Friday, April 06, 2007

Skyline questions

Those who complain that the scale of the Westminster skyline has been outraged by the high-rise interlopers ignore the fact that cold measurements or even hotly angry ones are not everything - not necessarily anything much. What could dwarf that marvellous monster the Victoria tower, but something of its own kind?

When Barry reared his Neo-Gothic palace against the Abbey, the traditional ruler of the Westminster skies for so many centuries, that was true audacity. Both survive as mighty presences, the real abbey and that newer Nightmare Abbey of genius, ruling the scene unmoved by the lofty impotent giants surrounding it. Nothing much counts for much, or intrudes much. The Festival Hall complex, so alluring by night, fades by day into a range of concrete barns: almost a modern agricultural aspect, a Harvest Festival Hall. Next to it the vast inert face of the Shell building expresses total absence. But Wren's surviving churches, however small, refuse to be extinguished. They ignore monsters; they spike the scene like exlamation marks, commanding attention. And wherever you happen to be sailing or driving or walking, whether you are as near as Southwark or as far as Greenwich, St Paul's pops up all over the skyline like a floating bubble nobody can burst. If it had been anchored in a vista, as its creator intended, that dome would never have had the same capricious and buoyant appeal.

- Norman Shrapnel, A View of the Thames

This is 1977, and Norman Shrapnel assumes his readers will be "on the side of sensible planning", "the most careful and tenacious of co-ordinated schemes". The world that he is gently writing against was already disappearing, but he isn't to know that.

In 2007, those bubblings-up of St Paul's are "protected vistas" - we need planning to protect the appearance of serendipity. I'm not sure what the moral is, except that conventional wisdom is more fluid than it can sometimes seem. We go on making mistakes, but not always the same ones.

[A view of the Thames, by Norman Shrapnel, London, 1977. Late-career ruminations by a former parliamentary sketchwriter of the Guardian, in a lovely version of the paper's old C.E Montague-derived heightened colloquial style. Less deep-thinking than the creaminess of the prose would suggest, but it gives a nice picture of the docklands between death and redevelopment, and an engaging selection of the river's urban myths. The picture, incidentally, is the City seen from the ramp down to the debating chamber in City Hall; the pre-20th-century element seems pretty effectively expunged from that particular vista.]

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