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The London Skyline Is Becoming a Collection of Expensive, Towering Penises

I spoke to design critic Stephen Bayley about how the arrogance of wealth has affected our capital.

by Oscar Rickett
19 May 2014, 5:00am

The Shard's inauguration ceremony (Photo via)

There’s no better display of wealth than throwing millions of pounds at a great fucking tower of concrete and glass. In fact, it feels like we hear plans for a new corporate skyscraper every month, each one an opportunity for a handful of investors to thrust their financial brawn into the clouds, competing with all the capital's other phallic eyesores for our indifference.  

I wanted to talk to someone about London's architecture and how it's been affected by the arrogance of wealth, so I got in touch with the eminent design critic Stephen Bayley, who once spent a few months as the creative director of the Millennium Dome but left in dismay at the chaos that surrounded him.

Bayley’s hero – the Victorian art critic John Ruskin – once said, “There is no wealth but life.” However, it seems – in London, at least – there is no wealth but wealth. More and more of the capital is taken up by private land and the skyline is beginning to be dominated by private interests.

I met Bayley in Soho, and once he’d broken a glass of wine on me we talked about the changing face of London.

Stephen Bayley (Photo by Bruno Bayley)

VICE: Hi Stephen. I think the Millennium Dome is a good place to start, because I was thinking about big building projects that were publicly funded or were meant to have some sort of public benefit, and it’s one of the last ones I can think of. And, of course, it wasn’t successful until a mobile phone company got involved.
Stephen Bayley: Well, they didn’t actually take it over; they had to build something else inside it. It’s not a dome, of course, it’s a tent. But New Labour required it be a dome with all the aggrandising associations of the Vatican and Jerusalem. I enthusiastically accepted the challenge and totally underestimated the scope for political bollocks that was going to follow. It was a great idea, but I’m vaguely sceptical about whether any such project would work.

Having said that, I had an exchange – this is the most appalling, chunking name-dropping, but it’s true – with Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, the other day. He said a wonderful, simple thing to me. It’s that if, a century ago, he were looking at the London skyline, everything that would have punctuated the horizon would have had some kind of public utility or symbolism. And now you look around and they’re symbols of arrogance and greed. Simple, large things representing simple, crude ideas. We’ve lost the kind of common good in projects, which is why the Millennium Dome, in principle, was a great idea. It was utterly flawed in execution, though, because of lowbrow politicking.

The Millennium Dome (Photo via)

Do you think, when we look at these buildings, that we have some kind of inherent sense of the fact that they’re flawed in this way? I'm thinking of The Shard in particular.
The Shard is a stupid building. I’m not against it because it’s tall, although I don’t particularly like tall buildings. Height is a crude way to achieve economic efficiencies. You can make them more efficient in other ways and still meet your commercial needs. The Shard is annoying because it’s so unintelligent, energy-squandering and inflexible. Even though it’s a 21st century building, it’s conceptually a mid-20th century building… it’s just a big ugly Qatari fuck you.

We enjoy buildings that appear to be connected with their environment. They don’t have to be a slavish response to it, but they have to be in some way helpful. The Shard has nothing to do with London. It’s just an alien thing sitting on top of London Bridge station and it’s a horrible additional load on the transport resources there.

That’s not because it’s new. Prince Charles' adventure into architecture was misguided. He got it almost entirely wrong. He sweetly and naively thought that everything new was bad. The buildings he dislikes are not bad because they’re new; they’re bad because they’re bad. But the terrible thing about his interest in architecture is that he gave false prestige and authority to people who thought that everything that was new was wrong.

The HSBC building in Hong Kong (Photo via)

Yeah, Norman Foster’s HSBC building in Hong Kong has a connection to its environment, which seems in stark contrast to The Shard or The Gherkin.
I was in Hong Kong, and it looks – even though it’s modernist – like an ancient piece of craft in comparison to the other things that have been built in the nearly 30 years since. There’s a wonderful thing that Braque said about Picasso. He said he used to be a great painter and then he became a genius. I think Norman Foster used to be a really great architect. He made some really wonderfully crafted and intensely cerebral buildings, and about half an hour after his peak celebrity as a proper designer, he turned into a brand.

Thinking of the Millennium Dome, the MI6 building is a relatively recent building that is technically public in that it’s part of government, but is actually completely closed off. It’s representative of one of the few areas of government that Thatcher and beyond have invested in, which is “security”. I think there’s an implicit “fuck you” to the people there; because they spent all this money on a building we have no interaction with.
It’s the strangest thing, isn’t it, that the secret service occupies one of London's most ostentatious buildings. As architecture, it really is ham-fisted. Terry Farrell, the architect, is not a sparkling intellect. Thirty years ago I did an exhibition at the V&A about taste, just after Farrell did the TV-am building in Camden. It had chickens and tweety birds on the parapets to indicate breakfast. I put this on the dustbins in this exhibition and Terry Farrell sent me a message saying he was going to come down and hit me. He came down, but he wimped out… possibly because I threatened to have a Daily Mail photographer on hand to record the incident. 

It’s impossible to find objective standards when judging buildings. After years and years and years of looking, the answer is semi-mystical. If it makes you feel better, you see it, you step into it and you get an enhanced sense of something or other. No Terry Farrell building has any such thing. The MI6 building is just crude. There’s no sense of public utility. In any case, it was intended to be a hotel.

The MI6 building (Photo via)

There’s more private land in the city now and it also feels more homogenous. If you walk along the Southbank, you could almost be in any other city in the world.
In one sense, I really deplore that, but I remember having a conversation on the telephone with Boris Johnson just before he became mayor. I said, “Boris, could you tell me what your architectural policies are going to be?” And he said, “Oh, my dear Stephen. We will have Georgian squares. We will have" – and he actually said this – "Richard Foster and Norman Rogers.” I said to him, “Boris, how are we actually going to get these Georgian squares?” And he just said, “Argh… ummmm… argh… well.” I quite like Boris, but he’s not someone you’d look to for clarity and executive action.

He seems to have presided over – and deliberately talked about – an increasingly capital-orientated shift in our culture.
I honestly think about that all the time, and of course the worship of money is always unsavoury, but I don’t know any other city that’s really doing it better. London is the most interesting city in the world, and there’s never been a plan for it, which I think is sort of wonderful.

For all its terrible faults, London is more organically vital than New York now. We’re terribly good at holding on to traditions, but we’re also curiously more tolerant of newness than any other place. In New York, particularly Manhattan, they’re so protective and so inward looking. In one sense, while I dislike the crassness and crudeness and the fact that all these new buildings are symbols of greed, I think it's sort of wonderful they’re happening here. Great cities need to be dynamic.

The Gherkin seen from the Tower of London (Photo via)

But you love John Ruskin – what would he think about that? I suppose I’m thinking of this in terms of a beautiful building being one that serves the community.
I’m totally conflicted about that, as I am about almost everything else. I can honestly say I deplore the crudeness of most modern buildings, but I also think you can’t legislate for it. Everything that’s built betrays the preoccupations and beliefs of the people who made it. That’s my central belief in all of existence, I just don’t know any examples of where legislating for beauty and utility has actually worked. It might have worked vaguely in Manhattan, but you know what they did in there? They divvied it all up in the 1850s into big great squares, and in those plots you can do anything you want.

What about St Paul’s Cathedral and Christopher Wren’s London?
There's a wonderful man called Nicholas Barbon, a contemporary of Wren, who was one of the first property developers in London. He was working just after the Great Fire and he was fantastically particular about what you should do with cities. He developed Red Lion Square [between Bloomsbury and Holborn]. My basic point is that Christopher Wren didn’t have any scruples about knocking things down. His people had the confidence to build something new. I love St Pauls – I don’t want it to be compromised ever. But you’ve got to remember that it was a re-build once upon a time.

St Paul's Cathedral seen from the Millennium Bridge (Photo via)

That’s true, and buildings can be knocked down, of course. How do you think the arrogance of wealth is expressed in the buildings that have shot up around London in the past 10 or 15 years?
I’m not against wealth finding expression; I’m just uncomfortable when the expression it finds is anti-social arrogance. I think most new buildings in the city are woeful, but let's not forget that Venice became beautiful because it had a flourishing business community that was allowed to do more or less whatever it wanted. Now, it’s dead. That’s the central truth about Venice. A more reasonable person would disagree with what I’m saying now, but Venice is a beautiful architectural cadaver. Culturally, economically, artistically, it’s a monument. But what can you do? Is this what urban beauty means? Who wants to live in a dead city? Even Venetians don’t want to live in Venice, for God’s sake.  

On a purely aesthetic level, does global capital just need to have its offices in big, tall, architectural penises?
Big swinging architecture will very soon have had its day. I am a bruised optimist and believe that, ultimately, intelligence will win. The best newspaper architectural critic ever was an American woman called Ada Louise Huxtable, who died last year in her nineties. She wrote The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered – a take on Louis Sullivan's original. She’s the source of the idea of public utility. It’s perfectly possible to make buildings that are both commercially viable and artistically exalting. It simply requires genius designers… corporate architecture doesn’t have to be awful. We get the architecture we deserve.

@oscarrickettnow

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