Beyond Buildings


Amazing London

Submit A Comment | View Comments


Thames Hub airport. Image credit: Foster + Partners.


For the last few weeks, I have been reporting on all the amazing cultural events that I witnessed in a short week I spent in London last month. I have not even touched on half the major exhibitions I saw, not to mention what is going on in the galleries, including at the museum-scaled new White Cube space, designed by Caspar Mueller Kneer architects, in Bermondsey, in South London. I think you can easily make the case that, between all that and the theater, London is today more of a cultural capital than New York.


The architecture is not far behind, with massive new buildings by noted modernists under construction or just finished. We stayed right next to Richard Rogers’s One Hyde Park apartment building, which uses bulletproof glass to safeguard the most expensive apartments in the world in high tech splendor (though I actually prefer the far more expressive apartments the firm is building behind the Tate Modern right now). Next year, the Rothschild Bank will open a new headquarters designed by Rem Koolhaas. David Chipperfield is marking the rising influence of the particular kind of British reserve he, David Adjaye and John Pawson practice, by running the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.


OMA Rotschild

Rothschild Bank headquarters. Image credit: Office for Metropolitan Architecture.


What makes this all possible is money. The funds flowing into London come from all over the world, if the occupants of the traffic jams consisting of Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Jaguars are any indication. London offers a strong financial services hub buttressed by a strong legal system and the English language. It then clothes those advantages in a cloak of both the kind of high culture I describe above and the low culture of Billy Elliot and shopping at Harrod’s.


That is a strategy American cities could and should copy. New York tries, and L.A. sometimes does, but what is lacking is the longtime investment that makes sustained attractiveness of this sort possible. The British have been subsidizing culture for years, as well as planning where they can make room for office buildings and housing. They have made massive investments in transportation, not only linking London to Paris in just a few hours through the Chunnel, but also making bicycling so attractive that half the businessmen now seem to ride on two wheels. The latest proposal, by Lord Norman Foster, foresees a $75 billion new airport, harbor, and residential area built around a giant flood control dam in the Thames. The designers claim it will pay for itself.


Rogers Tates

A Richard Rogers apartment. Image credit: Aaron Betsky.


Truth be told, this vision might the last gasp of the kinds of policies that prevailed in the last decade, and which are being dismantled by the current Conservative government. Subsidies have been slashed, the current Mayor of London has little interest in infrastructure investment, and the Olympics, with all their congestion and overblown propaganda, might be the ode to a past era as much as the harbinger of a new one. The city is continually near deadlock, and, as the riots this summer showed, the imported wealth does not trickle down.


For now, London is an amazing place, and offers us a good model on how to make a city great: plan, invest, and promote culture and creativity.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:44 PM Monday, November 21, 2011

    Since when does a city for, by, and of the rich constitute an apogee of civiliztion? Or one of, for, and by the poor, the nadir? It all depends on whose opinion and historical perspective one values; more ususally, no historical perspective whatever.

    Report this as offensive

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.