The City That Forever Resists the Rational: Since It Burst Its Stone Banks in Medieval Times, London Has Defied Central Planners. Only Margaret Thatcher Understood Its Anarcho-Dynamism. (Special Report/London 3)

By Self, Will | New Statesman (1996), July 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

The City That Forever Resists the Rational: Since It Burst Its Stone Banks in Medieval Times, London Has Defied Central Planners. Only Margaret Thatcher Understood Its Anarcho-Dynamism. (Special Report/London 3)


Self, Will, New Statesman (1996)


I wonder what Lewis Mumford, the great doyen of urban studies, would have made of the Oscar Niemeyer pavilion currently squatting in front of the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park. Every year, the gallery -- which has plotted a reputation for itself at the very point on the grid where chic contemporary art, evanescent celebrity and the London beau monde all intersect -- asks a prominent architect to design a teahouse. This little semi-folly graces the parched grass for a few months: a porte-cochere to the inner sanctum of the gallery. There is always considerable interest in the pavilion. I was there last week and no fewer than three stills photographers were hard at work, together with a brace of camera crews. But why?

Niemeyer, a nonagenarian Brazilian, best known for his contributions to that monumental nationalist folly, the capital city of Brasilia, isn't much more than an emulator of Le Corbusier, an architect of whom Mumford wrote in the late 1950s: "[His] imagination is deeply in harmony with the negative tendencies at work in contemporary society [he] has for a whole generation been the single most powerful influence over architecture and city planning in every part of the world." The Niemeyer pavilion is so small as to evade opprobrium -- after all, this is a pavilion, not an office block or a militaristic citadel -- but how are we to read its enthusiastic embrace by London's wannabe aesthetic intelligentsia?

Can it be that they are disposed to regard this dinky concrete awning as in some sense a model of modernism? That, by placing it on their lawn, the Serpentine people are acknowledging a fact already enacted on a big scale by Tate Modern: namely, that modernism is now securely of the past? Or is the pavilion a still more ironic comment, one understood intuitively by its local contemplators? Because, of all the world cities that came of age in the first half of the 20th century, London is arguably the least brutalised by Le Corbusier and his bully boys. I'm not claiming that London is unaffected by modernist architecture and urban planning; rather that London is so immemorially messy, that despite their best -- or worst -- efforts, modernist architects have proved unequal to the task of significantly altering its fabric.

However, I doubt all of the above conjectures. The sad truth is that the Serpentine people, together with the febrile fashionistas who flock to their fundraising parties, actually believe the Niemeyer pavilion is cool. Noisily ignorant of their own history, these epigones sum up the argument that the World Spirit of Urbanity has moved on. London had the Hip Olympics in the 1960s and - arguably -- the 1990s (as New York had it in the 1970s, Paris in the 1920s and Vienna in the 1890s). Now this sacred celebration of the evolutionary role of cities has upped the stakes.

Mumford, again writing of the depredations of 20th-century urban planners, said that "[they] attempt to cover over their initial mistakes by repeating them on a wider scale". But in the case of London, you'd have to say that this process has been undertaken by that unhappy antheap, the city itself. The English psychogeographers Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd have it right when they ascribe to the city its own persona, for the way London has resisted the rational over the centuries, while continuing to transcend its own very raison d'etre, is suggestive of a refractory genius. Ever since the early medieval city burst its stone banks and ran all over the place, London has displayed all the orderliness of an inundation. Wren, Nash, Unwin--planners have come and gone. Only Margaret Thatcher seemed to understand the anarcho-dynamic of London, and hailed it by abolishing city-wide institutions of planning and administration. Continuously elaborating on its own waywardness, the city has spread and spread -- and now even that complacent girdle, the green belt, has been broken.

The past 20 years saw a steady stretching of its definition, but even if "the green belt" had held, London's field-eating disorder had already leapfrogged beyond it. …

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