Embracing the Now

Visiting London for the first time in years proves revelatory.

The last time I was in London it was still the twentieth century. I didn’t like it very much back then. Despite the ability of the English to set trends in fashion, art, theater, and design, the city itself seemed like a historical artifact, and not even an especially pleasing one (like, say, Venice). Yes, I know: the Georgian row houses, the charming little greens, the mews, the ice cream at theater intermissions…it is all quite, quite lovely. But it didn’t do much for me. It felt creaky and used up. Back then the future was taking place on the Continent, or in Asia, and especially at home in the States, where, at the roaring apex of the dot-com boom, it seemed as if anything was ­possible.

But now, in the twenty-first century, I like London a lot. Now all those crescent-shaped streets and the unexpected patches of flowers and Prince Albert Memorial gilded and shimmering in the sun—all that has begun to look pretty good to me. Maybe this is part of the aging process—perhaps I soon will own gardening gloves and a trowel—but I think it’s because the city has an energy, a sense of possibility, that I’ve never seen before. It is exactly this sense of possibility that since the turn of the millennium, or the 2000 elections, or 9/11, has dissipated on our side of the Atlantic. I’m impressed by London’s utter fearlessness about the new.

Looking out over the heart of the city from the restaurant atop the Tate Modern, on the South Bank of the Thames, I saw a low-rise cityscape bracketed by St. Paul’s to the west and Norman Foster’s Swiss Re tower (a.k.a. the Gherkin) to the east. At the moment there is a balance between the two; they are bookends separated by 300-plus years of urban development. The other thing I noticed from the glass box that Herzog & de Meuron plopped atop the old power station is the remarkable number of cranes in that same urban expanse. I counted 23.

What I find surprising is the extent to which emerging London is built for public pleasure. The local symbol of the twenty-first century, after all, is a jumbo Ferris wheel, the London Eye, designed by the firm Marks Barfield. And the Millennium Bridge, by Norman Foster, Anthony Caro, and Arup, is for pedestrians. Moreover, the South Bank of the Thames has grown up to be an engaging amenity-filled public promenade. On my first day in London, I started walking at Royal Festival Hall, a 1950s attempt to use culture as an engine of urban regeneration. The complex, a study in postwar Brutalism, was recently rehabbed, and a former river­front-access road has been transformed into an inviting plaza featuring café tables and tall bar stools placed along a clear perimeter fence with a handy ledge, arranged so you can drink a coffee while gazing at the river.

At the Tate Modern further east, the massive Turbine Hall—the place I really wanted to see—was closed for an installation, so I ate lunch and kept walking. Eventually I wound up at the new city hall, designed by Foster + Part­ners. It is, unexpectedly, also built for pleasure. The asymmetrical glass beehive, constructed by private developers as part of an office and retail complex called More London, is a restatement of many of the ideas that Foster explored in the Reichstag dome. As the firm’s Web site says, “It expresses the transparency and accessibility of the democratic process and demonstrates the potential for a sustainable, virtually nonpolluting public building.” What made me happy was that I could just walk in the door and, after my bag was inspected and I passed through a metal detector (there’s no such thing as unimpeded pleasure in the twenty-first century), wander up the ramp that spirals around the interior of the glass shell and peer in at the city officials going about their business. Maybe a glass city hall is not enough to create true transparency, but the building is a terrific combination of future-forward thinking and idealism. We could use a glass dome in Washington.

I could go on about the idea that London’s current vitality is a persuasive argument for the city’s congestion-pricing scheme, a model for the one New York is currently considering. And I could rave about the fact that the city is building new transit lines, largely to provide access to the site of the 2012 Olympics, in an old warehouse district at the east end of town. But what is most impressive is how London is updating itself without selling its soul. The city is aggressively mingling old and new architectures, and old and new technologies, in a way that I’m beginning to think is the hallmark of this century.

An architecturally savvy editor I know, who lives near King’s Cross, a neighborhood that is just emerging from a decades-long downward spiral, took me to see the major development in his part of town. St. Pancras International station, a Victorian engineering marvel featuring a magnificent glass shed that was once the world’s largest indoor space, and the adjacent old railway hotel, an example of neo-Gothic excess—both long abandoned—are now being res­tored. The project was, no surprise, ­master-planned by Foster’s crew, and the lead architect on the project was Alastair Lansley. St. Pancras is about to become the new station for the Eurostar, the high-speed train to Brussels and Paris, and in a couple of years, a hub for swifter—140 mph max—domestic rail. The idea is to get Europeans to fly (and pollute) less. The historic shed, newly outfitted with state-of-the-art self-cleaning glass, has been extended (the Eurostar is a long train) with a contemporary overhang. The seam between old and new is clearly visible. There is no attempt to blur that distinction with faux Victorian fittings.

Additionally, a 67-acre brownfield site between St. Pancras and nearby King’s Cross station is being transformed into a new neighborhood by the Argent Group, a private developer. The project, planned over a period of years in consultation with the community, will be crisscrossed by a grid of new streets and combine contemporary and historic structures. Landmarked gas-tank holders, for example, like those used in Vienna’s Gasometer project, will be converted into housing. Like any American mixed-use scheme, the King’s Cross plan features offices, retail, and housing. Unlike typical American schemes, the plan is thoughtful enough to include schools, recreation facilities, health clinics, and a lot of public space.

Unfortunately, I was too early to take the Euro­star from St. Pancras (service starts this month) or check out the “world’s longest champagne bar,” due to open as part of the station’s new amenities. Instead, I caught my train to Paris from Nicholas Grim­shaw’s 1993 Waterloo station. On the taxi ride to Waterloo, I got stuck in a strange Sunday-­morning traffic jam. The cause was London Freewheel, a day when bicycles take over the city’s streets. As we crawled along while mobs of bicyclists sped past, I found time to read the signage on the cab’s seat back and learned that every London taxi, in response to accessibility legislation passed in 1995, is now equipped with fold-down ramps and other hardware designed to accommodate wheelchairs; it’s the only city in the world with a fully accessible fleet. With the new emphasis on universal access, the old-fashioned, high-ceilinged, chubby London taxis have revealed themselves to be surprisingly futuristic. Creaky, as it turns out, is a real advantage.

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