We Built This City

By Hollis, Leo | New Statesman (1996), November 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

We Built This City


Hollis, Leo, New Statesman (1996)


"A desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness, a cathedral turned into a toy shop, an immense museum of all that is most curious and costly, and, at the same time, most worthless, in the productions of art and nature." So wrote William Hazlitt just under 200 years ago as he wandered around the fire sale of the property of the richest man in England, William Beckford.

Beckford had gone bust building a tower on top of his country house, Fonthill Abbey. Five hundred workmen toiled night and day; the stained glass cost [pounds sterling]12,000 alone. At first, a wooden tower was planned that reached 30 metres high before collapsing, but as Beckford's hubris grew it was replaced by another spire rising 90 metres, which also fell. In the end, it was rebuilt in stone but at a cost that not even a young man in possession of [pounds sterling]100,000 a year could sustain. The parallels between the age of Beckford and today are difficult to avoid. In the past weeks, there have been three events that prove history does not learn the hard lessons when vanity and money are involved.

The owners of the Shard in London have started to sell the view from the 72nd floor; tickets will cost just under [pounds sterling]90 for a family of four. On a clear day you will be able to see the edge of the metropolis in all directions. But despite the panorama, the one thing missing will be the Shard itself; it was built for one reason--to be seen, to impress, to be an icon. Already Renzo Piano's building-object has come to symbolise the confused and anxious state of the city.

The architectural hubris of the previous decades has turned our dreams into steel and glass and has changed our ideas of what a city should be. In 2004, Norman Foster's 30 St Mary Axe--the Gherkin--changed the game. Here, everyone agreed, was a building so well designed that it symbolised the new city; it was 21st-century London. But what did this mean? What kind of city have we built for ourselves? Since 2004, the old fabric has been replaced by towers and blocks that intend to compete not just with New York or Paris, but Shanghai, Singapore or Dubai. Markets get the architecture they deserve, and the towers and malls of today are the follies of the last economic cycle, illusionary temples built with imaginary money.

These monuments to capital are less than the sum of their parts; it is not just that the emperor is naked, it is that everyone else has to lose their shirt as well. But the emptiness of these symbols were filled with other signifiers: the fame of the staritect; a cuddly name that suggested the shape of the building as something else, on a massive scale: Walkie Talkie, Razor, the Hubbly Bubbly. When a building has become known by its official given name, it is more often a brand: Westfield, the [O.sub.2], Tate Modern.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the woozy hangover of the Olympic summer, a warm feeling for iconic architecture might still remain. The London Olympic Park was a triumph of public planning, delivered on time and on budget--against so many expectations. But until the Opening Ceremony the stadium was an empty bowl. Danny Boyle's success was to use the feeling we had for the NHS to overwrite our ambivalence towards the Games. After that, to criticise the Games was to question our very national identity and this feeling attached itself to the building. But already these architectural objects feel like relics of a previous era.

There is a relation between the iconic eruptions in the metropolis and less headline-grabbing transformations within the suburbs.

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