25 September 2013

London 6 - Open House

Sitting on top of the world

The eye of heaven draws him upward, toward an aerial world of disembodied spirits, where age, race, gender, wealth, mean nothing.  180 metres above the compacted earth, he is the bomb aimer in a B17 Flying Fortress  heading straight for oblivion.

But first I need breakfast - this not mine, but the leftovers of some revelry outside Farringdon Station,

from where I find myself contemplating a mixture of barbarisms, by the Barbican;


And at One London Wall, where the soullessness and concretism of the modern world depress my hopes of enlightenment today;
Though humanity (and dogity) warm my frosted aspirations on this early city dawn.  The presence of only two other disparate beings amongst all this glass and steel introduces a perspective that gladdens my dull soul.  Earth has currently little more fair than one girl and her dog.....

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.....

And then, O Rapture! I dream of a fairy coach and horses that will take me off this mundane plane.  However it is but a piece of candied sugar.  There is no molecular reality to it.  Perhaps bewigged gentlefolk ride askance within to glance without on privileged occasions, but this is not my means of transport now.

The Leadenhall Building, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Instead, my eyes are drawn upward by the extremes of modern architecture, aspirant, daring and reliant on the Just-in-Time strategy of tight site construction.  #

This is day one of Open House London 2013, and in the picture above you can see the queue to enter 30, St Mary Axe, aka The Gherkin, though the building in front of us is known as The Cheese grater. 
I am agog at the heights that tower above me.  I am fascinated by the JIT lifts that ply upwards and down on the outside of the construction, purveyors of all that is needed to grow the bean plant up to the giant above.  I am struck also by the tide of peacefully queueing humans patiently waiting in the cool grey concrete morning.  I thought I would arrive early enough to beat the bleary-headed Londoners who have all weekend to tick off this year's architectural buffet of offerings.  But I should have started much earlier!  Having left home at 6.00 for an 8.00am opening, I arrive about 7.00 and shuffle forward for two and a half hours before entrance, while the queue at least doubles behind me.
And similar things are happening at the foot of Lloyd's of London (above) and Tower 42, while the ballot for No 10, The Shard, Gray's Inn and the EDF Energy London Eye closed a while ago with not a shred of a chance for the majority of entrants. Over 800 buildings,  construction and engineering sites in the Greater London area open their doors for free on this weekend in an event which began in 1992.   The intention of the charitable organisers is to give hundreds of thousands of people the chance to explore architecture and design and to gain some understanding into, "how well-designed buildings and spaces can have a positive impact on our lives....."
And while I wait to enter 30, St Mary Axe a mantis-like machine attacks remnants of a redundant building while St Helen's Bishopsgate, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire of London, looks on. 


At last I reach the foot of my ambition, the trees creating a pubic fuzz that almost humanises the elegance of the giant preservative.  The cornichon stretches heavenward, resting on crossed stilts that remind me of Bayko, where coloured pieces of outer shell slot into bars attached to the base.  A blustery breeze shimmers the leaves and I wonder at the resistance of the glass that coats this building like the scales of some enormous reptile.  I think of the way trees, perhaps ten metres high, bow before a steady wind, and think of the forces up there at a hundred and eighty metres.  It must shift? The pressures on the glass must be huge?
We shuffle forward. A man with a red face, dark suit and a curly wire to his ear asks us for tickets. Joke! I wonder how many heart attacks this will cause later in the day when people have queued for four or five hours? We get through security. We enter a lift. In seconds we are on the 34th floor. Another lift. The fortieth floor. A swirl of stairs and we are under the lens on the 41st floor, with a 360 degree panorama of London. Even here, the struts that reach above our heads create the impression of a child's building game - a Bayko model, or a Leggo house - despite a great sophistication in the design, the only piece of curved glass is above our heads - all others are flat.
the very top, The Shard seems an insignificant stab at the heavens to the south,

while looking down, the whole world seems to be a building site:

And to the east the Thames "glideth at his own sweet will," away past Canary Wharf into the mist.

Closer in, the once towering Tower Bridge and even oncer Tower of London seem like dolls' toys, their erstwhile greatness impugned by modern technology.
And Wren's iconic dome over St Paul's, the image of British indomitability in the Blitz, is now but a pimple from this height, though Wordsworth might still have thought something like:
"This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air

Though the fields are gone, and the red crane spurts across the scene like arterial blood from a deep wound. 
On the way down I learn that the building does move, and that on at least one occasion it shed a panel of glass, floating down to smash in the plaza below.  I wonder if this tower should have been called The Shard?  And I am grateful they didn't tell me that on the way up!

I hit the street again.  The day has ground to life, with pale pavements and grumbling buses obscuring the urban design.
I seek some quiet in St Helen's, but here I am reminded of the birth of the Gherkin.  At 9.20pm on April 10th 1992 an IRA bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange in St Mary Axe, about 60 yards from the east end of St Helen's Church, killing three people. All the glass windows of St Helen's were shattered, the roof lifted and the East end window of the Nuns' Choir was completely blown in. So this church (which was again damaged a year later by another terrorist bomb) was repaired and the Baltic Exchange was removed to make way for 30 St Mary Axe as it is now. 
But at least these medieval knights are now resting....  May peace be with them.....
Not far away, continuing my exploration of Open House London, I peek into Leadenhall Market, a cast iron Victorian covered market designed by Sir Horace Jones in 1881, who was also the architect of Tower Bridge and Smithfield Market. It is thronging with people, but I find that many of these are queueing for Lloyd's, which is a block away!

I proceed to Lower Thames Street, where the Custom House, a late Georgian building of elegant proportions, is not too crowded.  Here the Customs and Excise continue their trade, but ships' captains no longer have to present themselves in person with their dockets and bills;  needless to say it is all done by computer now.... though a sturdy customs woman demonstrates her sniffer dog on the quay as I sneak past, hoping I don't smell of anything I shouldn't!  

I am getting tired now.  All this culture is weighing me down, so I cross the road to a little park for a rest.
But I am not the first here either and the seats are occupied.  A reminder that the City of London is home to the homeless as well as to the high and mighty. 

So, continuing to Upper Thames Street, I venture into the Vintners' Hall, the spiritual home of the wine trade, built by the architect Edward Jarman, between 1671 and 1673.  It is opulent, lit by chandeliers and decorated with glamorous paintings and silver and glass.  The Vintners' Company is one of the Twelve "Great Companies" of the City of London, with its first Royal Charter granted in 1363, though its origins are much earlier.  The painting over the fireplace of the Court Room (below) is of St Martin Dividing his Cloak with the Beggar and is attributed to Van Dyck, though, as the notes tell me, it may be by Rubens!

Over a fireplace in the Gassiot Room (named after Charles Gassiot - Master 1894) there is a picture of the Thames in the early 19th century, which reminds me of the view, hours earlier, from the top of 30, St Mary Axe.  The changes are obvious, but as my friends on the benches outside will know some things remain the same, however much the river flows.

"Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

Another unexpected sight awaits me just nearby:  the Thames, at low tide, edged with a disgorgement of plastic bottles.  This is Queenhithe, once a thriving Saxon and medieval dock and the only surviving inlet along the City waterfront today.  It was named after Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, after she was granted the dues from the dock in the early 12th century.  [Lucky for some?]  The coincidental backdrop of the reconstructed Globe and the remodelled Bankside Power Station (Tate Modern) only serves to underline the changes we witness, though again the paradox of constancy/inconstancy of the flowing river serves as proof that, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Anyway, my day is beginning to end and I head uptown away from the river, to pay my respects to one of the Greatest Londoners of all.  Again I join a queue, waiting patiently outside 17 Gough Square, just off Fleet Street.  We are at the feet of Dr Johnson, who lived in this 300 year old house in the mid-eighteenth century, working on his Dictionary of the English Language, and waddling out occasionally to the coffee shops along the Strand.

Today is a true queue-athon, however and I wonder what the great Sam would have made of this?  As James Boswell recorded in his "Life of Samuel Johnson," he said, "Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists."  Methinks he would have dratted but smiled at the horde outside his door: dratted for the intrusion on his mind, but smiled to think that such as domestic bywater should attract as well as the vasty towers of Babylon.

My crusade draws towards its end.  But I have stamina for two more locations.  The first being the Museum of the Order of St John.  This is housed in remnants of the Priory which dates from the thirteenth century, and though I have visited before I have not been upstairs nor to the Church Crypt, and neither disappoints.  The Order of the Knights of St John was founded in 1099 to care for the sick, the poor and for pilgrims.

Among the developments in its history was the creation of the St John's Ambulance Brigade in 1887.
Finally, on this curious and disjointed tour of London's history, I am greeted by Eleanor Marx on the steps of the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green.  This was built as a Welsh Charity School in 1738 to support the children of poor Welsh artisans who at the time were many in this area.  The school moved to larger premises in 1772, and the building was divided into different workshops, two of which were later occupied by the Twentieth Century Press, which was founded by the Social Democratic Federation and which produced early editions of the works of Marx and Engels.  William Morris was a benefactor.
From 1902 to 1903, Lenin, who was in exile, had an office in the building to edit and print his magazine ISKRA (The Spark).  In 1933, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Marx, and in coincidence with book burnings in Germany, it was decided to establish a memorial to Karl Marx at number 37a Clerkenwell Green, and so the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School was founded.


Eleanor Marx Aveling (16 January 1855 – 31 March 1898), also known as Jenny Julia Eleanor "Tussy" Marx  

The visit to the building includes stooping through the archives which are within fifteenth century tunnels of uncertain origin underneath the building;

and here are some of the 43,000 books and pamphlets housed here.
In 1934 Viscount Hastings, who had studied under the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, executed a large fresco style mural on the wall of the first-floor reading room, titled, The Worker of the Future Clearing away the Chaos of Capitalism.  It illustrates events and leading thinkers in the history of the British Labour movement, including Marx, Lenin, and William Morris.  This was recently restored with thanks to Channel 4.

Then, tired by wanderings and explorations, I take my leave, clutching a free poster of Marx, and filled with mixed meditations about the nature of humanity.

And then I see this, below, which strikes me as a curious post script note to the day.  On the surface it appears to be innocent and kind, but as my mind is fizzing with kaleidoscopic input from the day I have an initial doubt - did Dr Kelly herself write it?  Is it every Monday Dr Kelly is not allowed milk?  And who is controlling Dr Dorothy Kelly? 

And then I drift off into a woodland clearing, where another Dr Kelly lies milk-white amongst the raspberry juice, and needs no more mother's milk, nor human kindness.  The greening brass fitting, the hardwood door, the slightly fumbled message with its insecure punctuation and redrafted 'K' on the torn paper.... this most exciting and powerful of cities, with its exterior wealth and confidence, hides human fragility that is just not visible from the top of 30, St Mary Axe.

"One summer day, she went away
She gone and left me, she gone to stay
But now she gone and I can't worry
Because I'm sitting on top of the world"

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,

September 3, 1802

 Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
William Wordsworth


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