Renaissance on the River : London's Bold New Architecture Is Reviving the Thames

By McGuigan, Cathleen; Underhill, William | Newsweek International, November 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Renaissance on the River : London's Bold New Architecture Is Reviving the Thames


McGuigan, Cathleen, Underhill, William, Newsweek International


Where will you be popping your Dom Perignon at midnight on Dec. 31? If you're anywhere near London, the hot spots for ringing in the next thousand years are the Millennium Wheel and the Millennium Dome. The huge wheel of steel--450 feet high--that sits on the far side of Westminster Bridge across from Parliament is visible these days from most of central London, and would be the perfect vehicle to swing up in for a spectacular view of fireworks over the Thames--if you could get a ticket. A New Year's Eve invitation to the wildly controversial Millennium Dome at Greenwich--at 1,100 feet across, it's the world's biggest big top (and yes, there'll be a trapeze act)--will be just as tough to snag. That's where the queen will party on. All the millennial hoopla is focused on these two circular symbols of the future, but what will be more significant is what's going on between them, along those four winding miles of the River Thames: a huge revitalization of a dreary stretch of the city, a renewal that will radically alter the experience of being in London.

In romantic movies set in Paris, lovers routinely stroll along the banks of the Seine. In romantic comedies set in London, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts trot all over Notting Hill, but no one ever goes near the river. For more than 20 years the Thames has played a cameo role in the life of the city: when the last docks shut down in this once great port, London turned its back on its main artery. And except for the South Bank arts complex--the concert halls, National Theatre and Hayward Gallery, built in the 1950s and '60s--the southern side of the river has largely been ignored. All that is about to change, most dramatically when the new Tate Modern, a branch of the Tate Gallery set in an old power station, opens next May. The Tate's imminent arrival has already sparked a mini- boom of gentrification in the surrounding borough of Southwark. But it's only one sign of the confidence in new architecture throughout the city, from restaurants and tube stops to high-rises and housing. Though the commission for the new Tate was won by the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, most of the big new London projects are showcasing the talents of Britain's own architects.

Fifteen years ago the design scene in London didn't look promising. Prince Charles was attacking modern architecture, while Thatcherism was extolling traditional values and doing little to improve infrastructure and the public realm. But in 1986 the Lloyd's of London building by the London firm of Richard Rogers Partnership opened in the City; in its soaring stainless-steel sleekness, it was clearly one of the great postwar modern buildings anywhere. That same year, the Royal Academy of Arts organized a show of the big three of British architecture--Rogers, Norman Foster and the late James Stirling. Foster and Stirling each entered a key project in the exhibition, neither of which, significantly, was in Britain. Foster's was his Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in Hong Kong and Stirling's was the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. But Rogers created a model of an imaginary urban scheme called "London as it could be" that featured the Thames (using real water, not blue paint) as the centerpiece. "The Royal Academy show started to say," Rogers recalled recently, "that the river is the most beautiful silver streak through the city."

That was just one moment foreshadowing the current renaissance, but a number of forces had to come together to make it all happen. One, of course, is the current powerful economy, and the optimism engendered by Tony Blair's New Labour government. "There's a sense that the future is worth living, a feeling that the new Tate is more interesting than the Beefeaters or Buckingham Palace," says Rogers. "London has now got this strange magic about it." And for a country whose proudest artistic heritage has always been literary, there's a new assurance in visual culture--in fashion, graphic design and of course the art work of such brash upstarts as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. …

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