The Argentinian architect Rafael Vinoly – in between merrily casting blame at various consultants – seems to be mostly in reverent awe of the tower’s deadliness. The developers Land Securities* (carefully dodging the question of whether the decision to build what is in effect an urban parabolic mirror was a sensible one) have unironically laid the foot of blame at the sun itself, it’s selfish, brazen decision to occupy that particular angle of sky in the month of September.
Some things it seems, could only happen in London. But they will happen here again and again.
I have been living here for a year now. I know a bit now what this city is like. I have elbowed tourists on Oxford Street and queued for a patch of grass in parks. I have sniggered at haircuts in Shoreditch, felt my eyes water in West London and cursed public transport south of the river. I have paid too much for a pint everywhere. Slowly, I have begun to get used to it. Things that first struck me as odd; Oyster cards, Kindle-blinded pedestrians, never ever sitting next to a stranger on a bus if you can avoid it, have now become familiar. I have even begun to hurry like a Londoner, time-is-mon-ey tapping out my steps.
I have got to know its buildings too, bit by bit. I know Clerkenwell’s warehouses almost as well as its heavy-rimmed eyewear. I have eaten my lunch in the green quiet of Islington’s Georgian squares. I know London brick, the brown tiles of busy pubs. On tall stone streets in St James I have glimpsed Classical luxury through portered brass doors. Suburban Victorian villas, misty in autumn rain, have invited me in after train journeys from fraught, clattering stations. And of course I have had the obligatory gawk at the ‘icons’—the spiky (or bulbous) glass protusions emerging from the City, the needling BT tower, thameside Palaces and Ministries goaded by the Eye. In just the right seat of the train across Blackfriars bridge you can almost see it all in one kaleidoscopic sweep.
And in that view, rosy, and far off, and to the right, is another tower. Its profile, etched onto a million mugs, caps and pencils, is concentrated Londonness. It’s nickname conjures instantly a vision fat with beefeaters and red double-deckers. Pedants will tell you this name in fact just refers to it’s largest bell. At any rate – when you see it – there at last is London.
Big Ben was the final work of the architect Augustus Pugin before his descent into madness. Working under Robert Barry, he designed it alongside the interiors of the Houses of Parliament in stately Gothic Revival. Conscious of it’s national prominence, the choice of style was highly considered. Gothic, or as Pugin termed it Christian architecture was the architecture of a golden Medieval age. Redolent of the feudal virtues of temperance, honesty and charity, for him it was the urgently necessary style of building in a nation rapidly descending into the dark mechanical abyss of industrialisation.
In 1836, aged only twenty-four, Pugin had written a polemical pamphlet entitled ‘Contrasts,’ which made unflattering comparisons between the contemporary classical architecture of institutions like the Workhouse or the Asylum, with the gothic architecture of their gentler Medieval equivalents. Big Ben, carefully designed in that prelapsarian lineage, as a statement about London and Great Britain, was (and still is) both highly moral and deeply nostalgic.
This perhaps explains the affection the tower has held among Londoners ever since. The tower continuously features at the top of lists of favourite landmarks. It’s clock face blankets television panels. It’s chimes, declaring another midnight on Radio Four, are cherished. Like Pugin we find that we the London of Big Ben is one we like. Among those crockets and spandrels it is easy to imagine the London the sober and ancient, London the equanimous and just. Like the Victorians, in those pointed arches we find deliverance from our conniving unfathomable city, an evocation of an unspecified but surely nobler past. A past, that at least for the space of twelve bongs, might perhaps still be in existence.
But we must not be under any illusion. London’s heart beats to the staccato thrum of commerce. This is a city of money and speculation. One of Coffee houses, high frequency trading and South Sea Bubbles. It will always be this way. London’s truest monuments are greedy and improbable, a mad overloaded wing and a feverish prayer. The rest – churches, palaces, theatres – is just salve for guilty commercial consciences. 20 Fenchurch Street, turning stolen air into profit, defying the sun, too selfish to care for the science-fictional discomfort it inflicts on its neighbours, is our most authentic confection yet. Even drably curtain glazed, detailed to a perfunctory international blandness, it oozes Londonness in a way that Big Ben – freak outcome of an occasional moral nostalgia – never really has.
When most of us think of London we will immediately see Big Ben. We will hardly be able to help it. Obediently, we will buy mugs and pencils with its picture. Sipping hot tea, we will recognise a familiar city between our hands and feel content. Well, smash the mugs and snap the pencils. Retrain your eyes. Picture the Walkie Scorchie—this is what London looks like.