A walk through Skyscraper National Park: the world’s most exciting collection of modern architectural masterpieces
There are many good reasons to visit London: for its world-class theatres, its magnificent pubs, or to pay a visit to the Queen. Here is another one: the town’s unique collection of modern architecture.
This has not always been so. Until fairly recently, say the mid 1980s, there were not a great deal of interesting new buildings around. Paris was where all the cutting-edge stuff was being built (the new Opera, the Centre Pompidou, the Louvre pyramids).
Since then, however, the tables have very much been turned, and London has, virtually by stealth, become the world’s capital of modern architecture – even though, in many people’s minds, it still is a Victorian city with some old and some new bits thrown in.
In fact, this may be true for the West End, the Swinging London of the 1960s: Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and Haymarket, but much less so for the City of London, the business district in the east.
Over the last 20 years, the City has gained the upper hand in the capital and is once again, as it was in the Middle Ages, very much the pulsating heart of the metropolis, and the large number of new and exciting buildings is just the outward sign of this new dominance.
We begin our walk where the story of “the second breath of modernism” began, in a manner of speaking: at the Cranbrook Estate.
The Cranbrook Estate was built between 1955 and 1966, supervised by Berthold Lubetkin, one of the great gurus of modernism, and it seems that he very much wanted the project to become his legacy. Cranbrook was already a reaction to the brutalist “machines for living” of the immediate post-war era.
The architects had learned from earlier mistakes and were planning their estate in coordination with the future residents: there would be communal gardens and no lofty disdain for the tenants’ actual needs. All individual buildings were going to be different, arrayed in different angles to the sun – this was not going to be a dystopian concrete desert but modernism on a human scale.
Standing in front of the estate today, fifty years after its completion, it is, however, difficult not to feel a little let down: the estate looks suburbanized in scale, unheroic and, frankly, a little dowdy. More importantly, it suffered from many of the same faults as the old-style brutalist estates – it proved, above all, expensive to maintain and the cash-strapped council did not have the attention to detail which would have been required to turn Cranbrook into a resounding success.
Soon, the first tenants began to complain about a lack of light in the corridors and noisy drainpipes. It is not difficult to imagine that the next generation of architects took a good look at the project and its outcomes, followed by a deep breath – and then walked away from public residential buildings altogether, never to return.
Cathedrals of Capitalism
From now, they would concentrate on commercial buildings and on private clients, turning away from utopian socialism and social engineering to building “cathedrals of capitalism” in the grand artistic manner of the cathedral builders from centuries past.
From the Cranbrook Estate, take the bus (line no. 8) to Bank and turn into Cornhill for a close look at the Lloyds Building.
Built between 1978 and 1986 by Richard Rogers, one of the two patrons of the movement, it is the oldest of London’s modernist masterpieces and almost certainly the best.
What made the building famous, its “inside-out” architecture of wearing every ventilation shaft, heating pipe and elevator cabin on its sleeve, looks far less affected here than it does on the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Rogers’s first great project, simply because here it was, more or less, what the client wanted: inside, the building is essentially one huge trading room.
It is hard to believe today that the building – it received a Grade I listing in 2011, a mere 25 years after its completion: a new Bristish record – was very unpopular at the time. Contemporary newspaper headlines called it “Britain’s daftest building”.
Turn left now into St Mary Axe for the second iconic building on the same city square. This is the Gherkin, built by Norman Foster, the other great architect of what was later called the “Hi-Tech Movement”.
The differences to the Lloyd’s building are immediately obvious: it is less bold and more whimsical, something which also reflects the changing spirit of the times (the Gherkin was completed in 2004). Foster had originally planned a more daring and austere building for the site – the “Millennium Towers” would have been Europe’s tallest structure – but the design met with the fierce resistance of London’s municipal authorities.
Unlike Lloyd’s, the Gherkin proved to be immediately popular – it was the first office building to win the RIBA Stirling prize, the Architects’ Oscars, and the first ever building to win the prize unanimously – but soon ran into commercial trouble. The Guardian summed it up neatly in a 2014 headline: “Gherkin’s Salad Days Over Amid Financial Pickle for London Tower”.
Continue north from here in the direction of Liverpool Street station, which was redeveloped in the 1980s by keeping faithful to the style of a Victorian train station. Also have a good look around the adjacent street, mainly the large office block on 155 Bishopsgate …
… as a reminder that Hi-Tech was not the only answer to the crisis of architectural modernism and certainly not the most popular one in the 1980s when a free-for-all jumble of stylistic elements – from Victorian ironworks via Art Deco to Egyptian frieze decorations – was very much the fashion. This style, whatever you may think of it, has not aged particularly well. Its buildings lack the timeless quality of Lloyd’s and are as much of their time as the 1980s hairstyle of Krystle Carrington in Dynasty.
Turn around on Bishopsgate, for a left turn into Camomile Street and a right one into Fenchurch Street. At no. 20, you can see the unmistakable bulk of Rafael Vinoly’s “Walkie Talkie” (completed in 2013) …
… for many critics the ultimate fall from grace of the Hi-Tech movement.
Oliver Wainwright wrote in the The Guardian: “As a literal diagram of developers’ greed, it provides the painful proof that form follows not function but finance.” Not only does the building loom aggressively above its neighbours and blocks out their light, it has even scorched them with its own death ray – channeling the sun in its concave facade to temperatures capable of melting cars, singeing carpets, blistering paintwork and even melting parts of a car’s bodywork.
Predictably – if you know how the English press operates – it promptly got a new nickname: the “Walkie Scorchie”.
More successful is the Cheese Grater on nearby 122 Leadenhall, designed by the practice of Richard Rogers. Due to its half-Ziggurat-like shape …
… it has a relatively small floor space, but what there is has apparently been let already, although the building will only open in late 2014: not a mean feat, not even in London’s booming City.
Turn southward now, in the direction of the Millennium Bridge, another iconic feature of the “New London”, which combines two of Norman Foster’s main characteristics: his occasional love of whimsy (the bridge was, he said, “inspired by Flash Gordon’s blade of light”) and his amazing ability to re-think, re-invent and improve received technological wisdom and concepts, in this case the suspension bridge.
There were, admittedly, a few technical problems in the beginning – a slight “wobble” had to be fixed, adding 5 million to the initial budget of 23 million pounds – but the bridge has quickly joined the select group of the capital’s modernist architectural icons.
From the bridge, take a look towards Renzo Piano’s 87-storey Shard on your left, the tallest building in London and the entire EU, completed in 2012.
About 20 more such prestige building are planned for the City of London, so perhaps the best is still to come!
More modern architecture in our next post. Next time, we will go to West London, where the picture is far more mixed.