London — There are cranes everywhere in London, and not just down in the financial center, the City of London. Cranes crowd the south bank of the Thames and the north. They are upriver and downriver. No quadrant of the skyline is without them in large quantity.
Since last I was here three years ago, much has gone up and even more is going up as I write. Sir Norman Foster’s pine cone, dubbed the Gherkin by Londoners, was praised by some critics when it pickled the skyline a decade ago as a masterpiece of “architecture as a sculpture.” It is now largely obscured from the vistas once enjoyed of it from the Thames bridges upriver.
Most of this obscuring is done by a dark triangular slab called the Leadenhall Building, but dubbed the Cheese Grater by those who have to look at it, as opposed to those who built it and those who are condemned to servitude inside it. The developer’s website praises the building as one “of style, presence, élan”—that last word hardly being one that springs to mind when I regard these vertical gulags of mammon. Here’s guessing that when you’re stuck in one of these things élan is the last thing you see or feel.
Looked at from Westminster Bridge across the Thames near the Houses of Parliament, the Grater and nearby buildings are ghosted by the cluster of right-angled corporate towers down in the Docklands to the distant east, the warning light atop the crowning pyramid of the monumental One Canada Square at Canary Wharf blinking disapprovingly of the post-modern Gestalt of the City. One Canada Square was the tallest building in the United Kingdom from 1990 until 2010, when the so-called Shard on the south bank of the river topped it and became the first British building to exceed one thousand feet. Soon to break ground is a mini-shard right next to the bigger one—the proverbial chip off the old block.
Contemplating all these distinctive shapes, one can begin to look at the coffin of Canary Wharf with a touch of nostalgia for a time when capitalist form and content merged: those were the days when financial monoliths truly were dedicated to money and despair, rather than being shapely monuments to architectural self-love.
Standing somewhat aloof from these high-rise condiments and kitchen accessories is the newest member the City’s high altitude club: 20 Fenchurch Street. This white tower fans out and droops slightly at the top, as if it were a classic modernist skyscraper that had slumped from its ramrod posture after an especially long day—they’re all long these days—in the office. Londoners have taken to referring to this one as the Walkie-Talkie. But if that is what it is, it’s had a longish session with the business end of a blowtorch that has made the thing sag and droop.
As the Gherkin was the first exotic form in the City, I’m in favor of continuing the christenings along culinary lines. Rather than the grater, I therefore see 20 Leadenhall and its 300,000 square feet of office space as a hearty wedge of British cheese. The “Walkie-Talkie” resembles a frothy pint of beer. And the Shard is better viewed as a slab of erratically cut bread.
Now the London skyline sits there like Ploughman’s Lunch on the City’s greedy plate.
As chance would have it, Lloyd’s Bank is marking its 250th year with an ad campaign that includes a billboard to be seen all around London showing a farmer and his draft horse plowing the fields. Thus the rural values of Olde England are embodied in friendly, caring Lloyd’s, an institution fined some three hundred million dollars last year for rigging international interest rates. Just last month the bank had to pay half that sum for defrauding its customers out of their credit insurance. These kindly financiers clearly remain true to the core English values that carry through the Tory present and into the globalized future.
Let’s therefore garnish our Ploughman’s lunch with a sprig of architectural parsley—the verdant setback of the Lloyd’s bank building in the City. Defrauding customers and gaming the world financial system can be exhausting work, so tuck in and don’t hold back!
What kind of shadow does the symbolism of the skyline cast on the street below? Regarding the rustic spread of pickle, cheese, bread, and beer as I strolled along the pedestrian thoroughfare of the South Bank, a stretch of river embankment now vibrant with food trucks and shops, not to mention the large-scale arts projects of the National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, and Tate Modern, I entered the tunnel beneath Blackfriars Bridge. A gaunt violinist was having a spirited go at Vivaldi’s Summer, perhaps trying to conjure again the searing temperatures of the first week of July so as to chase away the clouds for the beginning of the school holidays two weeks on. Almost anything sounds good in the echoing acoustic of a tiled underpass and the violinist did too. A tourist tossed a few brown coins onto the busker’s jacket laid out in front of him to receive donations. The soloist broke off the concerto mid-flourish and scooped up the pennies, as if they might scurry away if he didn’t grab them immediately. At this pay scale he’s going to have do a lot of fiddling before he has enough for lunch. But please, Mr. Violinist, for your own self-respect at least make it to the cadence before pocketing your wages!
Exiting the tunnel I proceeded upriver and heard the sounds of virtuoso bagpiper rising up from beyond the embankment. The low tide had revealed a sandy beach between the wall and the brown waters of the Thames, and there a piper in Nike high-tops, skater shorts, and hoody played the fastest, craziest, most demonic reel I’ve ever heard. Beside this Paganini of the Pipes was a sign suggesting that listeners toss their coins over the bulkhead to land twenty feet below the balustrade on the blanket he’d laid on the sand in front of him.
Having filled the bagpipe with air, he let the mouthpiece drop from his lips as his fingers continued their wild dance. Now he turned to gauge the inward progress of the river and sent his music racing out over the choppy water. The tide was on its way in fast and within a few hours would be up to near the top of the embankment. As the piper turned away from the river again some coins fell onto the blanket and he looked up the wall towards his listeners and beyond them to the giant slice bread rising all the way to the sky above.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)