Thursday, 3 November 2011

London Bridge, 1st November

For various reasons, the 1st of November 2011 was not the sort of day one wishes to go through. As part of this horrid spin I had occasion to walk across London Bridge along with the lord knows how many other thousands pass across as it as well, perhaps a six figure number. Before reaching the bridge however, I had to walk through the bus station, which as I have mentioned before, is in the process of a slow demolition and replacement, its roof being torn apart in one place, propped up in another, almost intact in small sections. And as I walked under it it on this damp November morning it was hard not to see it as some kind of allegory.

Along with the space frame, those pointed and strange lanterns over the rooflights are other details that we're unlikely to see again once the current generation of 40-odd year old buildings are demolished and forgotten. One has to admit that they do not make for a pleasant sight, ungainly, savage almost, like awkward teeth. But they have a purpose and they also strangely work as well, with a rhythm that compliments the spindles of the frames below. Indeed, at this late stage in their life they create a strange mimetic effect with the additional grey steel support truss on the underside of the roof.

The roof is truncated & incomplete, but in a strange reversal it begins to give the impression that it is poised in the process of expansion, just waiting to be extended out to accommodate some kind of growth. It seems both to be on its way up, but also on its way down, and we know what that means: the ruin.
Ruin. You might say: who built that? You might also say: who destroyed that?
-Victor Hugo, on the barricades of 1848

And then not only the secondary structure of the trusses that hold the roof up for now, but also an extra structure of scaffolding. This leads to a frankly ridiculous profusion of vector-like members, spiderish and confusing, fragile in appearance. There's nothing pretty about it, yet seeing it like this allows us to appreciate the effect that engineering architecture first had upon people - its very lack of weight and expressive detail made it troubling and ugly to nearly all who saw it. It wasn't long of course that we learned the engineering aesthetic of rationality and became masters of it, somewhat numbing it, but when we see a scruffy mess like this we can catch a glimpse in ourselves of that original reaction.

A couple of days ago I recorded a brief clip of Beethoven, a piece which has been on my mind a lot recently. You might remember that the 'Heiliger Dankgesang' features prominently in Patrick Keiller's film 'London', and indeed there are a number of shots from the film that focus on the commuters in and around London Bridge and the station. There is of course a melancholy eye that you can place onto a scene like this, whereby the thousands of nameless people streaming out of the door make it seem as if the city itself were taking a deep sighing breath. Caught in this stream one gets a sense of the countless bodies who have wafted across the Thames for work over the last millenia, and London becomes some kind of sad entity in itself. The fragile yearning in the Beethovian counterpoint is a perfect match for the sense of disappearance inherent to the wash of commuters, endlessly repeated with slowly changing actors. But here, under the drab sky we are reminded that nothing repeats without change, and we see a building belonging to one era being crushed beneath the brute weight of its replacement, the Shard.


Richmonde said...

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

TS Eliot

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