In debating the future of its skyline, London has to look at the type of corporate city it is becoming
London is a flat city. Even from the top of a double-decker bus, you get a good view of its streets and houses. In the next few years, that looks likely to change. If all the new skyscrapers currently planned for the Capital get built, it will start to look like another New York or Hong Kong, where mighty corporate towers loom imperiously over the worker ants at their feet.
An exhibition called 'Tower Power' at the Architecture Foundation in London makes that clear. It displays a range of buildings that could turn London into the world's biggest building site. They include both the huge Citigroup and HSBC Holdings towers now being built in Canary Wharf; the vast London Bridge Tower that would reach more than 1,000 feet into the clouds; Sir Norman Foster's new headquarters for Swiss Re, already nicknamed the Gherkin for its audacious design; and Lord Richard Rogers's Grand Union Building planned for Paddington. The show is designed to provoke a debate about London's skyline ' a debate already kicked off by Ken Livingstone, perhaps the most forceful advocate of allowing more new skyscrapers.
That debate raises two interesting questions. What does it say about London that it is contemplating changing its skyline so drastically? And what does it say about the corporate world that its leaders demand the right to create monuments to themselves carved out of steel, glass and concrete? In truth, in debating its skyline, London is debating the type of city it is becoming. For the first time, London is asking whether it is happy to become Esperanto Central: the Western headquarters of a polyglot, globalised, market-driven culture, which is rich and dynamic but not particularly English.
Left to themselves, the English would remain, as they always have been, a resolutely low-rise people. It was only in the 1960s that any skyscrapers were allowed to intrude upon the city at all. And it was only with the construction of the Lloyd's Building and I.M. Pei's Canary Wharf tower in the late 1980s that London, a city stuffed with wonderful architecture, acquired any tall buildings of any aesthetic merit.
The reasons are not hard to figure out. The English are an essentially suburban people. Neither backwards, reactionary rural society, nor the archly-modernist, urban and frenetic pace of the city appeal best to their temperament.
But the slower, moderate pace of the 'burbs, with their big gardens and passionless lives, fits the mood perfectly. Suburbs, after all, are reasonableness and moderation turned into bricks and mortar, and those are the two qualities the English value above everything.
The names of the companies on London's new towers are telling: Swiss Re, Citigroup, Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. These giants of European, American and Asian finance are typical of the companies that have made London one of the great centres of globalised capitalism, a European equivalent of New York and Hong Kong, and with arguably the potential to outstrip even those two cities in commercial importance.
For Londoners that has mostly been a blessing. Their city is now the wealthiest place in Europe, according to Eurostat figures: GDP per capita in London is 2.2 times the European average, and almost 50% ahead of its nearest rival, Hamburg. All this has come at a price, of course. The price is an abandonment of English-ness. In effect, Londoners have turned over their city to the demands of the global financial markets, in a way that few other European cities would be prepared to do.
Would Parisians let the Eiffel Tower be overshadowed by a 200 story slab of trading floors? Not likely. The debate on skyscrapers is full of ironies. Livingstone, in his articles and lectures on this subject, makes the point that big companies are demanding skyscrapers, and its his job and London's destiny to bow to the whims of corporate masters.
Livingstone is opposed most forcefully by English Heritage, the guardians of every column and architrave laid down by Sir Christopher Wren and Thomas Cubitt. The resistance to skyscrapers misses the point. The corporate world is going through a triumphalist phase, and as Roman emperors and medieval Popes well knew, triumphs are best celebrated with stone and marble. Corporations want big buildings to proclaim their success: if they can't build them in London they will go elsewhere.
London's skyline might be being re-drawn, but the sketches available show an almost Wagnerian sense of passion, drama and majesty. In truth, London's die is already cast, its Rubicon long since crossed. It long since decided to embrace globalisation, and can't turn back now. That won't stop Londoners glancing down sometimes from their 128th-floor office, and looking wistfully at the city they have left behind.
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