-AMERICAN AND THE CONTINENTAL-EUROPEAN.
THE CONTINENTAL-AMERICAN TOWER.
One of the differences between Britain and America is that Britain became rich and powerful by developing other countries, while America became rich by developing herself. The 'Skyscraper' can be understood as an index of this difference. Britain's power and wealth showed in the means by which she controlled her scattered and diverse overseas investments - her Navy. In the late 19C Britain's ship-commissioning policy was to ensure that her battleships were more numerous than those of all the navies in the World combined.
The USA was so vast and so diverse that she combined within herself all of the products that the Northern Europeans and Asia had spent centuries trading and fighting over. As soon as the American Republic was unified, and sucking in population faster than she could generate it herself, her economic engine needed no great foreign trade to magnify the wealth of her state. The USA was a whole world in herself, and soon, by building far more railways, roads and airlines than the whole of the rest of the globe combined, made her prairies into oceans across which vehicles of all kinds, except ships, came and went in that exchange of goods that gladdens the heart of any Chancellor of Exchequer.
BIRTH OF THE SKYSCRAPER
The Skyscraper was born in the mid 19C, in Chicago, precisely at the point at which the wealth of American agriculture met the railroads to the more populous Eastern States as well as the Great Lakes and foreign export markets. Its stone shafts, shooting up out of the vast, level, prairie marked the point at which the whole enterprise of 'the West' turned into money. They were, with an almost painful literalness, effigies to the individual millionaires who promoted them, as well as graphs of prosperity, climbing dizzily up into the clouds. As all who have studied Architecture know, Le Baron Jenney's steel frame, and Captain Otis's elevator, gave rise (excuse the pun) to such a classic description (from a land agent's advertisement) as "Several good-sized rooms to each side of the elevator".
These totems to prosperity suited the wide dimensions of the Prairies, where the problem was to come upon a Town at all, rather to than seek out some small patch of unspoilt woodland. Travellers, sighting them from 50 miles away, across the 'dirt' roads, welcomed the prospect of comfort and civilisation they advertised.
The point of interest, from Britain, is that when, after only some thirty years of development, the nascent skyscrapers of Chicago had risen 200'0" (60M) above the pavement, the City of London, the biggest city in the world, centre of the world's biggest Empire, brought in a regulation, in 1887, prohibiting the occupation of any room more than 100'0" (30) above the footway. Landowners were not prohibited from building pinnacles and domes above that height, but these constructions were for symbolic use alone and could not be rented. London, already on top of the World, had no need to do anything as puerile as to build high. This regulation was not repealed until the early 1950's. Interestingly, this was (in 1947 precisely) when India left the Empire, effectively bringing it to a close.
The 100'0 - law was explained, at the time of its enactment, as designed to retain equity between landowners - especially as to the enjoyment of privacy and daylight. Perhaps Diogenes was the example - desiring only that one man not throw his shadow upon another. An escape clause allowed this height to be exceded if one obtained the agreement of all landowners within a radius of 100 yards. The effect of this law was to complete London, up to the mid-20C, as a city of Palaces.
A 'CITY OF PALACES'.
Whether these were occupied by Dukes, or subdivided into apartments, or stacked bookwise into grand library-shelves of row-houses, made little difference to the domestic grandeur of late 19C - early 20C London. My own feeling is that London, even up to the '39 War, being still an Hierarchically-ordered Society, could not allow 200' 0" towers filled with 'Trade', and staffed with Clerks, to overawe the patrician houses which were the chief ornaments of the West End and the foci of its Social rituals. The Palace of the Magnate, whether Parvenu or Aristo, was the model of all streetscapes, whatever the uses made of the rooms behind it. The fact that nearly all of London for almost 300 years, from 1600 to 1900, was made of the modest row houses of 'business-people' just makes this universal appropriation of a Courtly High-Culture both wonderfully 'aspirational' and wonderfully 'middle-class' in a way that appears to us, perhaps too romantically, to be almost entirely without the vulgar grossness of the gin-and-jag parvenu cultures of the 20C.
At least, speaking as an Architect, one can say that the espousal of Classicism by these "hommes, moyen, sensuel" ensured that they lived in streets, squares and houses that could trace their genealogy back, quite unbroken, through Greece, and Egypt, to the origins of 'cultured space' in Mesopotamia. One can not get a very much better Architectural pedigree than that leased along with a well-appointed London Row House in a great forested square, embodiment of a latterday Garden of Eden.
THE END OF 300 YEARS OF A CONSISTENT URBANE CULTURE.
The '39-'45 War closed this long chapter of London's history. Huge swathes of it still remain, testaments that it was one of an unique urbanistic humanity, with an especial inventiveness in 'small things'. It has much to teach us, even today, 50 years after its abandonment by Officialdom.
THE 'POST-WAR' ARGUMENTS FOR TALL BUILDINGS.
'Tall buildings' were envisaged as part and parcel of the new 'town planning' regime that was introduced in 1944. If one consults the publications of the period, some of them, such as the infamous, HMSO 1947, "Redevelopment of Central Areas" with the force of virtual law, one reads that 'high buildings' were promoted as being quieter, better ventilated, and sunnier. It was argued that they covered less ground than low buildings and so encouraged the laying out of public parks, albeit of a small scale. The first tall buildings after the War were apartments for rent built by the State. They were descended from the 'other' Tower-Tradition, which comes from Continental Europe. We will examine this in "Building for Love", later-on.
DOING GOOD AND 'DOING GOOD'.
After the fall of the Attlee Administration, in 1951, the Real Estate Industry, which had been dormant for the 12 years since 1939, adopted the 'tall building' model used by the Proletarian Apartment-Builders. This was an act of opportunism, akin to a hi-jacking, of some genius. Instead of being required to build commercial structures out of brick and stone, as had been required before the War, Developers found themselves unprotesting 'victims of fashion'. They found themselves allowed by the Planners, and encouraged by Architects, to construct crudely-detailed 'slab-blocks' from the shoddiest materials prescribable. Raw concrete walls, asphalt felt roofs and painted steel windows were the materials used to construct the modest dwellings of the Noble Proletarian Masses, so why improve on that for a mere Commercial Building? The big, bland, 'slabs' advertised themselves by being widely visible, which always helps when bringing a product to market. They were wonderfully cheap to build - as one might expect from something designed, by Welfare Agencies, to house the poorest families, and they sold like hot cakes when the bakery opened for normal commerce after 12 years in 'public ownership'.
The ugly buildings, crudely-designed and cheaply built, spawned by the unholy marriage of speculation and charity, eventually stirred the Public into revolt. Movements such as SAVE (Britain's Heritage), the Victorian Society, and so on, came into being during the late 1960's. They lobbied to represent a widespread Public dissatisfaction with the Socialist Planner's enthusiasm for demolishing the 'bad old Past', and the developer's tendency to build a 'Future' so shoddy that this 'past' acquired a retrospective attraction that was not so much nostalgia as the recognition of its 'culture', however jaded and poorly understood. Anything was better than the politically-correct Nihilism of the Post War 'idealists' and their opportunistic realtor-bedfellows. Out of this, what can only be called a total failure to project an attractive 'future', slowly emerged the peculiar British Urban Strategy, which was to 'preserve' (called 'Listing'), everything built before 1950.
THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING
Coming out at the same time as this second 'hijacking' of the Post '39-'45 War Socialist Planning System, this time by the Public themselves, were the technical results of having lived with the 'tall' post-war blocks of flats and office buildings. It was time to measure all of the promises, given to the Public in the Post War Town Planning directives, against the results of a quarter-century of building what they had so helpfully prescribed.
THE 'TRADITIONAL', MID 20C MODERNIST, APPEAL OF TOWERS: LESS NOISE
It was noted that tall buildings were not quiet. Indeed they created a noisier city than the traditional terraces of London. Noise is a vibration carried on air. The only way to stop it travelling through air is to place a wall between the ear and the source of noise-energy. A tall building can only interpose its window panes. When one opens the window one hears the smallest sound from hundreds of metres away. Towers collect sounds, like a magnet, from a vast radius. High, tall, Terraces will suffer sound pollution along main roads, and railways, but once around the corner they act as solid walls, and an acoustic peace descends that one can find nowhere in the 'wide open' spaces of a city of towers.
THE 'TRADITIONAL', MID 20C MODERNIST, APPEAL OF TOWERS: BETTER AIR
The European Planners, such as Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who promoted the slab block as an improved housing form, advised that the whole building should be lifted off the ground on slender pillars. They argued that this would further liberate the site so that it could be used for recreation. What had not been forseen, especially in a windy country like Britain, exposed to a maritime climate (our air pollution, which we almost the first to invent, back in the 18C, blows away onto our friends across the Channel), was that air is prepared to travel downwards as well as upwards and sideways when it meets an obstacle in its path. If one climbs up onto the 100'0" (30M) level of London's normal roof heights, one usually finds a good breeze and a drop in temperature. However, down on the street, the air is relatively calm and the temperature warmer. The uniform building heights allow the wind to pass over them without obstruction. However, when one builds a slab higher than this 'attic plain' it obstructs these otherwise fast air currents and forces them to seek a passage around it. Some wind rises up over the roof. Another fraction goes around the wall. But an appreciable fraction blows vertically down the face of the building.
Both experience and wind tunnel tests have established that this creates a strong whirlpool of air that moves most fast, and proves most troublesome, right up close against the tall building that is creating it. The effect of forcing the air down into the street is to more than double, at ground level, the upper level windspeed. It is most unpleasant when it is raining for it increases the weight of raindrops by over 200% while, at the same time, blowing away an umbrella. Lifting the building off the ground renders the problem several magnitudes worse as the compressed airflow hugely increases in velocity as it squeezes under the building, sending dust, and rubbish, flying.
The higher the skyscraper, the greater the downdraught. This is, as nothing else in City Planning, in inexorable law of Nature. It has been well known for some 30 years and appears to have had no impact whatever upon the enthusiasm of Architects for High Buildings. But then in downtown Houston no-one of any consequence walks in the street. The people who work in the Banking towers either drive or, if they must walk, use a labyrinthine private tunnel system reinforced with overhead walkways, all air-conditioned and guarded by security forces.
There is only one way to prevent these fierce gusts. It is to build 'towers' (if one is to have them), on top of 'terraces'. The terrace must fill the streets from side to side, in the traditional manner of the civic 'isola', indispensible component of the city of island-blocks. Then the downdraughts only descend to the roofs of the terrace-buildings, and the streets below do not feel them. Building cylindrical towers, like factory chimneys, as some Architects recommend, offers the least resistance to the high level winds. but round skyscrapers (if one could lease them) will still cause discomfort at pavement level. One reason for this is that all commercial office towers have to have very wide floors so as to accommodate a whole firm, or department, per floor.
THE 'TRADITIONAL', MID 20C MODERNIST, APPEAL OF TOWERS: BETTER VENTILATION
As to the ventilation of the buildings themselves, it is the the Clean Air Acts, not building high, that has improved air quality. Low ambient noise levels allows one to open the windows, and employ natural ventilation, without letting in traffic noise. This is more easily achieved in a city built of nine-storey terraces than 30-storey towers. Indeed the tower is now known to be so vulnerable to traffic noise that the contemporary solution is to build two external walls with a distance between them wide enough to walk along some duckboards. These walls are both made of floor-to floor glass.The idea here is that windows can be opened in the inner wall while the outer one screens noise. Complicated calculations are also proposed which channel air heated by the sun, in this vertical glasshouse, into the building. This is argued as a 'green' ventilation system. However this double wall, or even triple, when the double-glazing of the inner wall is allowed, has some disadvantages.
Firstly, even though it is all made of glass, it does cut out light, which in dark, northerly, Britain is not plentiful. This leads to higher electrical lighting bills. Recent high-profile 'green buildings' have been reported, in use, to be consuming 300% more electric lighting than they predicted.
Secondly, compared to the brick walls and conventional windows with which builders still cover far higher skyscrapers in New York, triple glass walls are shockingly costly - exceeding masonry by a factor of 300%. This means that, to claw back some money, such complex glass walls are often crudely detailed, cheaply built and ugly.
Thirdly this 'fat-wall' solution hugely increases the bulk of the building. the only useful thing established by decades of fruitless research into using mathematical analogies to design the human lifespace, by Lionel March in the Cambridge University Martin Centre, was the mundane truth that one can double the area of a building's footprint by only a small increase in the thickness of its bounding 'wall'. What this does is to encourage the Architect to add-on a few more floors so as to continue to preserve its 'slender', 'towering' profile. No one wants to remembered for a 'dumpy' tower! So this 'acoustic muffler' of crudely detailed glass forces the already tall building to get even taller.
THE 'TRADITIONAL', MID 20C MODERNIST, APPEAL OF TOWERS: MORE SUN
It was also found that not only did tall buildings cast very long shadows in the Winter, which is just when neighbouring buildings welcome a few shafts of low sun to fall right into the backs of rooms, but a lower building can enjoy as much 'insolation', as it wants, through 'sunpipes' of various kinds. 'Sunpipes' vary from enclosed courtyard Atria, through to sections of external walls made of glass forming 'sky-atria' or large enclosed 'winter gardens'. 'Sunpipes' also include mirrored conduits that pass daylight, and even sunlight, down ten floors. Daylight and sunlight can also be focussed onto collectors and piped down fibre-optic cables so that ambient lighting uses natural energy - during the day.
The glass wall, like the glass roof, was found to need a complex system of mechanical shading devices. These nearly always obscured the view. In the end this turned out to be not so bad as the view became one of merely other ugly glass and metal boxes.
The fact is that the sun varies hugely in its energy level. It is always either too bright or too dull. Computers demand a hot-spot-free photonic environment from which direct sunlight has to be virtually outlawed. At night, of course, the sun does not shine at all. The association of tall buildings with an increase in exposure to sunlight is by no means either direct or simple. One is as likely to find a garden or a greenhouse, where one can meet and confer, or work on a portable computer, in a 'Groundscraper' Atrium or on a 'seminar-balcony' projecting into its calm, and richly-decorated, volume, or on the roof of a 30M-high terrace block, as one is sitting behind the elaborate, costly, computer-controlled, cedarwood (green-culture) slats of a 90-metre-high multi-skinned 'Trombe' Wall.
THE 'TRADITIONAL', MID 20C MODERNIST, APPEAL OF TOWERS: MORE OPEN SPACE
Down at Ground level, a peculiar new problem seemed to emerge in societies inhabiting free-standing towers. Disorder increased. This was due to the fact that in a city made of terrace walls the separation between private and public is very clear. It was also easier to understand the finer gradations between the wide-open, 'rip-roaring' style of the main road and the quieter behaviour expected as one penetrated the streets and squares behind it. It is easy, in a city of streets and terraces, for everyone to 'agree' on the 'customary' style of behaviour appropriate to the different sorts of public and private space. Nothing of this kind is clear in the 'Public Open Space' typical of the city of towers. Confusion, friction, and a sort of lawlessness result from this environment of unloved, odd-shaped, open lawns, refuse-bin enclosures, lock-up garage courts and other Municipal-Architect utilities. But this is due as much as anything to a deep-rooted confusion as to what is what, and where is where, according to very ancient and deep rooted conventions concerned with hearth and threshold. These defects were, in particular, the defects of the Architects of that day. For they remained purposively ignorant of aspects of human behaviour that they would have termed atavistic or primitive in their Tenants (while conforming closely to them in the 19C Terrace Houses in which these Municipal Architects invariably lived).
Today, even when 'towers' are built, they are built into a 'street'-system as much as possible, so as to enhance ideas like 'front and back', and 'public and private'. This allows the user to 'make conventional sense' of the new lifespace.
In conclusion, while not necesarily arguing that Towers are better or worse than Terraces, or 'skyscrapers on their sides' as they called one of my buildings in Houston, Texas, one may be allowed to conclude that the technicalities of this matter, and their effect on the general urbane microclimate, are very open to argument. It has been proved, by experience, that there is no overwhelming material or physical, that is to say 'Engineering', advantage to a city of towers. If anything the technical arguments indicate that a city of towers carries a load of technical problems not found in a city of 'wall-buildings', like terraces.
PART 2: MONEY?.
IF NOT TECHNOLOGY, THEN WHAT?
We can now return to the 'cultural' or symbolic question free of any compulsion to live in Towers for some over-riding technical reason. The question of "whether to tower or not to tower" is reduced to a 'cultural' discussion. We come to questions of the kind: "what do they mean" - and "who do they advantage"?
One way in to this is to look and see who is promoting 'high buildings'.
Perhaps we may divide these Agents, in time-honoured fashion, into those who build towers for love, those who build them for money, and those who build them for power. Speaking for Architects, I claim the motive of love, affection, desire (even sex) or whatever it is that is not either money or power. We must assume that Property Developers, or realtors, build towers for Money.
TOWERS FOR MONEY
The appeal of the Tower for the developer is the easiest to understand. Its ability for itself to advertise itself is clear. What is, perhaps, not so well grasped is the economics of its manufacture. This is because, in Britain, our towers are normally far too small. Our early 20C 'art-deco' buildings, like the Shell building on London's North bank, were contemporary with the Art Deco skyscrapers of New York. Yet, because of the prohibition of tall buildings, they built only the base and the crest of the skyscraper. These are its most costly parts - the lobby and the skyline features. The Shell building misses out on the enormously elongated shaft of the tower.
THE ELASTIC BREAKS
In this it avoids the architectural problem that the Architects of Chicago never solved. One may study their struggles in the excellent books of black and white photographs proudly made by their Contractors, at the time, and preserved in the RIBA Library. The classical facade has a Basement, or Podium, a Piano Nobile, and an Attic. The classically-cultured Architects of the Turn of the Century projected fine and solid bases and cornices of Florentine scale, all finely chiseled by the bright prairie sun of Chicago. The Piano Nobile however staggered upwards like a frame of cinematograph film chattering in the shutter, endlessly repeating the same fragment of composition. This was a Classical 'parti' made of elastic which finally snapped and threw off its terminal framings. In the end (or should we say merely after the '39-45 War), only the infinitely extended middle remained. The late 20C Skyscraper became a story with neither beginning nor end - just an infinite impulse to power onwards and upwards like the images in the film "Brazil".
By excluding this architectural aberration the 19C lawgivers of the LCC may have saved London from becoming the peculiar monument to the defeat of Classical Architecture, that is the Architectural History of Chicago. However they also excluded the economy of the tower, which is to repeat the same floor as many times as is possible. The 'economic' secret of the great towers of America are that they are vertical mass-production lines. It takes around five floors for the building production routine to get into its stride. From then on up to the coxcomb of the building, that advertises it from 50 miles away, it is all cheap construction. However in order to take advantage of such economies, and build more cheaply than one can with a 'groundscraper', with its inbuilt economies of net-to-gross space ratio, one must build big floorplates up to a height of sixty stories. Such a building would be seen from a radius of 30 miles around London and shrink the lifespace of six million people into nothing.
LONDON, CAPITAL OF A COMMERCIAL CULTURE
London is a city that has been largely formed by 'Developers'. Moreover these worthy and energetic agents have had, until the mid-20C, little in the way of any 'higher' direction such as one finds in 19C Paris with its nexus of Emperor, Haussmanian bureaucracy and Judiciate, all interwoven into a metropolitan development medium with the huge power required to build a great city along 'planned' lines. The effect of the more 'modest' (to use a polite euphemism for chaotic) development systems of London has been to decrease the scale of building and planning and to advantage the sense of privacy that is the peculiar adjunct of the 'British Freedom'. Paris is a well- planned city, London merely a well-regulated one.
HOW 'REGULATION' REALLY WORKS
This used to be effected by the use of urban 'models' whose characteristics were embodied in closely-written, and seemingly merely physical 'bye-laws'. However these laws did refer to specific 'architectural' features, like courtyards, oriel (bay) windows, cornices, attic storeys, domes and pinnacles and so on. They defined the use of these in terms of fire-resitance and property-ownership. These laws were administered by local officers who knew every building in their area. All of this has slowly been allowed to decay away.
CARRYING-ON GOERING'S GOOD WORKS.
The reason for this, as I discovered in my four years in the LCC-GLC, between '62 and '66 was the take-over of London's Architectural administration by the generation of Post-War Architects. They rejected every 'tradition' built up over centuries of work, failed to study them or learn the first thing about them, and, as the most extreme of them desired, wanted nothing more than to raze London to the ground and build the 'city of the blessed' as Proletarian slab-blocks in urban parks.
ERASING THE TABLETS OF THE LAW AND BREAKING THE 'CANONIC MODELS'.
The effect of this was to destroy the way that the development of London had been regulated. For by destroying the bye-laws, they destroyed (as was their ultimate purpose), the 'models' of street, square, terrace, island block, courtyard, facade, portico, podium, roofline, and so on. They hoped, by this act of confused destruction to liberate London into that peculiar region of the Mediterranean that all Corbusian Proletarians design for and eventually go to live in their richly undeserved retirement on comfy Public Pensions.
The real effect of this trashing of Londons archetypal Architectural and Civic models was to reduce London to a Terra Nullius with neither history nor the solutions that have grown out of its specific characteristics. Most Projects, today, begin in illiteracy and end in stupidity.
THE URBAN SELF IMAGE DEVELOPS AMNESIA
Most major projects built since the war have resulted in the loss of some fragment of London's transparency to people's mental ability to grasp and remember their own city through an understanding of how it is and how, and why, it came to be. How can one grasp the well-engineered, but conceptually opaque labyrinth, around Puddle Dock? It is like the greying-out of a once active mind by some slow disease that cuts the life from it by substituting a mere meaty stuff that refuses to 'join-up-to' and become vitalised by London's 2,000 years of life.
London's height of beauty and order was in the first half of the 20C, when most of her underground infrastructure and main-line railways were already built and when the great bulk of her undergound railways were being built. Compared to the massive investment of the late 19C and early 20C in such civil engineering works, the late 20C has been miserly, merely living of this decaying capital. On top of this the City flowered in a long and slow gestation, producing innumerable Urbane blooms of a seemingly undying vitality. Until, that is the pollution of History by Hitler and the importation into Britain of the Central European Disease, of which more later - in the 'other tower tradition' - that of Continental Europe.
This loss of the authentic models, ond, even worse, of any successful attempt to update and modernise them in the way that London always achieved up until the 1950's, is why our excellent Developers can no longer be allowed to just get on and build what the market will buy. Without acceptable and widely-supported canonic models of the sort of individual buildings that everyone agrees will add-up into a city whose whole is greater than its parts, what alternative do we have but this enormously onerous rite of Public Participation and so-called Planning?
PART 3: LOVE?.
TOWERS FOR LOVE
As for Architects - to do anything for love is to enter the lists of Poetry, a subject not given to the essayist to easily articulate. But one must do one's best.
We can dismiss the obvious attraction of building a giant totem in the middle of one's city, or any city, and having one's name attached to it. Who would not be seduced by this scale of immortality? Architect's are as prone to self-aggrandisement as anyone. No one needs to be tolerant of such impulses - from whatever quarter they emerge. We discuss them, anyway, at greater length, in the next section on building "Towers for Power".
LOVE OF "THE PEOPLE".
But Architects have a subtler amour. It is "The People". Architects are great ones for 'doing good'. Architects are never happier than when doing good with other people's money and on a very large scale. No one has more money than 'The People', conceived collectively, and nothing could be bigger than 'works' designed 'for them'. This is the fatal allure that ensnares Architects to the courts of men of power, who represent The People from Machiavelli's Prince, up to Hitler.
"PHILOSOPHY BY STEALTH"
Leon Battista Alberti, Machiavelli's equivalent in City-Planning Theory, and a more subtle mind than anyone has understood except for Mark Jarzombek of MIT (Joseph Rykwert included), co-opted the Renaissance's 'unhistorical' concept of Classicism as the tool that would ensure the survival of Philosophy - however dodgy the ethics of the Prince. It was a plan for the triumph of Poetics over Politics. To understand Alberti's city-design theory is to understand how the unmentionable history of Europe slowly created the most cultivated of humane lifespaces - a refuge for poetry and philosophy that outlives and outlasts the souls of their innumerable and fallible Builders, Painters, Sculptors and Patrons .
Unfortunately for Europe, this project, in shall we say its 500th year, finally proved incapable of the periodic renewals it had undergone, even during the 'dumbing down' (or lightening-up) of the 18C Enlightenment and the early 19C, post-Revolutionary, drive for a rational mechanisation. Classicism always recovered a new vitality. But the 'stile Pompier' of the late 19C Monarchy of Rentiers, or some such plethora of ghastliness and plutomanic piling-on of plumpness, sank it out of sight in a swamp of vacant glitteracy.
ARARAT WITHOUT THE ARK
Grey cement Modernism was born out of the most fevered of these swamps of tastelessness. It was from the saccharine-sweet cities of the Austrian Empire that 20C Modernism surfaced, as alike to the over-masticated residue of an emetic as to the bloodless cadaver of an Architecture left after a too - thorough cleansing of the surfeited body. Central Europe leapt, to reverse the aphorism of de Tocqueville, from Architectural Decadence into 'Modernist' Primitivism without achieving a Cultured Urbanity along the way.
SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR.
I call as witness Camillo Sitte, late-19C Viennese Urbanist, who penned what remains, for me, the best description of the Medievo-Humanist city. Yet he concluded his studies by admitting, with admirable honesty, that he had not been able to decipher the intellectual strategies which lay behind the city-design he so admired. He had to conclude that "Modern Man had lost the x-factor" which enabled the Architects, and patrons, of the 16C and 17C to build places that he could only characterise, in the end, as 'picturesque'. When one reads of Factors 'x' in Science and the 'Picturesque' in Art it is time to close the book for one is in the presence of intellectual failure.
It was at this point of the collapse of the lifespace design traditions, under pressure from external forces like Engineering, and the internal failure to re-Engineer itself as a Medium that still managed to extend its role as 'Mother of the Arts", that Architecture, and Architects, acquired The People. From being Imperial Subjects, the People transformed into a Mass.
In London, the People never ceased to be simultaneously the Mob, the Institutionalised Citizens of London and the Subjects of the Monarch. People in London had individuality, colour, and form, along with iconic blazons.
In Central Europe they lost all qualites except that given to them by the police-state bureaucracies of the Eastern European Empires - an Identity-Number and a centri-fugal, anti-Imperial Balkanicity. The subjects of the Hapsburg and Romanoff bureacracies were as diverse as they were inherently disloyal to the Imperial Autocracy. Those who wished to bind them to the centre accentuated local differences and the need for the Empire to adjudicate between them. Those who wished to loosen Vienna's grip upon them, found force in lumping their bucolic variety into a featureless Mass. This ugly Monster, like the fabrication of Dr. Frankenstein, was promised the freedom of an automous life, liberated from the 'rubber-gloved hand' of the Imperial Puppeteer, if only it would admit to be galvanised by the lighting-strike of Violent Revolution.
This terrible culture, more alien to London than the Oriental polities of the Empire, conceived of its new 'grey-cement' architecture, exemplified in the witless civilities of Ludwig Hilberseimer, chief academic assistant to Mies van der Rohe, as both People's Prison and Democratic Apocalypse. When Everything and Everyone was the same, what mattered who was Slave and who was Master?
THE ARCHITECT AS SOCIO-PLASTIC PYGMALION
The 'Architect' occupied an extraordinary role in this Eastern European project. His hand stretched, like that of the Diety himself, equipped with the celestial rulers and dividers of 'The Plan', to measure out the 'existenzminima' for a new Lifespace of the Masses. The Architect-Planner's Eye of Revolutionary Reason, burning away the clouds of Myth, envisioned a world that was simultaneously a squalid barracks too brutal even for chickens, and a liberation from every constriant of precendent and convention. It was an exercise-ground for ontological athletes who required no 'external' support for body and mind. Its object was to liberate a 'faceless Proletariat' to be themselves - whatever that might turn out to be after being thoroughly evacuated of history, convention and culture.
Design, from clothes to every sort of utensil, was conceived of as simultanously 'subversive' as well as 'coercive'. The one thing it never was, was ruminative, cultured, literary, arcane, even, and 'illuminating'! In short it was never a philosophical support in an imperfect world. Design propelled one towards public perfection, on pain of public punishment.
CRUISING TO THE PROLETARIAN ELYSIUM OVER THE RUINS OF EUROPE.
This is the 'social project' underlying the 'sun-drenched' slab-blocks of Gropius and Corbusier. Reared-up on a grey cement Entablature fit for any temple to Poseidon (which Corbusier perfectly well understood, for he was the most cultivated of Architects) his ferro-cement Ocean Liners were to bear the Masses on their voyage to Elysium through great forests planted on the ruins of Paris. Not that Corbusier was exclusive. A civic 'Forest Lawn' was his recipe for the 'Rome of Horrors' and every other site of Europe's inherited urbanities.
These monstruous city-crushers, juggernauts of the bureaucratically mythified Mass-Proletariat invented by the disastrous 'Europe of the East' are the other 'Tower Tradition' that we inherit from the 20C. It is not hard to understand why it is the the raw concrete Ark, stacked with honest Proles, rather than the glitzy totem of Consumerist Capitalism, that is the Modernist Tower Tradition more favoured by Architects. It reminds them of that time, around the mid-20C, and well within the living memory of the contemporary Pillars of the Profession, when they held the fate of Mankind in their propelling pencils. The Architect-Planner conned the Bridge of the 'Anti-Capitalist' City of the Toiling Masses towards the eternal afternoon sunshine of the Last and Final Plan.
Yet although Architects dreamed of such 'powers' they can hardly be accused of seeking power for themselves through the design and construction of these 'Cities without Qualities'. In reality they all ended up working for the vast and faceless bureaucracies of the Public Housing Authorities that have now, and quite rightly, been swept away. Both they, and their Medium, were reduced to impotence by these unworthy fantasies.
So who, if anyone, does acquire Power through Architecture, City Design and Tower Building? Does anyone build 'Towers for Power?"
PART 4: POWER?.
TOWERS FOR POWER
And would it be to demonstrate Power, or to acquire it? The motives of the early tower-builders of Chicago and New York were never kept a secret from anyone. Indeed the main purpose of the commercial tower was to advertise the power, wealth and social status of the tycoons, such as Chrysler and Woolworth, who promoted them and whose names they bore. Their Architects wore the roofline 'crests' of their inventions as 'crowns' to fancy dress balls.
DOWNTOWN AS THE 'LIFESPACE-CHURN' FACTORY
From that time on until today the American commercial tower has had the purpose of advertising itself and, through that 'impersonation', its inventors, owners and tenants. A premium on novelty is one of the results of the American imperative to develop their native resources, so making the colonised land into their own. The effect is to place a premium on the newest, if not the tallest tower. If it is both newest and tallest, then, whatever its 'architecture', its rental will exceed that of any other building.
The American downtown is a site, much like that of large oil refinery, on which the latest machinery stands next to an empty plot of broken concrete on whose surface one can still find the bruised traces of a demolished 'older model'. These dusty patches of ruin stand next to rent-machines whose surface gloss is, like the latest cosmetics, their most imperishable attribute. What few know is that these parking lots exist in this makeshift state because very soon they, in their turn, will support the 'new towers'. The magic 15 years of the fashion-cycle will pass and the Goddess of Novelty will come to claim the lives of her chronically-challenged 'old' skyscrapers, that were, only so recently, so 'new'.
The new automobiles, themselved perfumed in the cheap scent of industrial plastic with which industry beguiles the owners of new Cadillacs, will park their soft tyres on the scattered fragments of 'yesterdays Architecture'. The only winner in this ruin of the urbane lifespace that was once, in the words of Jane Jacobs, the "Great American City", is the Internal Revenue whose gold is cast from the economic furnace, stoked by the Cold War, that has made fuel of every component of the American cityscape. For if Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the Cold War was won on the subdivisions of Santa Monica - inventors both of the cashflow and the final fantasy of the 'Star Wars Strategy' that only a US Revenue could promote with anything approaching versimilitude.
BOUND TO THE WHEEL
The Transatlantic Towers of Today, glitter with glass so cheap that it wrinkles and shimmers like thin cellophane (why bother to use glass thick enough to lie flat when the paper only wraps a fantasy-product, the infinitely tarnishable notion of the 'New'). One views them at a distance, speeding along the elevated concrete ribbons on which the American Urbanite must perform his diurnal rite of submission to the ballistic laws of Isaac Newton and the Christian love that enjoins him not to end his life and those of all others who drive badly and have offensive bumper stickers, with the huge dynamic mass he so casually pilots. Downtown is a short newsflash on a vision screen fitted with a steering wheel. The gossamer towers wheel and go as the intercom intones the weather and the stock prices rise and fall. The air-freshener filters the polluted atmosphere of Planet Central Area until touchdown on some elevated floor of the raw concrete automobile-parking silos that stand, like non-visible flunkeys, beside the Lurexed body of the Tower.
To call this a 'lifestyle' is surely a euphemism. Any life can be 'given' 'style' by those who live it. But surely the idea behind the notion of 'lifestyle' is that it is something invented, and created, or at least 'chosen'. Whereas the 'way of living' of the late 20C, described above, is either an act of service to the State or an act of subjugation to it, depending upon one's attitude. Choice, invention and freedom do not enter into the matter. The great glass towers which flank the concrete flightways along which go the never-ending stream of little cubicles are the playing field on which America wrote the rules that made her into the Richest Nation. All other Nations seek, in their own halting and inadequate ways, to emulate this gaming-board. Roads are built, automobiles manufactured and skyscrapers erected. But the result is not the same.
A BIGGER 'OFFSHORE ISLAND', BUT DOES IT NEED THE REST OF THE WORLD?
So much so is this that, even after 50 years of this purported 'Americanisation' of everywhere, America remains, uniquely, the only place where 'Americanisation' really works. The proof of this is that, today, it is the 'remote', 'isolationist', USA that attracts more global inward investment than the rest of the Globe by an order of some five magnitudes over her nearest rival, which remains the tiny, over-populated island of Britain. Germany comes third. European and Asian Capital invests in the USA, and through that, back into their own countries, just as, in the 19C and early 20C, they used to invest through London into the global economy of the official, as well as the 'unofficial', Empire.
Just as after the collapse of the Empire of Napoleon, and the subsequent rise of Britain to world dominance, the catastrophic collapse of Russia leaves only the USA as the main channel of development capital into the World. Money is Power and Power attracts Money. It is a 'benign cycle' whose only downside is that in becoming rich and powerful one loses one's innocence - a commodity that used to be in plentiful supply in the USA.
The model for this investment is, however, differently structured to the one that was used by London. For whereas, as we suggested in our opening sentence, the USA became powerful by developing her own diverse, and therefore complementary, natural resources, Britain developed overseas, accentuating economic differences in order to increase the trade and the flows of capital by which her marine and financial institutions profited. There was, in this 'economics of difference', no canonic 'lifestyle' to which the 'British Empire' required everyone to conform. Indeed, the policy became, especially after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, to avoid 'missionary' interventions in local affairs. "Lifestyles" were treated as distinct from the Imperial administration and the commerce it facilitated. In this it is different to the American model, which is based upon unifying its continent into a single market of Consumers.
In order to become an American it was necessary to transform oneself from whatever it was that one was, when one immigrated, into someone who was ambitous to see America develop her resources with maximum speed in the service of the homogenised 'Consumer' that one did one's best to emulate. The secret of the American economic 'take-off' is not, therefore, her wealth of natural resources, which other Continents also enjoy (who even knows what lies below the immense expanses of Central Asia - the 'Mid-East of Eurasia?), but the peculiar energy, one might even say frenzy, with which this economic and cultural, self-reinforcing, 'tautology' operated.
THE TOWER AS TOTEM OF THE 'BUSINESSMAN'.
The cult of Development and the 'beau ideal' of the Consumer, explains the extraordinarily high status that Commerce enjoys in the USA. For there is, or was, until very recently, no higher ethical American calling than that of a 'good businessman'. A man that looked after his customers and his workers, and piloted them to economic fortune, could be trusted with any activity, be it chairing a Hospital, a University, or an Opera Company.
Such projects were of a lesser status than the main aim of building a universalised and normative 'way of life' that owed nothing either to History nor to Geography, a culture of whom Warhol could assert, without irony, that, from Alaska to Florida, it was "all the same". America, like all the West European colonies, was a 'terra nullius'. But the peculiar identity of the USA was its foundation at the time of a Neo-Classical cult of Democracy that decisively fractured any connection with vestiges of European Feudalism.. The USA was the one big 'Western' state that never even began to entertain the post-Napoleonic Monarchism of Count Metternich that led, in 19C Britain, for example, to a huge Neo-feudal cultural project of 'Victorianism'.
The result of this radical 'Republicanism', when allied to the older, New England Protestant cult of rustic autarchy, was to elevate the status of the 'honest tradesman' to canonic status. The 'plain' Farmer and Trader and Craftsman became the model citizens of this latterday Greco-Roman polity. This ethos defeated, in the Civil War, its local Feudal version (needless to say it was the South that had the sympathy of H.M. Government!)
'Big Business', somewhat in the manner of the history of Rome, grew out of these noble. yet humble, beginnings. Its ancestry in the founding mythologies of the USA must explain why its many lapses from the moral high ground have, even today, not led to the loss of status of Commerce within the USA. It fell to the subtly transformed status of the 'Businessman', after all of the centuries that he had occupied a status below that of Landholders, Bureaucrats, Aristocrats and Priests, to be the 'Agent', the 'author' who would write the story of the plain Farmer and Trader and Craftsman, and write it bigger, and, who knows, perhaps even better, than anything that had gone before.
The late 19C, to early 20C, Skyscrapers with their material grossness, their open, public, status, reared in the centre of the city, proudly manifesting their richly ornamented lobbies and facades, were the magnificent palaces of the cult of the populist project of the America of those years.
But those years have passed. First the Economic Crash, then Fascism and Communism, Hot War and Cold War. All have taken their toll on the old vision of America. What remains of it today? Little except nostalgia. The great Art-deco skyscrapers seem, today, more like monuments and memorials to a bygone innocence, when it still seemed possible for a great capitalist like Rockefeller to 'represent' the poor white farmer and symbolise his cult of a New World.
It is hard to imagine the global exportation of this unique and peculiar history, with its 'aristocracy of plutocrats', its monumentalisation of Law, and its ethical elevation of the humblest human labour of 'work'. For it is still this that underlies America's wealth, notwithstanding the latterday eruption of the Media. What are American films but an endless celebration of gadgetry - Rambo as the ultimate Handyman-Bricoleur monumentalised by every US building worker with the incredible armoury of sophisticated weapons by which he defeats the material world - and takes home the salary of a third-world cabinet minister.
It is also hard to imagine the global export of the special emphasis, in the culture of the USA, on the invention of a very deliberately 'new' culture that is consciously synthesised to 'be American'. What happens instead is that the 'other' countries entirely fail to invent such novel, home-grown, artificialities of their own. Seeking the 'novel' they merely import the novelties that were 'Made in America'! To drink Coca Cola in Russia or Pakistan is the most un-American thing imaginable. The French farmer who trashed his local MacDonalds is showing a truly 'American' insistence on 'buying American'. This is to say, in his case, to 'buy French'.
Yet, even here, America is changing. the supermarkets in Houston stock every beer in the world. The city speaks 96 languages. Almost all of the taxi-drivers are Nigerian. American sophisticates now preface their identities with a cultural patronymic. One is now a Lithuanian-American, or a German-American. The only epithet I have not yet heard is "English-American". Is that because the language makes the coupling too intimate? Or is it because, in being linked by language, Americans reserve England to themselves, as the birthplace of 'their' language and therefore too much of themselves to be 'hyphenated'.
POST-IMPERIAL, POST-SOCIALIST, POST-THATCHERIST, "NEW LONDON".
In which case, what of the 'difference' between England and America? What role does the 'American Skyscraper', giant totem and econometric bar-chart of 'civic churn', play in London? Where is the 'territory' that is 'staked-out' by being centred around London's 'downtown'. Is it merely the rustic suburbs of the 'home counties' surely that is an entirely comic proposal for a city that was once the capital of a global empire and is, even now, an institution of global scope. Everyone knows that more overseas Banks locate in London than in any other centre of capital. To represent this by flagging London's presence from Bishop's Stortford, as does Canary Wharf, is iconically puny. The Isle of Dogs is provincial. It is the sort of symbol that appeals to a prairie farmer, not the global cosmopolite that graduates to London from precisely those primitive commercial beginnings. Ware Travelstead, its first Promoter, could hardly swing his arms out of synch with his legs.
Merely 'building high' is to underestimate the peculiar uniqueness of London as the perennial city (that it has been for centuries) in which 'foreigners' most like to congregate, live and do business. It is a city that is located in Britain. But this was not its chief virtue. That was to be located just off the Eurasian landmass. It was safe from the rulers of Europe. As a result it attracted their footloose capital. The power of this money eventually overwhelmed even the Monarchy of Britain, leading to a Polity that was, as Pitt explained, "run on sound business principles".This was a culture that accentuated diversity, even eccentricity, as well as privacy. Any business was legal provided it was not ruled illegal. This anything-goes ethic of London was overlaid with the formalities required to finally rule vast, and disparate, Oriental Kingdoms. As these have gone, and with it the certainty of London's Status, so the City has become nervous and unsure of how it should represent itself, even advertise itself, in a World growing increasingly fluid and footloose.
PART 5: LONDON ETCETERA.
A NOBLE ANARCHY SELF-REGULATED INTO A GREATER WHOLE
To control this huge, and hitherto successful phenomenon, several tools are needed. All of them need to deal with the apparent paradox of anarchy combined with discipline, or freedom combined with order. This paradoxical principle penetrates to the core of every quality of London. Its Architecture and Urbanity are no exception. The requirement here is for a technique that results in parts that are free to 'be themselves' yet combine into a whole that is greater than them. The first is the anarchy, the second the discipline.
THE ILLITERATE IN CONSTRUCTION OF THE INVISIBLE.
For the last 50 years this quality of 'keeping in keeping' has been held to mean being dull to the point of invisibility - such as being made of glass and exhibiting merely 'the basics of construction'. Nothing could be less capable of 'being London' than todays elegant exhibitions of architectural and urbanistic illiteracy.
100 YEARS OF FEAR AND LOATHING
London will not recover her proper 'high style' until a new version of 'unplanned self-regulation' is instituted, by law (rather than by individual 'decision-makers'. The means to such a technique should have been invented during the 20C. The failure of its Professionals to achieve a deep intellectual penetration of their Medium is perhaps unique to Architecture as a cultural practice. The reason for this is that its proper Area of Study, which is Architecture, as given, and Cities, as built, has been, especially since the '39-'45 War, a forbidden zone. Practitioners, with few exceptions, have all learnt their trade within an ethical envelope that holds 'the past' of Architecture as well as of City-planning to be, at best, devoid of useful ideas and, at worst, a swamp of siren voices that will seduce the Modernist, corrupt him and plunge him into the uncontrollable practice of unspeakable acts, such as colour, decoration, symbolism and others too degrading to even imagine, descending all the way to 'interior decoration', even.
THE 'WORKER'S PERSPECTIVE'
Yet who but Practitioners could ever decipher the Medium of Architecture in such a way as to invent a new utilitarianism out of the old ways. Who but a Practitioner could come to the decipherment of 'History' with the 'attitude' that will lead to what is needed 'in Practice'. No Historian, or Critic, or even Critical Theorist, can expect to obtain the particular attitudes to the vast corpus of Architecture needed to decipher it in such a way as to arrive at principles which result in its Practical extension into the future.
Yet it is only by the decipherment, and synthesis, of such a fundamental Modernisation of Architecture and city-Planning, as received from History, that London will once again be a city whose parts are noble and poetic, and cohere into a totality that is greater than them all. For where is the point of achieving such a totality, if it is only capable of enrolling ignoble, dumbed-down, illiterate blobs and boxes, as at present? Who would even trouble to learn, orpractice, the necessary 'disciplines' if they did not guarantee that the 'work of genius' supported the whole, rather than, as at present, invariably destroy it and detract from it - as with Liebeskind's spiral.
THE PROFESSION OF A PRACTICE.
The fact that such an Urbane technique does not exist at the present time is entirely the fault of the Architectural Profession. For this is the very essence of Professionalism, and the only reason why a society would support and protect it. A Profession exists to develop a body of knowledge out of practice. Whatever theory there is, that is proper to a Profession, has to be derived from its practice and devoted to improving its practice.
A TABOO ON TRUTH.
Yet the peculiarity of Architecture and Urbanism is that the practice of the last 50 years has been founded on the principle tof a taboo on everything that has gone before 1900, and even 1950. It is the very reverse of a subject like biochemistry, that has succeed by cracking the code of DNA. Architects, for the last 50 years, instead of turning the whole battery of 20C science upon their 10,000 years of practice, to 'crack' its code (which undoubtedly exists) have been trying to 'start again, (from zero) - inventing a new History . It was called, without any irony, by Reyner Banham, its best known Critical theorist of the 1960's: "a History of the Immediate Future!
BORN OF THE DESPERATE UNION OF FAILURE AND IGNORANCE
The history of Architecture, when it recovers its sense of itself, may regard the moment, around the 1920's when it was decided to wind it up and 'start again' as its most inscrutable Chapter. But the plot is quite simple. The style revivals petered out around the 1870's. The last 25 years of the 19C were spent, with more energy in cultures once great and now small, but not without pride, like Catalonia, Holland, Belgium, Norway and parts of Austro-Hungary, in trying to 'modernise' Architecture. The pulping, palpitating, fungoid, fructifications of form found in these places were, in the 1920's, judged to have failed to flower into seed. They were as sterile as they were stereometrically sublime.
In short the advent of the 1930's 'International Style', with its taboos on ornament, columns, symmetry, domes, arches and anything else congruent with the Architectural medium, was driven, in its moments of hectic gestation, by the desperate sense of the total failure of Europe to renew its 'traditional' Architectural technique. Banham's "history of the immediate future" rested upon the history of a total failure to decipher, and re-engineer, the past such that it could be usefully employed.
How could one 'abandon a practice' that even its most assiduous 19C students failed to understand in such a way as to reconstruct it to solve the problems of their time? Where were the text books that explained how Architecture, as such, worked. By this I mean, not the steel, stones and wood that 'built' it, but the spaces, forms, colours and paintings which Owners actually paid to use. Where was the theory of the workings of Architecture 'as product', rather than Architecture as a 'production'? They do not exist. They have never existed. When I was taught Architecture back in the 1950's we were not given a single lecture on 'Architecture', as such. Half way through the 20C, its theory had vanished with even what meagre literature it had - all even more tabood as besmeared and besmirched by the Festung Europa antics of the Viennese Corporal.
At the end of the 20C so desperate is the lack of 'practicable theory' that Architectural textbooks now consist of compendia culled by hitting the electronic 'search and find' button on the University computer database. Their contents are made up from the portions of heavy-duty philosophers that use 'Form', 'Surface', 'Structure', Light (and even 'Architecture'), as metaphors. These textual fragments are then 'taught' to the Students, who must take them away and attempt to give them some sort of analogical equivalence in the wondrous stereotomic interface of their computers. These wobbly and fractured forms are then, somehow, fitted with bedrooms and committee rooms and termed both 'habitable, as well as 'Architecture' - presumably because they somehow conflate the metaphors of 'surface' employed by Deleuze and Baudrillard! Can one wonder that all Architecture Students dream, today, of being commissioned to build a 'Museum'. Presumably they would agree with Antoine Guadet, who exclaimed in 1886, when commissioned to design the Parisian Musem of Minerals and Geology: "Ah! At last a building without a function!"
No, 20C Modern Architecture is not a glorious liberation from the oppressive brilliance of an all-powerful conceptual framework. It was born out its own sense of a profound failure to understand a sophisticated practice. Banham, in his candid early days (like 1956) once described himself to me as a "failed technologist". Perhaps this explains his lifelong love affair with a 'technology' that was never, on its own, going to revive the heartbeats of a 'failed Architecture'. A measure of his arrogance, and ignorance of the 'problem', instituted when he was put in charge of teaching history at University College, London, was to relegate all Architectural History prior to 1900 to the level of a hobby, placed on a par (for Architects) with model aircraft construction - which he would certainly have thought potentially more rewarding to the budding Hitech Practitioner.
FROM TRIUMPHALIST TECH TO 'GREEN MACHINE'.
It is this PostWar formula, of a taboo on examining the History of the Ancient medium, combined with a belief in the cleansing power of a, suitably miniaturised, American Pragmatism, that underlies the contemporary, 'world-beating', brilliance of British HiTech. In its origins, back in the 1950's (I myself, as an ex-airplane pilot, was fingered by Peter Cook, its longest-serving Guru, as one of its earliest inventors) HiTech celebrated the machine in the triumpalist PostWar Atomic Power mode. One may say that this culminated in the Centre Pompidou, a building whose rudimentary prototye was designed by one 'Spider' Webb and published, in 1956, in Polygon 1, a student journal I edited. Today it has transformed, gaining an extraordinary emotional charge from certain native British mythologies, into the 'Green Machine'.
Britain is an island with a climate that is well watered and neither to hot or too cold - a well-tempered Paradise whose inhabitants grumble about their weather because they are too appreciative of tranquillity to mention anything more consequential. Speaking architecturally, Britain is a big city (the U.S. Eastern seaboard megalopolis is seven times larger) surrounded by a substantial seawater moat. The walls of this city were its chalk cliffs. However Britain was small, and although moated, vulnerable to invasions from the Continent, which, for the first thousand years after Christ, it constantly experienced. Only the final invasion of the French Normans and the integration of Britain and France, put a stop to this weakness.
After the Italian invention of banking, and the expansions of trade, explorations and colonisation, Britain became the 'offshore island' of, first of all, Europe's Capital, and then the World's Capital. At this point the little green island began to become what it is today, the first centre of the Global trading and banking system that has eventually overcome all local autarchies, joining everyone together into some form of financially-founded intercourse.
The ethic of this intercourse was the cash value of difference - trade occurred between deficiencies and surpluses. These had to be encouraged if commerce was to be enlarged. Most States found, after instituting effective means of taxation, that it was to the advantage of their Governments to encourage the traffic in goods and services. Education, urbanisation and all of the familiar attributes of 'modernity' combine, ab initio, and according to the understandings of political theorists since Machiavelli, to promote trade and the State revenues that flow from it.
THE ISLAND ALBION.
The actual island of Britain, at the peak of her labours within this putative 'Empire' underwent a peculiar metamorphosis. The Empire was, in reality, more of a 'club' which not everyone joined of their own accord, but surprisingly few struggled to leave. The effect of several years of this peculiar international 'arrangement' was to transform much of Britain herself into a peculiar site of Ancient Myth and Lore that we can call, generically, as well as actually, the 'Home Counties'. This was an area inhabited, in spirit, if not in fact, only by the very young and very old. Adults laboured overseas, or voyaged into the ferocious commercial jungle of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and the other big cities. The Home Counties, which comprised the British 'countryside' everywhere, was a place in which the young were well-soaked in Native Myth and History. The immersion was supervised by grandparents and other parent-surrogates, like Schools, all of whom understood that it was important to 'know who one was' when one went out into the World amongst people who were different and whose difference was to be accentuated because it was foundation of Britain's peculiar wealth and power.
GLOBAL AMBITIONS OF THE 'GREEN MACHINE'.
I give this presumptuously-potted history of Britain only to illustrate the massive tensions conjoined in the contemporary Architectural enthusiasm, which has already reached messianic proportions, for 'Sustainablility'. For the development of Architecture as an art and science of 'Green Machines' has given British Architecture the conceptual envelope it has lacked since its ground-rules were reinvented back in the 1940's. Green-neess is now calculated against a matrix of energy-budgets and pollutant-values and ecological dimensions. A whole battery of mechanical processes have been brought to hand that far outstrip the formally vague requirements of the always too fickle and flexible 'functions' of the human user. Now the Architect deals in the cosmic geometries of the sunpath, the physics of slow-moving airmasses and the embodied energy-value of aluminium, versus brick, including recyclability and anything else that comes to mind.
The spatial needs and intellectual appetities of Human beings are now downgraded to occupy the nooks and crannies that may be left by the absolute determinants of built form dictated by the strategies required by the various 'wars' being waged, by Architects, on behalf of Humanity, against resource depletion, atmospheric pollution, global warming and any building without solar panels, propellors and a full metal overcladding with 8" (20cm) of foam insulation. One of these 'downgradings', now more and more commonly understood, by Architects, as a prerequisite to Green -Tech Progress , is that of the 'look' of a building.
IF YOU CAN'T SEE THE TARGET, SHUT YOUR EYES AND FEEL THE FORCE.
The design discipline of an external facade has been considered, for around 100 years by now, as a sure sign of atavistic and regressive thinking. The Avant Garde orthodoxiies of 20C Modernism have agreed with Wittgensteins condemenation of 'pictorial realities'. This explains why some of the best 20C Architects, such as James Stirling, preferred to illustrate, and even compose, their buildings in isometric projection, rather than 'Beaux-Arts' facade sciagraphies. Now, withthe wonderfully recondite physics of Green Machinery, and the peculiar forms that can be justified by them, the contemporary Profession no longer has to rely on some contentious argument against 'facadist formalism'. It can argue, in positive, physical, calculable, terms, supported by the Universal Ethic of Green-ness, that to object to the appearance of a Green Machine is to support the Aesthetical above the Ethical. Needless to say that this was the theme of the recent Venice Architecture Biennale, which proves that Europe is now no stranger to the new Technophilia, and its exclusion of 'sense' from the Architectural criterion. As a young ex-assistant of my office recently put it: "I no longer worry about what a building looks like".
EYEBALLING THE 'DE-CENTRED' BLOB OF BEAUTY
Being a woman she was also conforming to an aspect of Feminist lifespace ethics which tends to regard visual criteria as subsumed by the pejorative phenomenon of 'the gaze' and its association with the identification of females as 'sex objects'.
To this I always like to add that Edmund Burke considered that beauty could usually be explained by referring to the facts that its examples were ususally rounded and glossy, if not actually shiny. Such properties certainly characterise all of the most 'radical' buildings preferred by my Profession in recent yours. Indeed one can predict that Y2000 may come to be called the "Year of the Sphere" . The Millenium Dome is a segment of a sphere. The London eye cycles a ring of glass viewing eggs on a 'monorail to nowhere', a fitting monument to the Futurist cities of the 20C, rather than to those of the 21C. Foster's Swiss Re tower is a geodesic sphere whose Y-axis has been stretched into an ellipsoid. The same Architect's 'home' for the London Mayor is a sphere on a stick, as is the Stirling prizewinner for 1999, Future System's Media Stand at Lords. Future Systems has recently won planning permission for a new Selfridge's Store in Birmingham which is a featureless, windowless, blob, covered in fluttery aluminium sequins the size of round tea-trays.
A 'TOUCHY-FEELY' FUTURE.
Burke explained this human predilection for the round and shiny by describing the maternal emotions humans feel for babies and the erotic appetites stirred by the firm and glossy flesh of adolsecents. I seem to recall that he also referred to ripe fruit. In any case, none of these can be called anything more than merely instinctual and dumb to the point of being not merely wordless but blind as well. From Hitech to HiShine to HiThere: its all pubescent plumpness when you get down to the curved-on-curved aluminium.
MID TERM REPORT: "COULD DO BETTER".
This building of a Future of absolute and joyful purity, wreathed in an unpredictable informality, yet wonderfully explicable in arcane calculations (if one accepts that vague premonitions be valid presuppositions), is squarely aimed at doing good to all Mankind (albeit in a very indirect, yet completely dictatorial, way). It has given my Profession a fresh taste of that long-lost 'Messianic Feeling' it so enjoyed during the 1960's. Announcements abound of Global, European and National Initiatives and Projects predicting that Britain will "Lead the World" (once again), in Green (Machine) Architecture. Yet contemporary studies, by the British Professional, and Governmental, bodies themselves, are beginning to criticise the cult of complex gadgetry in Green Architecture as useless and counterproductive of precisely the reduced energy consumption, etc, that the techniques promised.
For the facts are that Britains's very equable climate makes it rather easy to achieve 'natural ventilation' , 'natural lighting', some use of wind-power, a 'light-pipe' or two, and all sorts of modest ameliorations to the real, external, 'natural' conditions that the occupier expects an Architect to keep at bay. None of this amiable, and gentle, ingenuity works so well in Houston, Montreal or Uzbekistan.
FAIRIES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE GARDEN
Lurking behind these technical felicities is the less scrutable, and far more powerful, mythic mystery of Britain as a place whose National 'genius loci', in contrast to the 'cultivated artificialites' of all other cultures, is Nature herself. It pleases the British very much to feel that almost nothing comes in between them, sitting indoors, and the pure, natural, fauna and flora of their delightful little island. They will suffer, and pay for, almost any artifice invented to promote this illusion of 'being natural'. They will, for example buy supermarket apples, cleanly wrapped in plastic and imported from California, while going next door to the garden centre to purchase flowering plants with real earth on their roots, with which to invent the temperate jungle that both situates and isolates their ideal home within its dream of virginal, 'natural', innocence.
CONCEIVED IN THE ABSENCE OF CONCEPTION
For the peculiarity of the 'English Cult' is how by being a 'cult of nature', as physis, it dispenses with the idea of 'ideas', as such. To both conceive of, as well as to experience in full, the 'national genius', is to engage with the island physically, with one's conscious, thinking, mind reduced to a mere autopilot slightly adjusting and 'correcting' a body guided by intensely emotionalised perceptions. Not only is there no need for clear and powerful conceptions to plot a route through the voyage of the 'Eng;ish Cult', but such supra-nominalist cerebral phenomena qualify one for immediate disqualification. The soul that is hungry for England, can not embrace its mirror unless it is divested of any artifice wrought by the mentalities of Culture. It can only mate with a reality that is the product of a Nature that is conceived of as prior to Humanity. England, like the Renaissance fiction of Antiquity used by Machiavelli and the designers of the Rational State, exists outside of Historic time. But, somewhat more extremely, because dedicated to no conceivable purpose except to exemplify a pre-lapsarian innocence, quite destructive of all mental effort except vague 'mooning'.
In short its most perfect intellectual flowers are, indeed, the flowers themselves that are created by the cult of the 'gardening of England' itself. The profuse chromaticity of the English flower garden, devoid of any qualites (inodorous, non-symbolic, inedible -physically superfluous) except an epiphanic efflorescence, partakes of an intellectuality that is as pure as a cerebral brainstorm. It is all a very strange business, and very local. One can not imagine the cult of flower-gardening reaching quite so far down into the soul of a whole community on some vast continental plain. But there we are. It seems a lovely, harmless, charming thing, as are many others which fail to employ the mind.
ZERO-ENERGY, EVEN LESS EFFECT
The effect in Modern English Architectural Culture is to propel the Profession, in full cry, towards the 'zero-energy building'. This is to say a building that is perfectly attuned to this ante-diluvian state of 'Natural, Albionic, stasis'. English Architects, today, believe absolutely that not only the whole of human life must be redesigned so as to 'save the world', but that the Heath Robinson contrivances and contraptions, flaps, louvres, sails, propellors and all, of British Green Architecture, can provide the Ark of salvation. The strange machines it conceives are like the fairy cities built of leaves and cobwebs in late 19C children's books. All of its visions are saturated in the underlying 'innocent physicality' of the 'English cult'. To achieve virtue is to engage bodily with Nature. One must remain unsituated, drifting at large, trusting in the bosom of a Natural Law that will always bring one to a benign landfall. One must, at all costs, avoid becoming locked into and (securely) conceived within some large, cosmological, framework of accultured, Human, construction. That way disaster lies - for it is decried as 'unnatural'. Like all of the achievements of Science, the British Green Architecture project is a tautology. It will undoubtedly succeed, when judged against its own 'Green Criteria'. But it will have little effect when considered against the larger picture, which is the theatre on which it assumes itself capable of action.
The reason for this is that it fails in the same way that its favourite nostalgia-period, that of the 1950's, failed. It ignores human nature. Pop Art was the result - a culture that grew outside the womb of the old culture of the Text. Las Vegas, the fastest-growing city in the USA, is the result, a Frankenstein with no genetic truth to it, merely a monstrous resemblance to its parents. The lesson of the 1950's is that if the Old Culture will not provide for human nature, then Illustrators, Film set designers, Impresarios and the whole 'post-architectural' lifespace culture of Pop will push eagerly through the Developer's door. If Architects either will not, or can not, provide what humans want then other people will.
"LONG-LIFE, LOOSE FIT".
Nor is it technically correct for Architecture to 'take the lead' in pursuing 'green' technologies beyond a certain level. Passive energy-saving strategies are effective, and cheap. Green solutions to the needs of cities for energy, waste disposal and so on, can not be solved with economy by the internal physiology of each single building. That is a Baden-Powell apprach to city-design. It is more sensible for all new buildings to be built so as to be easily fitted, and re-fitted, on the normal 15-year obsolescence cycle, with more and more efficient, 'green' technologies as they emerge under economic and fiscal pressures. Technically, all that buildings need is a good skin, good circulation, a good social space structure and a capacious ductwork system. 'Engineering' the rest of a buildings properties is best left to the specialist services, each of which is a technical world unto itself. Nothing could be less capable of keeping up with the technological times than the peculiar assemblies of dysfunctional air ducts and monster aircowls that so enthuse the contemporary Profession.
BUILDING ON A FOUNDATION OF TRUTH TO REAL SPACE AND REAL TIME.
More importantly, most of the 'ungreen' phenomena of today consist of acts taken by human beings who remain ignorant and unaware of their real, scientifically-measurable, place in time and space. The primary task of Architecture is to effect the situation of Mankind, the original inventor of Architecture, within 'real time' and 'real space'. This is a primarily conceptual operation whose physical and space planning tools have already been invented, but largely ignored by the Profession (who know such a project is impossible). It reverses the Post-War strategy, which was to pursue a mechanist ontology rationalised by decorative ideologies that bore little structural relation to actions on the ground. Placing humanity within a frame of reference that brings real time and space into focus prioritises the thematic structures of a 'green because true and real' Architecture, requiring only that a set of physical tools be invented to effect the conceptual project.
The key agents of any cultural change are human beings, not buildings. The role of buildings in such changes is to provide a structure of social spaces, of a fundamentally 'theatrical' kind that allow people to manifest their being in a space that is 'public' in the sense used by Hannah Arendt. This 'public being' is both individual as well as social and is the bedrock of what Arendt calls the space of the 'Polis'. The two key aspects of such a framework of 'spaces and places' are that they be themselves vitalised by a predicative narrative and that they provide, perhaps even more radically (when seen against the taboos of 20C Modernist Architecture) for the inscription of dense and complex ideas via the 'daughter' media of painting and sculpture. It should be unnecessary to add that the death, in the 20C, of these two brilliant Media was caused by their ejection from the maternal embrace of the 'Mother of the Arts'. But that is another story.
British, Green-Machine, zero-energy Architectural autarky is extraordinarily questionable, both because it sidelines the problem of 'publishing culture', in general, and because it is set in this overcrowed island, in particular, the home and fount of the 'mercantile ethic'. For one can say, without fear of contradiction, that the day the Globe reverts to a society of local, wind-powered, villages is the day the British Millions depart their little island and apply to become Mongolian Cattle Ranchers (Central Asia being the last 'Empty Quarter' - and nicely ventilated) while Berkshire returns to the shepherds from which it was so rudely taken some centuries hence.
The British, above all peoples, must solve the ecological problems of the 'global commercial culture' for whose accession they remain the willing or unwilling (for some people have greatness thrust upon them) Agents.
THE ONE-CENTRE BRAIN
Here we come to the only plausible excuse for the peculiar narrowness (to the point of invisibility if viewed laterally) of the 20C Architectural ethic. It is the enormous effect of the Architectural Writer. Words, as we all know, have a power out of all proportion to their material being , although only an engineer could say such a ludicrous thing! The 20C gave us the illustrated book, a thing, today, of such beauty that a text like S,M,X,XL is now a 'bigger' phenomenon than the 'architecture' it 'describes'. What hope has the puny individual Architect, once so omnipotent as he controlled painters and sculptors who were the only means available, even as recently as the 19C, to the achievment of 'coloured image-power'. Today such a power seems ludicrous, overwhelmed by the daily deluge of polychromed visuals. What use could it be to attempt to compete with Writers and Graphic designers empowerd by these new Media?
And so it has come to pass that the Practitioner, hard pressed by the exponentially exfoliating technicalities of practice (many of which are now enthusiastically self-imposed in a suicidal (wobbly-structures) drive to outshine the Engineer), has allowed the Critic to do his 'textual thinking' for him. Even the Book Designer swamps the pictures of the Architects buildings in a blizzard of Photoshopped 'media-star' trivia. It seems, today, that Architecture, in the words of Baudrillard, has "vanished into air" .
Of course, none of the powers of Architecture have really vanished. They have, in reality (speaking scientifically and technically) , been added-to and augmented. But Architects, bound by the taboos of Modernism, are the last people to know this! Perhaps it is not so hard to see why Architects have become both 'textually' dumb as well as 'iconically' blind. The brain is divided into many, rather specific, modal centres. It is a fact of practice that working in three dimensions, for weeks on end, as one does on a new design, atrophies the speech and textual centre. Working in the graphic mode needed for 'Iconographic Engineering' atrophies the three-dimensional, or 'plastic' centre. The Architect works, or used to work, and will, in the future, have to work, in all of these three modes.
Moving from one to the other is, in fact, a guarantee of intellectual development as ideas when moved from one medium to another, develop a unique dynamic, proving useful to 'centres' of conceptual activity both from which they were exported, and into which they are imported. It is the same principle of the fruitful combination of anarchy and discipline that we seek, and find, in a great city.
FROM 'MOTHER OF THE ARTS' TO MUSCLEBOUND MACHINE
Architecture and City-Planning should, because of the challenging diversity of 'brain centres' required, attract Practitioners who enjoy the intellectual athleticism that this develops. But 20C Architecture saw to it, from its very beginning, that this would never occur. Architecture used to be understood as the 'Mother of the Arts'. By this was meant that painting and sculpture were born from out of her sturdy frameworks of columns and beams. Paintings were visions into worlds not visible by the naked eye. They were both 'framed' as well as 'steadied' (as in farm-stead) by the columns and beams of a 'trabeated' Architecture.
Austro-Hungaria, that sloppy mess of cream-puff Architecture and Imperial city-planning, invented the idea that late-19C vulgarity and ignorance could be held at bay by stripping Architecture down to a primitive box of raw matter, occasionally plated with 'God's decoration' in the form of slices of decorative veneer. The 20C developed this craven strategy into a narrow cult of 'untrue' space and 'true' materials. Architecture banished both painting as well as sculpture, its more intellectually lively 'children' from its, by now, genderless and barren body. The clouds of ideology that have swirled around 20C Architecture and City Planning have all been merely smokescreens. Practitioners know that Architecture itself, as they have been taught it and practice it, today, is a medium requiring 80% spatial manipulation and 20% surface composition. Mainstream Modernist Architectural practice is carried on with perfect independence from the verbal-textual and the graphical iconic brain territories. What this means, in simple language, is that contemporary buildings are designed without any reference to what they mean, or what they look like!
The effect of this tabu has been so catastrophic, during the 20C, that now, at its ending, the idea is current that if a graphical explication of some literary basis is to be introduced into the human lifespace, then Architecture must be excluded as an effective medium to this end! Instead of examining the early-20C Medium (and before) as an example of how textuality and iconicity were part of Architecture, 20C Architecture, a decapitated and faceless medium, is taken as proof that Architecture is useless to the recovery of beauty and intellect to the human lifespace!
THE REVOLT OF THE PRACTITIONERS
Practitioners must recover their Profession, in the totality of its full and proper practice. They must downgrade everything written by people who do not practice. They must write their own theory, and they must recover the intellectually penetrating and brilliant dimension of Architectural Graphics that one can call 'Iconic Engineering'. All this must be both radically antique as well as radically futuristic. Only if the proper subject of the Medium is addressed, by the only people who can grasp what is needed to recover its power to serve the future, will London's problem of the necessity of "noble anarchy within liberating discipline", and a "whole that is greater than its parts", be solved.
THE NEW WEAPON
The explosion of the Media and the collapse of the 'High Culture' has not led to a brilliant new aggression by the culture of the Text. Instead, the current strategy is to engage in puerile capers in pursuit of a supposedly Pop legitimacy. The long atrophy of the literary centres of the 20C Architectural brain, combined with the P-C need to dumb-down discourse to 6-year old standards, has destroyed the legibility of the few journals through which Architects used to air what Theory there was going around in the Modernist Mind. I think especially of the Architectural Press and of its once-intelligent Journal, the Architectural Review, now little more than Garden Fete Reportage oiled with homiletic massage by its long-serving Editor.
However, ever bountiful and sane Science, in the form of the Web, has delivered a new medium into the hands of the 'coalface worker'. Any and every Practitioner's Consultancy can now build themselves a vast, ruminative, electronically-indexed, globally-legible Encyclopaedia of text and illustration free of the panic-driven leaders of our Profession who think that Architectural prizes should go to popular phone-ins by voters in their hundreds, out of an audience of millions, 'packed' by offices who pressgang Mum and Dad to the telephone and then get an 'Artist' to finger the winner. James Stirling was always easily bored, liked a party, and to have his name in lights - who isn't, and who doesn't. But he was a genius, at what he did, and his name should not be associated with this pathetic, focus-group fixated, pandering to a goggle-box that cares nothing, absolutely nothing, for the feeble shadows to which our witless Profession has reduced the Medium.
PADDINGTON'S PROPOSED ELEVATION.
Before looking at the two Planning Applications which have been the occasion for my, very personal, essay on City Planning, it is only necessary to say that Planning, in Britain, belongs to the Public in a way that is very rare in the World. Every member of the Public is welcome to write-in and otherwise participate in Planning decisions. My experience of the process, from the opposite side, that is as an Architect acting Professionally on behalf of an Applicant, is that Planning Committees take an extraordinary amount of notice of members of the Public, whoever they are, and whatever they say, who trouble to write to them.
This is not to say the Committee will follow what advice anyone gives them. But they do listen.
PART 6: RAILTRACK PHASE 2
PADDINGTON RAILTRACK PHASE TWO.
Phase One was the Fast Link to Heathrow Airport, the renovation of the three Brunel Arches and the new Concourse, etc. Phase Two is proposed to the Planners as the demolition of the fourth glass arch, built in 1910, other railway works and a new 47-storey office tower.
This latter proposal is founded on two arguments. The first is the general one that one should build on top of the Main London Railway Termini. The second is that, specifically at Paddington, one should demolish the fourth of the three main glass-covered arches and build a 47-storey tower on its site.
DEVELOPING TRACKWAY AIRSPACE.
We will return to the general argument. Specifically at Paddington, however, a decision was made to preserve the three glass arches erected by Isambard Brunel, the Engineer of genius. One may assume that those persons responsible for the finances of the Railways argued against this decision. For, whatever might be their own personal preferences, this the corner a Finance Director is given to fight.
One may turn to the examples of Victoria, Charing Cross and Liverpool Street and note the construction of huge quantities of lucrative, low-build, large-floorplate, groundscraper' office space, let to first class Tenants like Deloitte and Goldman Sachs, together with retail space, airline connections etc. Compared to the sophistication of the Victoria Station Redevelopment,. completed in the 1990's, the recent 'renewal' of Paddington has been primitive in its circulation and paltry in its commercial payoff.
THE CULT OF 'GLASARCHITEKTUR'
All of this was caused by the retention of the Brunel glass over the platforms. One may argue as to whether this was the right decision. The glass is a dirty brown. Diesel exhaust is not as copious as the soot made by coal-burning engines. But it is more tenacious and just as capable of gumming-up the crystal fantasies of latterday devotees of 19C 'Glasarchitektur'. If these glass vaults had been built today they would have included two arched catwalks. One would have run on rails inside the arch and one on rails outside the roof. These would allow cleaners the monthly access to the glass that would be needed to keep it anything like clear. The endless labours of keeping the Palace of glass properly crystalline is one of the things that is never brought to the fore by those who promote the unrewarding illusion of the 'invisibility' of glass buildings. In short what we have in Paddington is three dirty glass vaults that shed a crepuscular brown light upon an iron Architecture that is not only undistinguished but painted a mucky palette stretching all the way from fresh cowpat to peanut butter.
For this achievement the residents of central London, to a radius of 15 miles, are to be given the pleasure of looking at a 47 story tower whose design has even been rejected by CABE, the "New Britain", 20C-Modernist-friendly, Developer-friendly, version of the Royal Fine Art Commission. The base of the tower sports a porte-cochere that would look at home in Lucio Costa's Brazilia. Its Architect, Oscar Niemeyer, is enjoying the 'near death experience' of the 1950's Style which has come around, as the Wheel of Fashion is wont to do, to strike sparks from its ancient Stars. But no one would wish to claim parentage of the tower itself, which is well below the quality of Nicholas Grimshaw's other designs.
Perhaps this is the reason why no computer visualisations of it are, as yet, available to the Public at the One-Stop shop on the Ground Floor of Victoria Street in Westminster City Hall. However all of the fully-detailed technical drawings, 'environmental impact' reports, etc. etc., on the local area are in the filing cabinet. "Very little visual impact " is the Project's self-assessment proposed! So a reasonably true view of it can be formed from Hyde Park, and other views can be imagined, in the streets over which its huge glass and metal bulk will loom, by substituting the visualisation profiles given by the more forthcoming design team of the Grand Union project.
A BATTLE LOST WITH THE FIRST FIELD MANOEUVRE.
The main financial reason for the tower is the restriction of the ability of British Rail to 'build over its tracks', to this 'fourth', non-Brunel, glass arch (built around 1910 and, to my taste, of a delightfully contorted form very like Nicholas Grimshaw's own, glass-encrusted, Waterloo Eurostar Terminal. This is not a bargain to which the residents of West London have to accede. It is not a bargain which has ever been couched in these terms. To seed a residential area with 47-story metal and glass towers, of any design, merely for the pleasure of keeping some time-expired iron and glass arches that are then allowed to fall into the usual state of begrimed desuetude, is not a contract any sane city-dweller needs to sign.
Town Planning may, indeed should, be carried out for the sake of the generality, but it is not, nor ever can be a 'democratic' process. Like the conduct of a battle, and all such large scale operations, the first moves set the gigantic vessel on a course from which it can not be diverted. When Railtrack lost the battle to build over the tracks at Paddington it lost the war. Who knows how incompetent were their designs for what would replace the Brunel arches? Anyway, they lost. Tough luck. Railtrack has the right to try asking the Westminster Planners, and the new GLA, for a 47-storey tower 'in compensation', but there is no reason at all to give it to them. Perhaps they might like to start thinking, already, of how to build over the platforms, or even downstream of the Station, and strike it rich next time around, in 20 years time.
TOWERS AT TERMINI AND 'TRANSPORT NODES'.
As to the general argument that one should build towers, on and around public transport 'nodes', one must ask "just why"? The imperative is phrased with a word taken from plant growth. The metaphor that cities are alive and growing (or dying) is a favourite amongst Planners and Architects. It implies forces of Nature, which are both good and bad, bringing morality into play. Needess to say that cities that are healthy are the ones that are growing sturdily, and even 'sprouting' towers. How 'Noddy in Toyland' can one get? Shall Mum water this plot with another billion and see what Dad can grow on it?
GREEN FINGERS, BROWN NOSE
The 'vitalistic' understanding of cities has been prevalent for much of the last 50 years. Certainly it was very strong in the 1950's. Its great advantage (to Architects) is that it makes cities into things that are both outside human control, self regulating (like plants) and subject to natural and who knows, perhaps even 'mathematical' laws. This latter would, of course, put 'numerate' city-planning (or rather lack of planning) into a direct line of descent from the Architect of the Universe. Abstract, mathematical, 'organic', 'natural' (shall we say, even, 'Green') City-Planning puts Architects on the topmost shelf of all - well out of reach of everyone and tight up against the nether portions of the Almighty.
THE FREE LUNCH
However this admiration for uncontrolled 'growth and change' as Peter Smithon, Architecture's chief luminary of the 1950's, put it, was countered by the Planning Profession. They, who were closer to the Establishments of that time, acted in accordance with that long period of left-right consensus politics which ended with Thatcherism. From the early '50's, until the late '70's, the British left and the right were united in their opinion that the best was over and nothing remained for Britain except a decline that should be made as gentle and long-drawn out as possible. The effect of this placid and gentlemanly agreement not to hurry, or otherwise disturb, a decline into noble, Ex-Imperial, pseudo-Socialist, ruination was shattered by Thatcherism.
LETTING THE CAPITAL FEEL THE WEIGHT OF CAPITAL
London's growth had been tightly controlled by Post War Planning. Housing, administration and industry were exported into small and needy towns otherwise declining into post-agricultural depression. Assisted passages to everywhere from Andover to Australia still formed part of HM Policy. Thatcher did many things that needed doing. But her record in planning London was not good at all. She was paranoid about all public services, believing them to be breeding grounds for Communism. So she hated railways. At the same time she believed in private property, and by extension, private land development. The fiasco of Canary Wharf is a fitting monument to her attitudes - the biggest building site in Europe that went belly-up because someone had omitted to build it a 'communist' transport system!
EYES TOO BIG FOR HER STOMACH
Land development ceased to be controlled and transport was neglected. I can well remember the change of mood in the 1970's. Suddenly one did not have to do so many calculations proving this or that. The commercial plant was allowed to sprout. London now inherits 20 years of irrational, uncalculated, land-use planning. The underground railways are way too crowded and physically worn out. We need more 'digestive' tubes, not more cashburger towers on the civic menu. Building more office-space is not going to build 'Pedestrian Freeways'! The Tube is not a totem - to be let out for rent. Anyone who identifies a new building with the Tube is heading for trouble. Trouble is what London's Tubes will give everyone until more, many more, are built - a project lasting 20 years.
Forget biology, a City is a machine and a symbol.
The idea that the supposedly 'organic', naturally-growing, city hides, and tucks away out of sight, is that Cities, and indeed everything we make, are really 'forces of culture' and, as such, entirely human in genesis and vitality. A transport 'node' is just an interchange with train-platforms, bus-stops and taxi-ranks - and more than one of each! They are best organised vertically as well as horizontally. Interchanges can be planned to integrate transport media or they can be planned to be a transport muddle, like Paddington. Apart from all of that they can only be Monuments, and who knows any more what they are?
One argument that is put forward is the one in favour of 'mixed use' neighbourhoods, streets and buildings. The argument proposes that mixing residential, commercial, retail and recreational uses ensures that the streets are never empty of people throughout the day and the week. This is argued to advantage security and reduce crime and unsociable behaviour. The argument has much weight. But it nowhere privileges a building user to locate 47 stories above the ground! How can anyone 500'0" in the air provide Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street"? The urbanistic problem is how to provide these disparate users with premises that do not inconvenience each others' different living patterns. It is also a problem of how to provide a pattern to the street itself that advances the central thesis of pedestrian safety. It is hardly going to be forwarded by the streetscapes provided by the typical giant building, namely dark, grimy, loading docks, vast air ventilator grilles and blank panels covering rooms devoted to the multifarious private electrical and mechanical services that skyscrapers need to locate on the street for mechanical access and fire fighting.
The only people such desolate spaces attract are tramps warming themselves and sheltering from the cold and rain.
A SIMPLE SOLUTION BASED ON REASON AND PRECEDENT
A good example of a mixed use area is that around Mortimer Street, W1. Here, five-storey commercial buildings alternate with five-storey apartment buildings. The street is always lively. Yet each building is purpose-designed for its different use. the clientele is not wealthy, but the continuity of occupation ensures the success of many small and varied shops. Such a simple and easily administered land use pattern can be enlarged in scale up to 12 storeys and a more than sufficient density of site occupation achieved. The architecture of the various buildings, is late 19C-early 20C. It was that administered by the pre-1950's LCC Bye-laws. The general effect is unified without being as rigorously so as the earlier, purely classical, regimes of the 'London Squares'. It allows for some rather fine 'Stile Liberty' or 'Art Nouveau' buildings that prove the possibility of artistic licence within such a generally urbane orderliness.
This 'mixed use block' land use strategy would provide for whatever proportional mix of uses was considered in keeping with the character of a 'local centre', if that is what the Paddington Basin is aimed to be.
'MONUMENTS', BENEFACTORS, SOCIAL GAIN AND 'LOTTERY MONEY'.
It also allows for the 'unusual building'. This kind of building is important for it allows for the return of that essential component of any vital community - the prodigal son who made good and wants to build himself a monument, so benefacting his place of origin. This kind of building has been eliminated by post war socialistic culture. The reason is obvious. No one is supposed to have that kind of money. But the fact is that this money continues to be accumulated and the desire to monumentalise both self and community continues to exist. It should be given the proper channels to flower - namely a defined block of land in an intellectually and symbolically-structured street system - not some inane paving pattern seen only by its graphically - talented map designer.
Trying to provide local theatres, art-centres, and so on by a process of 'planning gain' merely ensures that such things are buried in car-parking basements under vast towers, multi-use, or not, that have, in any case, so blighted the urbanity of the area that no 'gain' can ever provide sufficient recompense. If a bribe is going to be attractive it must at least measure up to the moral squalor of taking it.
Experience of administering Lottery Money, also teaches us that cultural projects need to be identified as such and yet embedded in a lively place. Again, a mixed-use-block-street-pattern would fulfil this elementary prescription. What holds it back is the fact that late 20C theory of city planning is incapable of articulating an architectural foundation for anything except varieties of the 'picturesque'. Which is why such a wide spectrum of opinion, from those who understand Architecture all the way to the rejectionist 'avant garde', are so unsupportive of initiatives that seek to positively design and plan, preferring the muddle and chaos that might, just might, favour an 'individual act of (design!) genius'.
PARIS'S ATTEMPT AT THE "SQUARE MILE"..
When, back in the 1960's, I saw the plans of the proposed conjunction of the suburban railway, the Metro, the Motorway (carrying the national bus system), and the local buses of Central Paris, all built one over the other in a gigantic construction at La Defense, followed by floors of retail and topped with a huge artificial terrace from which rose a forest of office-towers, I knew that nothing of the sort could ever be built in London. I was working in the GLC at the time and knew the abject incompetence of its ideas on city planning. There were none beyond a vaguely sculpted emotion we called 'Casbah Crumble'. This was the 'final solution' of Proletarian Architecture - a meltdown of towers and slabs into a putatively 'high-density' vertical jumble that owed less to the Ville Radieuse than to the Villa Rustica - that labyrinthine domesticity into which English House - design collapsed late in 19C, and where it has remained ever since.
What has remained impressive about La Defense, is its Transport Engineering. What is puerile is its Architecture. The forest of towers is a catechism to the wilful Architectural illiteracy that was instituted by Adolf (the loser) Loos, at the beginning of the 20C as the Viennese Solution to the Problem of Progress. When reinforced by the French penchant for 'La Spectacle' the result, ringed by HLM towers proclaiming an even more spectacular intellectual poverty, the result has global status in the League of Bad Taste. There may be a lesson for our Mayor in this, which is to stick to Transport Engineering - it is easier to shine underground in these Architectural Dark Ages.
THE 'REAL' (ALTHOUGH NEVER 'ROYAL') THING
La Defense was Paris' belated attempt to replicate the phenomenon of London's Square Mile. It needed the concentrated effort of the whole French State to bring it about because, unlike London's Square Mile, it had not come about 'naturally', or, as it would be more correct to say, 'commercially'. The City of London's commuting population had already overtaken its resident one by 1890.
The 'City' is a location of some antiquity. Yet it is also a 'factory estate' whose product is 'financial services' or 'financial products'. Few of the people who work in its tightly congested spaces live in either the West End proper or inner London. Its commuters come predominantly along a north-south axis of railways. Those who wish to 'get-on' in the City do not welcome being located out of it, in the West End certainly not as far away as Paddington. The very reason why financial service districts are characterised by high density, and often, for that reason, by tall towers, is that it remains a very face to face business. Risk takers like to look their partners in the eye. One should eliminate this 'high-speed' volatile 'city culture' from any land use considerations in the West End. The City is the place for it and if towers are the best way to accommodate it then towers they must have.
The question of how to design 'square mile' towers, however, remains as sunk in urbanistic illiteracy as the rest of late 20C City Planning.
WALKING IN A WORLD ON WHEELS
The underground stations along the lines in Central London are built close enough together for one to easily walk to a point half way between any of them. To argue that one must concentrate accommodation on top of them ignores the fact that people are born (nearly all of us, and certainly up to the age of 65 - when most of us are banished from our offices) with adequate legs. People also like walking around the safe, sheltered, cultured, beautiful, not really old, (try Mediaeval France) streets of London. Indeed they prefer this activity to being 'plumbed' around the innards of some 'engineered' megastructure. To continue by saying that tall buildings mark, that is to say (shall we not be as candid as we can) 'monumentalise' the Metro Stations is to beg the question "But why?"
Is it because a tower might attract people underground and not into the their cars? This is not a strategy that has 'worked' in the USA. It does not make sense. Why not redecorate the Metros? Why not put some colour, for example, into the dirty grey cement of the New Jubilee Stations, peculiarly wilful monuments to a High-Tech Style, born and bred of space-vehicles, aeroplanes, cars and ships, that found itself (how could it not foresee this?) buried deep in London's Clay.
BURYING THE FUTURE
The Architecture of the Jubilee is, like that of the cindered castings of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, originally conceived in lightweight aluminium and stainless steel. The young Architects of these Phase Two South Bank buildings, fresh from the pages of Archigram, conceived them as spidery, silvery, Lunar Modules. Their knitted-pullover superiors in the GLC, enthused by the British Version of Corbusier, with its enthusiasm for raw concrete and knotty pinewood, kept the space-pod forms and cast them in boardmarked concrete. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is an almost too literal mummification of a 'Futuristic City' into its lithic Memorial. The Jubilee Line, in its turn, is the ruin of a 'Futurism' buried, like Pompeii, deep underground in ashen grey cement.
All of this peculiar conjunction of advanced Engineering with a strangely funereal technophilia is the result of a, by now, century old prohibition of decorative technique within 'serious' Architecture. In eschewing the cultivation of a radically-modernised 'iconographic engineering' 20C Architecture reduced itself to incapacity when faced with the problem of the 'Interior'.
LOSING THE ABILITY TO 'SEE IN THE DARK'.
This was admitted to me by my tutor Peter Smithson, the most influential British Architect of the 1950's and '60's. Contemporary Architecture does not know how to design what Smithson called, with a sad resignation, "The Great Interior". How then can it design a lightless, enclosed 'underground'? The proof of this is that the over-riding 'Architectural' aim of the Jubilee Stations was to admit daylight (so how will it help to dump a tower on top of their meagre skylights?)
A skill has been lost, or more accurately tabooed as 'morally wrong', which was first developed in the caves of Altamira. In destroying decoration, Architecture cut itself off from (if the awful pun be excused!) its deepest roots. Architects should be asking not "where did I put that Metro Station", but "where did I lose my Iconic Engineer".
Speaking from experience, does the cod-cubic tower-marker at Marble Arch make the Central Line more alluring? Only perhaps by sinking underground and removing its stuttering inanity from one's horizon. Planting a tower on every Metro Station in London would mean that we would never be out of sight of them. Is this Modernisation or a prescription for loss of memory? Do we not 'remember' where we put our Metro Stations?
RECLAIMING THE RAILS FOR URBANITY
Building over the main-line termini is both more persuasive as well as more practical. Acres of railways lines are as unproductive as they are noisy. Slabbing over them is a great idea. One can hardly complain if a train journey, that has offered hours of innocent voyeurism over acres of greenery, patient herbivores, clouds and so on, passes for a few seconds into the darkness that is the Metro-travellers daily lot, in order to offer some revenue to Railtrack. But the buildings on these wide reclamations have no mandate to zoom up 47 stories into the public space of the civic sky. Surely we are not so confused in our idea of reality that we must mark the giant termini with enormous inhabited totems to remind us that they remain ready and waiting to carry us to and fro in their excellent modern trains?
PART 7: GRAND UNION
THE GRAND UNION TOWER PROJECT.
This is a more sophisticated design than that of its proposed neighbour at Paddington Railtrack Phase Two. It, also, is 47 storeys high.
PADDED-OUT FOR 'PICTURESQUE EFFECT'.
Grand Union is, speaking generally, around twice as 'fat' on plan as it would be if it were not so 'pulled-apart' into separate fragments. This makes it necessary to make the whole construction twice as high if it is to 'read' as a 'tower' and not just a dumpy block. Grand Union is not a 'single tower' but a collage of accommodation-blocks, lift shafts and fire-escape towers. One must be aware that its designer was the Architect of the Lloyds Building and the Centre Pompidou. Rogers believes in providing his Public with a high level of decoration. This is not done, of course, by anything so mean (or so literate) as an 'architecturally significant' composition of windows or wall articulations such as one would find, for example, in a 20C 'Art Deco' skyscraper. The ethic of High-Tech demands that the visual interest is effected by the exposure of mechanical trivia of no interest to anyone but maintenance engineers.
The accommodation is divided into three, dramatically-separated, blocks. Between which rise, like zips holding the blocks in place, the fire escape stairs and the exposed-to-the-day elevator-cars. On the Lloyds building each of these cars cost as much as five internal cars - a spectacular expenditure of 'facade-budget' towards an intellectually puerile end. One reason given for this 'exploded plan' is both to let in more daylight and to romanticise what would otherwise be an almost-featureless cubic shaft. But the daylight is already cut down by the triple skin wall needed to control acoustic pollution from the Motorway, and City Streets, to which the high tower exposes itself.
The real reason for this over-muscled surface articulation (it is politically incorrect to employ the word Facade) of the tower is that the actual facade-architecture of the rentable rooms themselves is that most sordid of all architectural devices: the horizontal 'ribbon window' with its equally banal companion, the 'ribbon spandrel'.
BOTTOM-FEEDING FACADE ARCHITECTURES
I take this evaluation from the 18C Critic the Abbe Laugier. He coined the ludicrous idea of the origin of Architecture in the Primitive Hut - a notion cognisant with the ethos of a Watteau 'fete champetre'. But he was right in his evaluation that walls were a sordid necessity for the architecture of a not yet Civil Society, and windows entities more fitted to prisons than the dwelling of civilised beings. He was only trying to rationalise, in the language of a courtly culture shortly to be swept away by the Revolution, the fact of the nobility of an columnar architecture. Out of this denigration of the window came that strange creature, the 'French Window' a door that gives out, gallantly, to an exiguous balcony several floors up on Baron Haussmans Parisian boulevards. But the effect is noble, and Paris has only to be compared to some wide street, in let us say, Berlin, made of punch-holed, windowed, blocks for the justice of Laugier's judgment to be proved.
The ribbon window was given canonic status by Le Corbusier. It is the most ignoble of all fenestrations. Its real origin is that of the Proletarian East European reaction against the puff-pastry Architecture of the Imperial Hapsburgs. Neither of these cultural phenomena, both of them evil, has any roots in Britain. It is the peculiar compulsion felt by both Britain and America to adopt the illiterate vulgarity of Proletarian Eastern Modernism that leads to the elephantine over-compensation of the exploded and shattered compositions we find in Lloyds of London, in Native British High-Tech and the V&A Spiral, in imported U.S. Deconstruction. For, without spreading the Grand Union tower apart into a shaft twice as wide as it needed to be if it were merely a simple tall block, its strip-window facade-Architecture would reveal it as a bare-faced 'rent tower': mere slices of floorplate sandwiched one upon the other like a 47-deck Monster Cashburger.
JUST ANOTHER TUBE, REALLY.
The engineering of tall buildings naturally calls upon the ingenuity of the Structural Engineer. They are best designed as hollow tubes, like the trunks of bamboos, one of nature's most structurally efficient trees. In the USA, which really knows how to make cheap buildings, skyscrapers are cast as a single, giant, concrete-walled column. The tallest in Houston has 15,000 punched-out windows, all of them the same. Its concession to 'design' is to cut off one of its corners, on plan, at 45 degrees. One wonders if it is necessary to train for seven years to sink to such depths of triviality. Perhaps the training is like fat on long distance swimmers, a provisioning to succour the Architect across the waterless waste of Practice.
IKEA-ISTICS: RUBBISH-PICKERS OF TIME-EXPIRED TECHNOLOGY .
20C Architecture, which chose to abandon the traditions of its Medium rather than to radically modernise them, has often looked to Engineering for inspiration in the formal desert of its own creation. Grand Union is no stranger to this strategy, sporting large cross-braced frames, such as one finds behind bookcases bought from IKEA. Such signs and symbols serve as 'technically-correct' badges of 'modernist authenticity' in an otherwise formally and theoretically 'challenged' Profession. But they need not beguile the Public further than the level of interest evoked by the "I wonder how he did that" 'Arts and Crafts' level of achievement.
These 'cross-bracey' things are found underneath Victorian Sea Piers. But who cares about what stops the pier from folding its skinny legs. Creeping about in the bargain basements of construction, rooting amongst the refuse from aerospace and the real 'cutting edges', is typical of Architectural High Tech, a misnomer if there ever was one, especially in the late 20C. But what other resources lie to the hand of an Architecture that refuses to master 'iconographic engineering' needed to invent an authentic Modern Decoration?
REMOVED FROM 'CULTURAL' EFFECT.
It is the decorated domes, the dance halls and the theatricals above the boardwalk, that concern civilised human beings. What has High Tech to add to the fruit and flowers of the humane lifespace? It has nothing to say, leaving all of that to Las Vegas where they build 6,000-bed Hotels in two years and demote Architects to serve as mere Project Managers. High-Tech is proud to proclaim that it is all sturdy trunk and roots. Yet where have all the more spectacular technical failures been in recent years, but in technophiliac Architectures that wilfully disregard simple technical truths?
The High-Tech Fraternity, for its Sisters are rarer, always argue that if one wants to find Craftsmanship one must turn to metalworking. While one can not but agree that metal and glass technologies gave Western Europe military and economic advantages over the Orient, buildings and cities are neither munitions, or their manufactories, or the vessels by which these items are transported. They are the Patria, for which it was "Good and Beautiful to Die". One's lifespace is supposed to engender affection and loyalty, even love.
A regard for Craftsmanship has always been a peculiarly British amour. It was said at the time, of the British Pavilion at the World Expo in Brussels, that it was a "Triumph of Craftsmanship over Design". HRH the Prince of Wales, is always lecturing us on the virtues of craftsmanship. These mainly seem to be of a rustic kind suitable for a polity of self-sufficient Farmers from which his Revenue would not be able to draw a Taxation capable of supporting even the most modest of Princely Courts, let alone a Modern State.
The reason some people labour the point about 'craftsmanship' is that a culture usually accompanies it. The 'old' building craftsmanship of stone and wood and plaster was thought, not without reason, to both accompany and support the culture of the Emperors, Priests, and the 'Opiates of the People' that 20C Modernism was determined to replace with the Agents of Science and Progress.
But the link is fortuitous and not necessary. Not only can it be positively broken, but the 20C itself holds a proof that there was no need to abolish the masonry-oriented crafts that are cost efficient and functional for building and replace them by metalworking ones that are not. Not only has this rather simple-minded belief in the 'power of technology' to change Society proved ineffective, but there is an example of a 'traditionally-oriented' building crafts culture that accompanied the rapid development of a wealthy and powerful modern state that was light-years away from worrying about Emperors and Priests - namely the pre-1939 War USA.
THE 'CRAFTS' OF MODERNITY
Art Deco was born in a Post-1918 War Paris that wanted to erase the memory of that horror. It began, as new styles often do, in the luxury market. Unfortunately for France, political events overtook such peaceable initiatives. But the ideas migrated to the USA, where, both before the economic crash and during the less frenetic culture of the New Deal, American Art Deco bridged a wide gamut of cost-levels and cultural aspirations. The USA is still full of wonderful Art-Deco buildings, from modest smalltown High-Schools, worthy City Halls and exquisitely-carved University Faculties, to the 'flashier, better-known, commercial monuments of New York and Los Angeles.
I can not mark down Art Deco for being, more often than not (in, for example, its amazingly polychromatic cinemas), a 'triumph of craftsmanship over design'. At the very least it beats Retro-Celtic wattle and daub as a useful springboard from which to leap into a functioning Future. At least the plans of its buildings were simple, direct, practical, cheap and comprehensible. Art Deco is normally criticised for the intellectual quality of its decoration. Here, of course, it is vulnerable. It appears to have had no more profound ambition than to 'be decorative'. Perhaps I malign it. No doubt I do, for some of its greatest designers, from whose number one can not exclude Frank Lloyd Wright and Ely Jaques Kahn, the best of the New York skyscraper architects, can not have been entirely without a more intellectually rewarding ambition.
THE FATAL ALLURE OF THE DEAD.
My main point, however, is that this iconically fertile and technically competent industry could have been easily taken to a more ambitious conceptual level. Instead it was gratuitously destroyed by the importation of the Viennese Disease. Alfred Barr, Henry Russell Hitchcock, and the imperishable Philip Johnson, brought the dead tissue of the Existenzminimum to the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition that changed the History of American Architecture from something like the liveliness of Jazz into the white-tiled echo-chamber of a Morgue. America used to be a culture with no Past. But it had a Future. It was set against Europe, a place with a Past but no Future. What led the USA to switch the template on their time Machine? Why did they lose their confidence, well before the '39 War, in their own powers of invention of a magical culture that was both Plebian, Potent and Polished and catch the European taste for a fagged-out future at the Court of the Fiat Nihil?
A PROTEST IN THE STREETS THAT WERE SOON TO BE PARKING LOTS.
The building craftsmen of New York staged a march, protesting at the MOMA Exhibition, for they could see that the white cement style spelt the end of everything that they knew how to do. Ironically, they had often brought these exquisite craft skills from the very Eastern Europe whose cult of the Mass-Proletariat was now infecting America. The best woodworking and metalworking shops in Houston had both been founded by Viennese immigrants.
In point of fact, all of the skills that created Art Deco are still available today, in, as we should expect, an even more technically-efficient and economic forms than in the 1940's when most of the craftsmen went into the war effort and learned how to build aircraft. The compositional skills needed to organise and refine surface decoration, are, as one can see from the complex patterning of High'Tech facades, still part of the Architects training and workaday world. All that is lacking, to reintroduce a re-engineered 'traditional building craftsmanship' into the built world at the point where it would have real purchase, levering it into a level of functionality inconceivable to the iconically illiterate, is that very iconic literacy itself.
Like many of the things that inhibit progress, a taboo is in place. The prohibition upon any 'decoration' conceived as such, and even more so upon an intellectually ordered, 'signifying surface', prevents Architects from making the mistakes that come from ignorance and inexperience. But it also prohibits the acquisition of the knowledge that comes from practice. Sometime, somewhere, the taboo must, and will, be broken. But in order that the Public may have some confidence in what will result, a seismic upheaval is needed in Architectural Theory, leading to the acquisition of Professional skills in this long-neglected area.
In short the craftsmanship that is actually lacking, just at this moment, is that which is most precisely the responsibility of the Architect, as 'Dessinateur', as 'Drawer of Designs', himself. Contra Banham, the Architect has to come out from under the skirts of Mother Engineer and stop pretending he is some kind of 'wobbly genius'.
A BEL-VEDERE FOR URBANISTIC ILLITERATES TO VIEW A CITY THEY NO LONGER UNDERSTAND AND LONG TO DEMOLISH.
Breaking the Grand Union tower into three wedge-shaped fragments and then making each one of these a different height also helps to disguise the iconic poverty of the external skin. The top of the shorter of these towers is offered as a 'public viewing platform'. The enthusiasm of the human organism for looking at things that move is one of the revelations of the last 100 years. It seems as if millions of years of evolution have been designed to have us all sitting on our haunches goggling at animated images.
Yet the failure of recent World Expositions, allied to the huge expansion of other kinds of visual media, must lead us wonder who, exactly is going to want to mount up some 250'0" (75 Metres) to gaze out over Paddington. Mayor Livingstone is reported, let us hope in error, as suggesting that public access to the tops of skyscrapers would justify building them - an "I'm the King of the Castle" approach to social equity. Presumably the Public would have to pay for this gratification, as they do on the London Eye. So the skyscraper could add this to its revenues.
STRAIGHT FROM THE EYE TO THE BRAIN. OOPS! WE MISSED THE MIND.
From the viewpoint, however, of creating an informed Public, an ambition that one must assume the Mayor shares with his Party, I have to report that gazing at cities from high towers has proved conspicuously unedifying. I call as witness, once again, the intellectual failure of the great urban anylyst, Camillo Sitte. He spent his time visiting all the great cities of Europe. His first act, in every case, was to climb the tallest church steeple, along with his maps and guide books. He then, with field glasses, thoroughly examined the confused labyrinth that he saw before him. After this he trudged around their streets, learning of their history, drawing maps and writing inspired descriptions. Even after all of this, at the end of all his efforts, which far outshone anyone else's (and still do), he admitted he could not understand how it was that these cities were so marvellous. He failed to understand the principles around which they were designed - in all their apparent confusion. How less likely will it be that a 'modern man' as he called himself ,even 100 years ago, will glance blankly out at a few picture-postcard Monuments and come away thinking that he now 'knows' even some small city, let alone London? Besides which, who does not know what London looks like, in a purely visual, superficial, way by flying over her on theway to Torremolinos? Where is even the novelty of it - to reduce it all to the abject level of a Funfair?
INVASION OF THE METAL MORONS.
So why should it be desirable for Londoners to see the structure that supports this gratuitous recreation from the forests of Hyde Park? Placing the lift towers on the outside, between these blocks, offers the local houseowner a view of people going up and down in glass box - a silly spectacle proper to a merry-go-round, not a vast metal monument. But such is the intellectual poverty of Architectural theory that these Frankensteinian antics, galvanic tics of a mechanised cadaver, are all that can be summoned by the latterday Ringmasters of the urban theatre. How can one seriously conceive of permanently imposing the sight of them upon the Paddington, Marylebone and Maida Vale Estates, one of the few remaining large areas of cultured architecture not destroyed by the late, unlamented, Century.
AIR THAT SUPPORTS AIR-CRAFT, CAN BLOW ONE AWAY.
Even so, this spectacularly 'over-engineered' tower, provides nothing except an ineffective 'skirt' to protect people walking around its base from the gale-force downdraughts that its huge height will funnel down its clefts and cliffs. There exists not one 'model-design' for a high building, anywhere in contemporary architecture, world-wide, which has yet solved this elementary physical defect! So what do High-building Architects do? They ignore it. Has one seen this somewhere else? An 'insoluble' problem exists, like the carnage on the roads. So a huge fuss is made about train accidents! People are always blown off the streets by downdraughts from high buildings, so what do their Architects do? They install wind turbines! As they spit rain into our faces and turn umbrellas inside-out we can read a sign announcing a major 'Green Architecture Breakthrough' and hear the thwack, thwack, thwack of yet another contributor to civic noise pollution.
The fact is that contemporary architectural culture is so terminally incompetent that, even after knowing of this devastating problem for 40 years (which has destroyed the street life of the American Downtown, driving it into tunnels and bridges), it has not yet solved the elementary problem of how to place a tall tower on top of a block-filling, deep, building that shelters the streets from high winds and, let us be even more radical, excesses of sun and rain! How can Architects even pretend to be city-designers when they do not know even how to design for the bodies of pedestrians, let alone their minds? The current Leaders of the Profession are less than useless to Urbanity - they invariably destroy it.
A USELESS SCREEN AGAINST TRAFFIC NOISE.
Nor, because the Grand union tower does not swell out at its base to form a solid, 'terraced', wall between the Water Basin and the elevated motorway, will it prevent the roar of traffic noise from polluting the supposed 'delight' of the whole vast project: the 'preserved' canal basin. In short the Grand Union design is too narrow at its base, and too wide at its top. Instead of being the same width all the way down it should, if a tower it must be, be a proper, street-sheltering, city-block at its base and a slim shaft above it, even stepping up and down by stages.
VIRGINS THROWN TO THE LIONS.
The Paddington basin is older than the Paddington Railway Terminus. It was a local canal terminus, built in the open countryside, beyond which the Grand Union Canal arches round the top of Regents Park before passing through Islington to reach the Thames far away in the Lee Navigation downstream of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. The British Canals have carried no commercial traffic since the '39-'45 War. They are too small for large boats. Their locks use too much water for our small island rivers. It has to be pumped uphill to replenish the high levels when canals pass over even our low hills. The Thames is puny compared to the Rhine, Danube and Rhone, which all feed big commercial canal systems. Our Canals have been preserved and restored as an amenity.
Their quality is, for the most part, that of 'back gardens'. The River Thames tends to pass in front of buildings. The Canals slide quietly behind them, a refuge for wild animals. Boats can not move faster than 4 knots on their surface without grounding or pushing the water out of the channel. The people who 'navigate' them appreciate the extreme simplicity of the 'seamanship' required - being somewhat less than the capacity to drive a wheelbarrow. They are the diametric opposite of the sailing fraternity with their zippy wetsuits and high-tensile lifestyle. What these very amateurish 'sailors' most like about the Canals is their down-at-heel scruffiness and the profusion of wetland life that they harbour.
Paddington Basin is at the extreme end of one of the longest 'levels' in Britain, extending without a lock from Regents Park up to Slough. To traverse this, and return, at 4mph, takes a full day. It is a voyage through a landscape of industrial backlands, odd scraps of 'Nature' and Victorian back yards. Suddenly, in the re-focussed Paddington Basin, this 'canal-culture' will enter an amphitheatre ringed with go-getting Officeworkers connected by the latest umbilicus to Heathrow and the theatre of global commerce.. It will be like building a Colosseum for Corporate Gladiators and putting on a Knitting Competition.
It is yet another example of the somnambulism of a City-Planning bereft of any canonic model of a Modern City. Grimy glass arches wreck the proper, and practical, renovation of Paddington, and gloomy slabs of shallow water fill so-called 'urban social space' with fleets of reclusive 'Canal-People'.
Needless to say the colour of both Paddington Stage 2 and Grand Union is grey. Colour is, above all features of an object, disciplined by iconography. It has no material quality that can be puffed-up into an image of "Engineering". Colour is 'decorative', that is to say 'mental' or it is nothing. It is also an aspect of design in which our gender-stereotyping provides women with more practical experience than men. Women find colour too easy, men find it too difficult. But somewhere around the age of five, the playing field was level. It began to tilt later. Now, whenever colour comes before a Client Committee something like a quadrille takes place. The men take a step back and the women step forward. The Architect has to run very hard to keep up with the girls, and more often than not pulls the plug on the race altogether - voting for Grey-Out.
I recall a Principal Partner, for whom I once worked, who explained to me the secret of his considerable success - his Architectural Consultancy once had no less than 12 projects simultaneously on-site in the Square Mile. "John", he advised, "When dividing anything into parts make them all equal, and use only three colours, dark grey, mid grey and light grey. With this you can pass any Committee". What can I say except that a Medium, like that of current Architecture, that has no mastery at all the iconographic culture required to invent and control Decoration, must avoid the use of colour and keep either to the dumbed-down iconic fraud of 'natural materials' or muddle all of the colours together into the incoherent chromatic 'varvarismos' of Grey.
ONE OF THE GREAT MONUMENTS TO LATE 20C ARCHITECTURAL INCOMPETENCE
The worst effect of the contemporary preference, in Establishment HiTech, for the colour grey, is the repression of Pop art. One may see this very clearly in the much trumpeted Stanstead Airport. Stanstead, designed by Foster Associates, was originally intended to be limpid glass box through which one saw Foster's favourite artefacts, the sausage-bellied airbuses whose egg-like forms exemplify the stocking-mask aesthetic he seems to prefer. By these original standards, the building is a complete failure. Firstly, and of course, the limpid glass desert was divided into convenient rooms. Not having predicted this shockingly normal event, these rooms were installed as peculiar little portakabins, cringing way down below his vast, grey, ceiling. Meanwhile the aircraft had drifted away out of sight because instead of walking onto them, as if they were ocean liners moored to a quay, they tucked into boxy grey islands, set far away and served by an underground train!
Spatially, therefore, the reality of Stanstead is of a peculiarly high ceiling under which one sees nothing except sordid little off-white boxes, of the kind that litter construction sites,
containing toilets and other utilities. Aircraft are invisible. There is not even an elevated floor level to which to take the little boys, and HiTech architects, who are the only people remaining in such culturally anachronistic habitats. Presumably the view backwards into the interior would be too altogether sordid to contemplate as it would consist of piles of dust, rubbish and the old tin cans that accumulate, out of sight and out of mind, on the flat roofs of these Portakabin cities. Spatially, Stanstead is the most ill-conceived new Airport in my experience.
But there is worse to come, for such is the aesthetic awe in which this giant slice of unusable (HiTech!) emptiness is held, that the commercial bazaar that is the only relief from its nihilism, must be prevented from doing what it could, which is to 'humanise' its repressive dysfunctionality. Instead of being allowed to rise up its oh-so-skinny legs and clothe them in some decorative cladding (perish the thought of such a vandalism) the Burger Bars and other visual skin diseases of Pop must be kept down to Portakabin level. There they sit, the garish signs of High Street life, sloshing around like malodorous puddles under a 10/10ths overcast sky, manifesting the total antagonism of cool Hi-culture and hot Lo-culture.
THE SOLUTION, MORE COURAGE, MORE WIT, MORE BRAINS, LESS ALUMINIUM
The solution to this stand-off, which neither side is ever going to win, is for the HighCulture of the Text to be far, far, more iconically forthcoming in the area that it controls, which is the superstructure of Architecture and City Planning. Only when the High Culture can manifest itself, and do so with taste and style, with more iconic horsepower than a Burger Bar, will there be a good relation between the small, but powerful, world of the 'read' and that of the 'great unread'. When that day dawns a wonderful synergy will be seen to occur between Pop-image and Text-image. Before it does the best that we can expect is to be presented with no buildings at all, and the worst is to be given the sight of these dull grey zombies masquerading as 'persons of elevated sensibility and culture'.
MUST TOURISM ALWAYS WRECK WHAT IT VISITS?
The upper part of the Grand Union Tower, that is to say the most visually-intrusive fragment, consists of Hotel bedrooms. Most visitors return to the rooms at night, and probably watch more T.V. than the view over a dark city - or just go to sleep. Maybe there is a door into dreamland that opens 500'0" (150M) above ground. But these visitors come to London, in their waking hours, to experience a well-functioning alternative to the urbanistic disaster-zone that their own cities became in the 20C. What most visitors most appreciate about London is the domestic scale (albeit that of grand palaces) of her streets and squares - something that would be entirely destroyed by the sight, as well as the ethical 'culture', behind 47-story metal towers! In short all of the Americans I bring to London are amazed by just one thing, entirely lost on their side of the pond - the ability to walk everywhere.
THE LATE 20C FLANEUR.
Money-mad, unplanned, party-loving, London (as all who visited her in the 18C described her - plus ca change) is only just beginning to discover the delights of the boulevardier, and of planting trees in her streets. Those put in only recently during the "plant a tree in '73, plant some more in '74" campaigns, are now half-grown into a half-civilised leafy luxuriance. London, perhaps with some help from global warming, is using her street-surfaces more sociably, for walking out and eating out. None of this has happened until very recently. None of it happens in many of the 'cities of skyscrapers' from which our Visitors often come. Mere commercial self-interest must make us pause before we allow Tourists to be accommodated in ways that destroy what they came to experience!
SELLING-ON, OR SELLING-OUT?
On a more 'speculative' level, The Sunday Telegraph recently reported that Elliot Bernerd, owner of Chelsfield, was selling his site in the Paddington Canal Basin Site, which is the plot on which the Rogers Tower is designed, to Gerald Hines of Houston, now a resident of London. One of the more destablising practices in our Planning-Committee-controlled development system is for one owner to obtain a permission and then sell it on to another, who then changes the design of the building, almost always for the worse. I can not think of a building in Gerald Hines's huge, multinational, Portfolio that is sufficiently literate to be seen from Hyde Park. But that is not to say that he would never build one. If this story is true, and it is never possible to check such rumours, even after they have been 'published' in the Press, it must cast doubt upon the 'seriousness' of the Grand Union Planning Application.
To summarise the drift of this essay is to confirm that tall, inhabited, buildings have no tradition in London, or even in Britain. Britain shares many things with the USA, but the 'terra nullius' of the Prairies is not one of them. Nor is it a British imperative to exploit the native natural resources to build an autarchic, isolationist paradise. We are traders and bankers first, manufacturers and makers second. Information has always been the British thing, and Global English its greatest monument. Britain's first towers were those built by the Romans and the Normans. After them, for most of our history, until the 1950's, it has been the steeples of cathedrals and churches that have risen above the forest trees. All of these have been advertisements for the power that they housed.
Tower-power radiates like radio-waves. They enter the consciousness without changing anything in between. Tower-power 'acts-at-a-distance', like Gravity, binding the otherwise 'free individual' to the 'force of the tower'. The 'force' of the steeples was Christianity. The sight of the steeple recalled the country people and also the townspeople to the Commandments that they had learned at Sunday School and heard rehearsed and elaborated each Lord's Day.
One can make no such claim for the grey concrete prole-shelving, erected since the 1950's. Their municipal builders were so culturally incompetent that they could not even cement together a political power base by building a lifespace that created a lifestyle that their constituents wanted to pursue - let alone their Architects, who kept to the culture, and capital appreciation, of 19C Neo-Classical terraces.
We now come to the last 20 years and the 'office-tower'. This is the 'downtown' phenomenon. Cities all around the world now look like offcuts of any late-20C U.S. clutch of urbanistically-illiterate, bulging, shiny towers. They are nothing but a rapidly-depreciating cashburger of rentable space. The last time anyone built a skyscraper that was actually beautiful was pre-1939. Why should one make such 'industrial space' into an icon of a city? What do Caesar Pelli's towers, the prettiest of the recent clutch, do for Kuala Lumpur, except reduce the rest of the city to doll's houses and aggrandise that country's power-hungry President? Stalin also built towers and put the red star on its top, to radiate consciousness of the Party.
The 'tower' used to remind people of some ideas that 'mattered' that were mediated by its occupants. Can we believe that there are such ideas today, and that they are mediated by their occupants? Do a random accumulation of service industries and overnight accomodations deserve 'tower-status'? Are these latterday tower-dwellers not far too trivial for 'elevation'?
IS THIS WHAT ANYONE MEANS BY 'PROGRESS'?
However none of these are arguments that, perhaps, even occur to the present-day promoters of Towers. They advocate them on the grounds that skyscrapers both constitute and promote 'Modernity'. What this can only mean is that working in a tower is 'progressive', and that the tower can be made into a totemic sign of Progress. What is the direction of the 'progress' towards which these tinny towers will lead? What is the significance of decorating them with external glass elevators (which their occupants now wish (as in Lloyds and the Beaubourg) had been centralised - for greater convenience of use), fire escape stairs, sundry airducts, lavatory cublicles and external window-cleaning cranes? Will these emblems of a laddish 'head-under-the -bonnet' ethic guide us as irresistibly and surely as did the 'steeples' of the Church? The proposition verges on the infantile. What do these gadgets recall further than the boxes of Meccano their inventors played with as boys?
THE TOWER AS 'TOTEM'.
What is 'modern' about a 'tower'? Absolutely nothing. Men have been building towers since they could put one thing on another. A tower is, and always has been, a Totem. It is a pole, a vertical axis, up which and along which objects of significance are placed so as to recall some 'narrative' (story-line) of significance. Until we have something that we wish to 'broadcast' to the world a Tower will merely record our aniconic nihilism at worst (as do most post-war 'blocks') and our iconic innocence at best.
A VERY STRANGE STORY
Lord Foster, as an example, has always been careful to proclaim his implacable opposition to any iconic interpretation of his work. He claims that its origin is purely material and mechanical - albeit propelled by some worthy ethic like 'political transparency' or CO2 reduction. Yet Foster's greatest achievement, in my book, has been to liberate Germany from the curse of Nazi iconography. He has done this by placing the Bundestag under a glass dome which would have greeted by delirous approval by Himmler and his 'aryan' savants of the SS 'brotherhood'.
Clearly only a total iconic 'innocent' like Foster could have achieved this miraculous deliverance. For he has invoked a very clear and magnificent recollection of a 'vedic' cosmogony, of the precise kind researched by the Sanskrit scholars of Germany, and then placed into a state of febrile idiocy by the Viennese Corporal. Yet by doing this he has unlocked the legitimate access into the long history of the Indian subcontinent which it must be everyone's birthright - just as the Indians have access to Europe's - but which Nazism polluted. My own family lived in India for three generations, and while it is true to say that no British intellectual ever fathomed Hindu Architecture - the first was the Viennese refugee Stella Kramrisch, in the 1930's - I still refuse to have Indra's 'cosmic axis' , and the swastika (the kakra as a 'wheel of fire') taken away from me by some Nazi descendant of a Germanic 'forestiere'.
This is not the place to labour my iconographic assertion. For as Edgar Wind said, (in so many words) "In iconography the most unlikely explanation is frequently the truth". Those who wish to study this further may find the iconography, itself, described in a paragraph of "Western Space" whose 'url' address is <www.johnoutram.com/westspace.html#indranail>. It is obtained from my readings in ancient cosmogonies in general and, in particular, from the work of F.B.J.Kuiper, Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Leiden, and his work "Ancient Indian Cosmogonies" Published 1983, Vikas, New Delhi.
The correspendences between the 'floating raft of fire', the 'submarine mountain speared by a bolt of light', the resistance of the 'infinite spiral coils of the serpent Vrta', the 'rising-out of the dark sun', and the 'flowing of the rivers of the 'word' to the four quarters', are all so analogically explicated by the Bundestang Dome as to constitute a critical mass of congruences that can neither be explained as a merely 'private' confection, nor as some merely 'green machine' blowing politico's hot gas out through the roof..
Whatever its aetiology (which it would certainly be interesting to know, for Foster was married, for a time, to an Indian girl), it is a massively 'Vedic' iconic narrative. It is precisely the kind of thing that Himmler would have sought to represent the 'Aryan' myth. Neither Foster nor the present German Establishment can be accused of pursuing that myth. Therefore the accession this 'totem' gives to a great Architectural tradition is purified of all Nazi foulness. Foster's Bundestag Dome delivers Germany a 'clean sheet' on which to write a morally sane history of its understanding of India.
Who has done more for Berlin - Liebeskind, the iconic sophisticate who has barricaded the Holocaust inside a cocoon of Unreason, or the iconic innocent Foster, who has given Germany an access to the 'vedic' freed from Nazism? What is lacking from both of these seemingly polarised strategies is the sense that they know what they are doing and are in control of their medium and the infinite range of ideas that it can so usefully handle.
Is the best that we can do to rely on such hit-and-miss iconic 'accidents'? Foster, as representing the 'High-tech' culture or Rogers, Grimshaw, et al,, would be deeply embarrased by the thought that any of them were working, at all, in such 'murky' waters. For these are both waters in which they not only know that they are entirely void of navigational skills - but determined, with a ferocity that is visceral in its intensity, to remain so. Surely a tower, in a civilised place like West London, ought , at the very least, to be Totem legible as ideas that are as sophisticated as they are relevant (to people other than maintenance mechanics). Or are the technically challenged literati of London so frightened of the Science and Technology that they despise (and so know little of), that they wish, as at Lloyds, to elevate 'pipework' to the status of a civic icon?
End of "Tube and Totem",
Return to "Innovations: "Automatic Architecture"
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