It’s been a long time since anyone in England was hanged, drawn, and quartered. And yet we celebrate the practice each year on the 5th November.
I propose we make an exception and revive the practice for a man who has desecrated beauty. It would also befit his crimes were his ‘quarters’, so to speak, displayed in the Tower of London. This would at least bring him closer to beautiful architecture in death than he ever was in life.
For the ‘starchitect’ Renzo Piano is the man responsible, with Sellars Property Group and Great Western Developments, for The Shard, the adjacent News Building, the London Bridge Quarter, and, soon perhaps, the £775 million ‘Paddington Cube’. It was supposed to have been the ‘Paddington Pole’ (new such buildings apparently require the names of 90s Playmobil sets), but locals forced a 54-storey cut from the original proposals.
Like Playmobil, the towers turning central London into some Vegas rip-off Dubai are cheap and ugly, and bear the phallic impotence of their criminal commissioners. But, unlike Playmobil, which is at least internally consistent, almost all new towers are incongruous with the surroundings they rear up to shadow.
Architects like Piano have been given unprecedented power in transforming London’s skyline for potentially hundreds of years. I often encounter the ‘Christopher Wren Rebuttal’: St. Paul’s Cathedral was new and looming at first, but now it’s an essential feature of London. True. St. Paul’s and The Shard share the aim of snaring Londoners’ attentions. They may both be vanity projects, too.
But the differences are vast. They are altars to different gods—the one to Christ, the other to Capital—and one is objectively more beautiful, more wrought, more devastating than the other. Modern architecture seeks only to shock, to have some ‘fun’-value; St. Paul’s, and buildings like it, are tributes to value itself.
The ‘Wren Rebuttal’ can become the ‘Southbank Rebuttal’, too. But I think there really are gradations of crap, and at least it may be said of the National Theatre, for example, that modernist architecture had a vision behind it. These were serious reactions to the classical forms and structures preceding them, concomitant with changes in poetry and literature. They possessed an artistic integrity, a negative vision of the future of value and of art which The Gherkin (or the ‘Butt Plug’) and the ‘Cheese Grater’ lack.
That the Tate Modern is ugly is no obstacle to condemning the glass warts in the Isle of Dogs, full of cubicled, un-jailed bankers. Had I been present at the Tate’s construction, I would have protested. But its existence hardly precludes my protesting the erection, if you’ll pardon the term, of more false artworks.
In London especially, it is cheaper to build up than out. Architects—no less the councils and developers further up the chain—have a duty to ensure new towers answer, not to the demands of money, but the needs of the polis. There are ways to blend with a city’s surroundings without reneging on the need for modernization. Many areas and buildings in London have done this successfully.
Poundbury, in Dorset—one of the less pointless things our chinless Prince of Wales has achieved—is a fine example of a well-executed, modern, pretty suburban town. The Tate Modern, too, is at least free at the point of entry, spacious, culturally relevant, and publicly accessible. The Shard is oppressively wealthy, ambiguously accessible, and costs money to enter on all but the lobby and a single floor.
Paddington is about to suffer the same fate. The same man has been given the same power to build much the same building: a blinding glass block useful only to those already rich enough to enter––much like the European Union’s bombastic £300 million ‘space egg’ in the heart of Brussels. Poor Paddington will remain, well, poor—a far-cry from the charming arrival of Michael Bond’s eponymously-named, Mackintoshed bear.
To the project’s credit, had Paddington Bear arrived at the station to be confronted by the Cube, he would at least enjoy an improved Bakerloo service and a few more ticket machines, which is about the only good thing to come of it. Even so, Sellars Property Group have done a good job of concealing the disruption to some of the adjacent St. Mary’s Hospital’s key ambulance routes.
Alas, however, any talk of ‘objective beauty’ is met with ridicule in this age of deconstructionist, post-socialist, post-modernist, post-truth, post-first-past-the-post moral relativism. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, ‘true’ and ‘false’ are charming idioms for the idiots who cling to them. Meanwhile students, those most enlightened of creatures, are busy setting about the total censorship of dissenting opinions, reducing them to phobias and no-platforming the only people with anything resembling objective fact—2+2=5, Winston.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Not when it comes to architecture. The Tower of London can’t attract tourists forever. If Iceland can jail its bankers, why can’t we hang, draw, and quarter our architects?