Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Peter Ackroyd
December 1, 2011Posted by on
I’ve lived in London all my life and love the place – well, we all say that, wherever we live. I like those world surveys of ‘the most liveable city’ and such like – the stuff of endless controversy which, in the past, have aroused such controversy in newspapers (the Financial Times, especially). And ‘all my life’ is quite a few years, so I’ve seen many changes. However, over that time I’ve become increasingly intrigued by all those comments that refer to London as some kind of ‘beast’ with a life of its own. No, was doesn’t have to get superstitious, wet-eyed or begin to whisper about the deep things we don’t understand about spiritual forces. I’m certain it’s all just about systemic laws of big numbers. That is: I’m almost convinced – certainty is a risky business. One of the things that intrigues me is London’s patterned urban geography and ‘how it wants to be’. ‘How it wants to be’? Well, yes, because how else does one start to grasp at the issue? There is, for example, a very particular patterning that was established and clear by the C12th, i.e., after the Normans had arrived to lay claim to the English crown and set themselves up on the edge of an already established trading town set on the banks of the River Thames. In brief: they settled around Westminster Abbey, a C7th monastery where the last english king had been crowned and this, over the centuries evolved from palace to court plus parliament, civil service and the rest: London’s governmental and royal district. If you’re a rich banker and are eager to invest your bonuses, you turn toward the backlands of this are, to Kensington and Chelsea. And where you will earning that bonus will probably be in the old trading town – now the financial district that is the City of London. That is the basic pattern: two focal points of power and influence. And so it goes on … pattern within pattern, a key aspect of which has been the East End and the West End. Interestingly, although the port of London sometime ago shifted from east to west (i.e., Heathrow airport), many people are lobbying to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary, thus returning the port to the east agin. The ‘beast’ thinks long-term…. Peter Ackroyd is possibly one of the more notable of a long line of historians who likes to nod and wink toward this beastliness, whilst architects mutter (in a neo-Hegelian language they don’t understand) about a ‘spirit of place’.
It sounds like nonsense, but the more one becomes familiar with London as a pattern urban complex, the more one opens one’s mind to such a notion…. When I (in my role as Architectural Dialogue guide) get foreign architects coming to London to see the work of this and that contemporary architect I try (as if I were following in the footsteps of Nairn and Sinclair) to interest them in this London, this pattern, characterful place.
They invariably have zero interest. I have to sneak the message in. And I do it performatively by gathering them at some suitable location and getting out a stick of chalk (not too easy to find in the shops these days!). And they love it. ‘Gosh, Ken, I’m so pleased you explained that ….’ ‘But isn’t this touching upon the basic reason why you came to London?’ ‘No, we came to see this and that building by those famous architects you have.’ ‘But this and that building only has meaning within this larger framework …’ ‘Oh, I suppose so… Where is that Rem Koolhaas building? And we do love Foster …’ Good grief … I sometimes suggest they walk, that they track the canals, that they wonder the backlands and allow themselves to be bemused by it all. They never do. And I suggest that the cities they live must be similar, that they also will exhibit some peculiar patterning – a comment guaranteed to draw a blank. I sometimes think about doing a book on the topic, but such a work would always miss the essential nature of the thing in itself, i.e., just what it is what is getting at. No, it’s better to do it out there, on the pavement, with the chalk, with in between comments. In other word: – I give hints, I point, suggest and hope the other person (or group) is awake and aware and attentive and has a brain that can recognise patterns when they are pushed into their faces … Sometimes they can, and one sees that familiar light in their eyes and they smile: ‘Yes, I get it …’ … Now, that is another topic: why is this the only way to teach but few do it and even fewer people talk about it? And that comes back to learning about the architecture of the beast – tracking how the beast grows, shifts its posture, twitches, scratches, sheds ‘skin’ … We’re like parasites on its back, blissfully unawares of the body we dwell upon – well, the body we create … We do create it, don’t we?