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.
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
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