London’s Millenium Fever (Preservation 5-6/97)

Looking boldly ahead to the year 2000, Britain’s ancient capital remembers that the Thames first gave it life. Architect Richard Rogers plans to use the river once again as the city’s high street, hoping to encourage a general renaissance.

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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–
–William Wordsworth
“Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” (1802)

The words ripple Richard Roger’s fervent conversation like a mantra: “the river–” “the city–” “the river–” “the city–”

“The river is the key — it all begins with the river.” “The river divides the city; in my vision, it will unite and regenerate it.” “The fight to improve the quality of life in this city begins at the river.” “The river–” “The city–”

The river that obsesses one of Britain’s foremost architects is, of course, the Thames: The majestic Thames of yore that was the site of one of the wonders of the medieval age, London Bridge with its houses and shops; the merciful Thames in which 10,000 Londoners marooned themselves in a successful effort to survive the Great Plague of 1665; the bustling Thames that from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century was home to the world’s greatest port; the noble Thames that moved Spenser and Wordsworth to poetic heights, and Canaletto, Turner, and Derain to artistic ones; the friendly Thames that as recently as 40 years ago drew sun worshippers to its beaches; the somewhat dolorous present-day Thames, probably less used than at any time since the Roman era.

The city that is Roger’s primary must is today’s London, the city that the Thames created, and that the Thames divides. This London is enjoying its greatest cultural and economic boom since the 1960s even while it is saddled with increasing traffic congestion, crime, air pollution, and other metropolitan ailments, problems compounded by the remarkable lack of an elected citywide government and strategic planning authority. At the moment, this booming Stage City, as writer Jan Morris so aptly named it, is consciously gearing itself up for the millennium and the greatest show its has put on since the Great Exhibition of 1851 — the one that featured the architecturally prescient glass-and-iron Crystal Palace. Rogers is a featured member of the cast.

The grand, all-embracing vision that the 63-year-old architect has conjured up features a reinvigorated Thames — a blue highway, as Rogers is fond of calling it — lined with shimmering new buildings and structures. At Greenwich, site of Greenwich Mean Time and thus the starting point of the next millennium, an immense, albeit temporary dome enclosing 20 acres will rise at the forthcoming Millenium Exhibition. Up the river, a permanent, Crystal Palace-like undulating glass canopy enveloping the South Bank Arts Center is proposed and approved but not funded. The “highway” will support an improved river bus system linked with London’s existing bus and Underground lines. Thus, as Rogers sees it, the Thames will once again become the high street of London, inaugurating a general, city-wide renaissance. Great buildings, great plans, great expectations.

Ten years ago, perhaps even five, such a grandiose vision would have been dismissed as an architectural pipe dream, one of many that London has seen over the centuries. Several factors, however, have recently combined to make it more feasible: a landmark 1993 law that designates millions of pounds for rebuilding and refurbishing from the capacious National Lottery funds; a spreading revulsion at the unsightly aftermath of the haphazard, market-driven planning, or nonplanning, of the Thatcher years. And, not least, Rogers’s own persistence in advancing his ambitious scheme.

The makeover that Rogers envisions for the Thames took a significant stride forward last year when the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre opened for business close to its original South Bank site and immediately attracted crowds of theatergoers. Then the way was cleared for the most garish and controversial addition to the riverscape: a privately funded, 500-foot-tall Ferris wheel, the so-called Millennium Wheel, which will be erected upriver from the Globe and the revamped Jubilee Gardens in the riparian borough of Lambeth. (French authorities recently gave permission for a similar wheel to be built in Paris.)

In the meantime work continues, opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the transformation of the towering, former Bankside Power Station into the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, set to open in 2000. Planning also continues for three new bridges in the same area: A pedestrian walkway running from Bankside to the steps of St. Paul’s, a railway span at Blackfriars that will include a midriver terminus, and a mechanized walkway on the upstream side of Hungerford Bridge, connecting with a travelator — a cross between an elevator and an escalator — running all the way to Waterloo Station. Also under consideration is a cable-car system proposed by architect Michael Hopkins that will connect the South Bank center with Covent Garden. A cynic might say that what is being created is a theme park, a Thamesland, if you will, but Rogers maintains that he and his partners and allies are resurrecting the spirit of the old, festive, dynamic Thames.

Another plan, by no means certain of approval, would tame the fast-flowing, sometimes dangerous tides of the river itself by building a large stopper upriver, thus turning the London portion of the Thames into an area for recreational boating and possibly even swimming, as the surprisingly successful effort to cleanse its waters continues apace.

At the same time, with the encouragement of the Secretary of State for the Environment John Gummer, planners from various architects’ offices, including Rogers’, have been working on proposals to turn Trafalgar Square into a pedestrian piazza as well as others to revitalize Jubilee Gardens. Somewhat to Rogers’s annoyance, however, the contract for the former project was awarded to his friendly rival, former classmate at the Yale Architecture School, ex-partner, and fellow great dreamer, Norman Foster, who also won a design competition for the St. Paul’s footbridge. The Trafalgar Square project has grown to include Parliament Square, Whitehall, and Westminster Abbey in something called the World Squares for All project. Foster made his own Barnumesque contribution to the millennium fever last fall when he announced his controversial plan for a looming, gherkin-like, 1,300 foot Millennium Tower to be built in the City, London’s financial district. If constructed (which appears increasingly unlikely, given the opposition of both the Royal Fine Art Commission and English Heritage, the country’s leading preservation agency). It would be the tallest building in Europe.

All that’s missing, it seems, is an elected mayor to catalyze these plans and proposals and create a satisfactory and coherent whole. London has only a ceremonial lord mayor now. As Rogers told the Sunday Times , “Ninety percent of what I am talking about is already there — We just need the vision to weave it together.”

That deficiency was at least partly rectified last August, when in a surprise move Tony Blair, the young leader of the Labor Party and the presumptive next prime minister (at press time, Blair’s election and a change of government appeared virtually assured), exercised her prerogative as opposition leader to nominate a new peer to the House of Lords and named Rogers, giving the architect a prominent platform from which to advance his ambitious plan. The parliamentary chamber also provides a forum for Rogers to extol his somewhat quixotic urban philosophy. The London he foresees, he told a town meeting, would be “equitable, with housing for all, health care for all, and real justice for all people,” a Utopia, but one fashioned to Renaissance and Italianate principles. Not coincidentally, Rogers was born and spent his early childhood in Italy, among the shadows of the Romans, who themselves were the original patrons of the Thames.

In the annals of urban planning, London is very much the city of broken dreams. Time and time again, both the English capital’s goofiest builders or would-be builders, as well as its greatest, have put forth ambitious plans for the city’s future, only to see them undone by apathy, greed, or both. Or, as Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde have written in their colorful catalog of architectural frustration, London as It Might Have Been: “Discarded designs and rejected plans lurk like unhappy ghosts behind every important building in London. Our streets are lined with–the broken hearts of disappointed architects. Men of vision have been subject to arbitrary decisions, their schemes condemned because of suddenly veering changes of taste. Great schemes have frequently been obstructed by bureaucrats and unimaginative businessmen, with the result that we have been fobbed off with the dull and the stolid.”

Certainly the most famous frustrated visionary was Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s. After the near obliteration of London in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren and his aides spent months devising a plan for the city’s reconstruction. But the city elders were in too great a hurry to rebuild to put it into effect, leaving Wren desolate.

The Thames has been the focus of many of London’s unrealized visions, ranging from the inspired to the idiotic. Among the former were a mid-18th-century plan by the architect John Gwynn to erect quays on each side of the river, and a mid-19th century one by architect H.R. Newton for a Parisian-like Ile de la Cité with government offices, law courts, and a large addition to the Thameside government building, Somerset House. Perhaps the most ludicrous notion was an early-19th-century proposal to erect a statue of statesman Robert Peel in the middle of the river, which fortunately came to naught.

Rogers himself has dreamed of bringing his brand of modern architecture and planning to London, as well as to the Thames, ever since he set up practice in the English capital a quarter of a century ago. His vision of a compact, creative, egalitarian city, first nurtured during his training in architecture at Yale in the early 1960s, has its roots in the writings of Lewis Mumford and other early American urbanites. But, at least until recently, he has not had much opportunity to put his idealist vision into play.

He has, however, dazzled the world with two of the most striking buildings of recent times — the futuristic Pompidou Centre, which he and his then-partner Renzo Piano built in Paris in the mid 1970s, and the equally startling Lloyd’s of London headquarters, which in 1984 landed like a spacecraft in the City.

Rogers and his partners contributed to an exhibit mounted in 1986 in which he outlined a plan roughly similar to the one he is espousing today, including a footbridge across the Thames at Hungerford Bridge. The proposal elicited only a grudging response from the Conservative government and London’s hermetic business community, neither of which had much interest in public investment of any kind. Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative successor, John Major, who saw to it that Rogers was knighted in 1991 for his contribution to architecture, might have recognized Rogers’s manifest talent as a creator of individual works of architecture, but clearly neither they not most of their hidebound constituents were receptive to his bolder plans for long-term urban design improvements.

A decade later, Londoners’ attitudes toward urban design have changed dramatically. Today, it seems, the capital and its denizens are once again in the mood for dreams. Perhaps they fear that London is losing its soul and are eager to seize upon the millennium to put on as good a show as possible and vault over such perceived urban rivals as New York and Berlin.

As evidence of the changing mood, the plan for the Millennium Wheel was approved by Lambeth Council despite the Royal Parks Agency’s objection that the projected wheel would be visible from Buckingham Palace and might provide an inappropriate backdrop for state occasions.

Popular proof of London’s new architectural state of mind came early last year when Rogers’s Architectural Foundation and the leading London daily, The Evening Standard, conducted a series of debates on the health and state of the venerable metropolis. The debates, in which Rogers, Blair, and Gummer avidly participated along with the other leading architects, journalists, and government officials, demonstrated widespread concern about the lack of an elected body for the city — a condition that exists as a result of Thatcher’s somewhat spiteful abolition of the Greater London Council in the mid-1980s. Other topics of concern included the parlous state of the underfunded London Underground, the lack of a coherent transportation policy for London, and the deterioration of London’s public spaces, including the Thames, its great riparian public space. All of these, as it happens, are long-standing Rogers themes.

During the debates, Rogers expressed his sadness that a lot of what he called “the public domain” has been eroded. “London is planned, whether the Londoners like it or not,” he said, according to Architects’ Journal, which reported in detail on the whole series. “We have to stop thinking of planning as a dirty word.” Public transportation is part of the solution to London’s problems, Rogers said, but the capital needs the cheapest system in Europe, not the most expensive. This comment drew enthusiastic applause from the large audience of anxious and aggrieved Londoners. Then Rogers got down to the nitty-gritty. First, the architect-cum-planner expanded upon the specifics of his plan for the Thames. The river is underused, he asserted. According to Rogers it serves as a barrier between the richer northern half of the city and the poorer south when it really ought to be a bridge between them. Piers were needed along the riverbank, as well as new bridges. Paris, he reminded his listeners, has erected many bridges of the Seine without destroying its beauty (one bridge for every 500 yards, which London has only 11 bridges along the six-mile length of the Thames from Battersea to Tower Bridge); surely London can afford more, must afford more, especially when, as Rogers is fond of pointing out, a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists would cost only about seven million pounds (approximately $11.5 million).

Next, continuing to fill in his “pointillist painting” of the city of the next century, Rogers spoke of a green London linking its parks, squares, open spaces, circuses and footpaths. A laudable millennium project, he said, would be to plant a million trees to mark the routes between these spaces.

Finally Rogers took a hard look at London’s grand, or overused, array of public spaces and places. Trafalgar Square, he pointed out, used to be the epicenter of the Empire; now it has devolved into little more than a traffic circle. The great square, he said, could be linked to the front of the National Gallery by closing the road and relocating traffic. In addition, the traffic-clogged area around Parliament might be opened up for pedestrians. Both of these ideals will not come to pass. Elsewhere, Rogers has suggested doing the same for the Embankment, the roadway on the north side of the river. In this way London could be made to breathe again while its pre-automotive spirit is resurrected and preserved.

The forums on London’s future touched a nerve. Thousands attended the seven sessions, which covered everything from air pollution to culture and lasted into last summer. Since then Rogers has sized every chance to campaign for his riverfront revival and to promote the specific projects that he and his 100-person firm are laboring on. Closest to his heart is his controversial plan for the glass dome atop the South Bank Arts Center. Partly inspired by the 1851 Crystal Palace, the vast, undulating glass envelope is designed to enclose Royal Festival Hall and the Haywood Gallery into one weatherproof environment. Ultimately, Rogers told me, the new climate-controlled Crystal Palace, as he calls it, would be the centerpiece of “the greatest cultural development ever seen,” stretching from the Design Museum in Southwark in the east to Battersea Power Station in the west and embracing the Globe Theatre, the Millennium Wheel, and the new gourmet restaurants recently built by housewares mogul Terence Conran on the South Bank. The new Crystal Palace recently won approval from Lambeth borough officials, but it hasn’t yet received funding from the Arts Council of England, leaving the project in a state of high limbo.

By and large, the media have been happy to promote Rogers’s cause and works. In 1995 the BBC asked him to deliver the prestigious Reith lectures, the first time and architect had been invited to do so in the 50-year history of the series. Rogers used the occasion to deplore the bottom-line mentality of the Thatcher-Major era and to assert that “economic development today must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” He added that “for too long individual interests and the search for short-term profit have overridden the needs of the community.”

More recently, clearly infected with Thames fever, the widely read magazine Time Out published a special called “The River.” The editors asked Rogers to comment on alternative ideas for the Thames, including ones conjured up by the likes of pop star Dave Stewart, who suggested that a new line of exhibition boats be built, and artist Tracy Emin, who proposed a flouting swimming pool. Rogers liked both ideas.

Soon afterward, the New Statesman reluctantly joined the media bandwagon, praising the new lord of Riverside for speaking with a “passion and conviction rare in British public life.”

“His vision for London,” the magazine concluded, is “virtually irresistible.”

There are several significant resistors to Richard Rogers’s vision of the London of the 21st century.

Barbara Newman, chairman of the Planning and Transportation Committee of the City Corporation, one of the four adjoining boroughs that are at the center of Rogers’s projected blue highway, likes some of his ideas, including the million trees and the elimination of traffic from Trafalgar Square in the neighboring borough of Westminster. She vehemently dislikes, however, the notion of building up, or over, the Thames. “Why can’t we leave the river alone?” she asked in an interview at Guildhall, where the Corporation of London’s offices are housed. “The Thames is the biggest open space in our borough. Why spoil it with redundant bridges and the like? Let’s leave the Thames alone, I rather like the way it is.”

So does Rogers’s distinguished colleague and rival, Piers Gough, who believes that the ambitious blueprint for London’s main river would change its essential character. “The price for his changes would not only be altered ecology,” argues Gough, “but a complete change in its character. The banks of the Thames are manmade, but the river that runs between them is wild and tough. =It’s part of the character of London and as inseparable from it as canals are from Venice.”

Rowan Moore, architectural critic for The Daily Telegraph, says that the National Lottery monies that Rogers plans to spend on his various Thameside projects would be better used on less lavish, more directly needed improvements elsewhere in the city.

In reply Rogers said of Newman’s and Gough’s critiques that they “were looking backward … Their comments are really of a piece with the kind of conservatism which has held this city back.” Rogers said he actually agrees with some of Moore’s suggestions. “I also think that the lottery funds should be dispersed throughout the city. But first I would like to concentrate on the river. Essentially I would like to use the millennium as the carrot to bring the city back to the river and from there nourish the entire metropolis itself.”

As for English Heritage, it has limited its comments thus far to the specific structures and anticipated structures involved in the plan. Thus, Paul Drury, London regional director for English Heritage, is “thrilled” about the ongoing renovation of the former Bankside Power Station and conversion into the new site of the second Tate Gallery. “It’s fantastic, I think, exactly the sort of thing we’re trying to encourage.” At the same time, he professed himself to be “disappointed” with the Millennium Dome at Greenwich. “I think they could have used more imagination there. It seems that they just took an old form, the circus tent, and blew it up several times. Fortunately, it’s only temporary, and it doesn’t displace anything.” Drury prefers the new Crystal Palace planned for the South Bank Arts Center.

Drury, who has butted heads with Rogers in the past over several projects, says of him, “If we didn’t have a Richard Rogers we would have to invent him. Clearly, he does care about London. It’s not just about projecting his ego.”

“It’s great that there’s all this [architectural energy] flying around,” Moore of The Daily Telegraph says. “Rogers certainly deserves a lot of credit for reviving the idea of investing in the public realm. Clearly, he has brought the debate on London’s future forward.”

In the meantime, he has also made Londoners think about the Thames again. “It’s worth remembering that if it weren’t for Old Father Thames, London wouldn’t be here at all,” Time Out noted in the lead essay for its riparian issue. “He’s a difficult old bugger, but we shouldn’t turn our backs on him.”

Rogers undoubtedly will do everything he can to see that they don’t.

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