A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Unreal City

Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. TS ELIOT The Waste Land

Visiting London one recent long weekend, I was shocked at some of the ugliness and unsympathetic architecture. Brutalist modern structures rub shoulders with delicate Christopher Wren churches; 1960s-built concrete and glass eyesores jar next to Nicholas Hawksmoor baroque masterpieces. Although the celebrated 'Gherkin'...

... and the new 'Pinnacle' (still under construction)...

... are more imaginative in design than most of London's new buildings, there are far too many boring, angular office blocks...

Unused as I now am to cities (I did live in London once), the frenzied pace of things agitated me, and the anonymous crowds of workers and tourists hurrying through the cold, wintry greyness reminded me of rats scurrying down a sewer. I longed for some greenness amongst the South Bank wasteland, a field of flowers perhaps...

I recalled Rilke's poem, Cities, from The Book of Hours:


Lord, the great cities are lost and rotting.
Their time is running out...
The people there live harsh and heavy,
crowded together, weary of their own routines.

Beyond them waits and breathes your earth,
but where they are it cannot reach them.

They don't know that somewhere
wind is blowing through a field of flowers.

(Taken from A Year With Rilke, translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)  


am said...

Thanks for the poem and the field of flowers!

A few weeks ago I was in the city of Seattle after having not been there for years. I have driven through Seattle on the interstate highway but had not been in the city itself. It's only 1-1/2 hours away, but I rarely go there. It was startling to see so many tall buildings again. Kind of like being in an abstract version of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley. My favorite part of being in the city was seeing all the city people walking in the streets. It is occurring to me that some city people might end up walking more than some people in a small town. The other thing about large cities is that there must be a greater sense of anonymity. A person can just disappear in the crowd.

Rubye Jack said...

The architecture of San Francisco, my former city, is much the same. Ugly things next to art deco buildings. I used to take the underground downtown and as soon as I walked up the stairs, every day, I was impressed of how fast people were moving and how rude they were. What is it about the city that makes people feel the need to rush so? It's kind of like if you don't join the rush, you get run over. Still, if I could afford it, I would move back.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Join the club Robert - this is just how we both feel when we have to go to London. The noise, the crowds, the rushing about - terrible.

George said...

During my visits to London in the past decade, I, too, have been startled by new architecture that seems totally out of place, given the city's fine heritage. It's a world-wide trend, I fear, one that Is not likely to abate. Take solace in the fact that, all things considered, the architectural landscape in the U.K. is much nicer, relatively speaking, than it is in the much of the United States.

When I was in London last August (just before the Hadrian's Wall walk), the crowds made it virtually impossible to walk along the river on the south bank. I found myself fleeing in search of a park.

Ruth said...

I love to visit cities, and sometimes I convince myself I'd like to live in a big one. But I wonder about it. I wonder if I would suffer soon, as you did on your visit to London. I do know that last time I was in NYC, by lunch time, after a morning walking about, I found myself floating down into a mild depression. I imagine there are ways to cope, if one is forced to live there.

We have a new modern art museum going up half a block from my staid and brick old university hall, which is coming down about the same time the museum will open. It's a Zaha Hadid design, and while I thrill to that, and the wild and modern architecture, many wonder how it could fit in with this part of campus. I guess modern architecture is meant to shock, and there is much disagreement about this particular building. I am one who keep convincing myself that I am happy for it. I wonder if I were truly honest with myself, what would I think? (You can see renderings at broadmuseum.msu.edu.)

Susan Scheid said...

I remember the last time in London, looking down along the Thames, how surprised I was at the hodge-podge nature of the architecture (compare/contrast Paris along the Seine). I'm relieved that New York City has begun to reclaim a good bit of its riverfront. I feel lucky that our little bolt-hole here is steps away from the beautiful walker's paradise that is Riverside Park, far enough north of city center to be away from the madding crowd, but close enough to get to music and art by a quick subway ride. The best of all worlds, to me, and I know it's rare to find in a cityscape.

Friko said...

I haven't had a chance to go back to London for years. I know London better than any other city on earth and have always loved it.

But I agree, I couldn't any longer live in the concrete wastelands; Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park would appeal, though.

Dominic Rivron said...

I am very fond of London. It gets much maligned as an unfriendly place but in my experience it is by far the friendliest place I've ever lived.

Sometimes when I go, I feel overwhelmed by it and long to get back to the dark, silent night skies where we live. Other times I just love it. It just depends how I'm feeling, I think.

As for fields of flowers, there's always Hampstead Heath (and I used to spend many happy hours flying a kite from Parliament Hill). For a city of that size, there are a lot of green spaces.

Val said...

i love london - its my favourite so far. We have Prince charles to thank for slowing the take over of the faceless office buildings. Some of the newer buildings are much more appealing architecturally. I loved living in London at a certain stage - but I would struggle to live in the concrete now; visits are magical and uplifting tho. I love the fact that you can walk almost anywhere

kristieinbc said...

When my cousin and I were visiting London last fall we commented on how odd it was to be looking at The Tower of London and the Gherkin at the same time. It was such a mismatch.

Goat said...

There's a Frank Lloyd Wright quote I used to have at my desk in Brisbane in which he made some cool metaphors about office blocks. I searched for it without luck online but I did find this:

Advice to apprentices: "Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you."

The Solitary Walker said...

I do like walking through cities, am — specially if those cities are Paris or Rome!

Rubye — I've always wanted to see San Francisco. I've only travelled to the US once, and that was to Florida.

Pat — We lived in London for a year when young, but hardly ever visit London these days, and don't want to either.

George, yes, I remember you spent a day or two in London before that walk.

Ruth — I quite like the look of that new museum. It brought to mind an open-mouthed shark. Aggressively cutting-edge! I do actually think Hadid is brilliant and very exciting.

'Hodge-podge' is the word, Susan.

Friko and Dominic — that's the great thing about London, all those green spaces.

You're quite right, Val — the conservative, reactionary stance of Prince Charles was most unhelpful to the contemporary British architecture scene.

Thanks kristieinbc for your visit...

... and Goat, that's a great quote!

Ruth said...

I'm quite pleased that you agree about Hadid and her design, Robert.

This morning I read this poem and thought of you and your post:


The water has traveled a long way
To get here where the tourists can see it
And be appreciated; buildings are placed
Just where cameras need them.
Everything is as it should be
To create the best and most exciting

Somewhere else there are fields, and rice growing,
But not here.
Somewhere else, there are children playing,
Women hanging laundry,
But not here.

Where shall we put them?

Perhaps behind the buildings, where their activities
Will not disturb the visitors.

—Lee Van Laer is the Poetry Editor at Parabola.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your further comment, Ruth.

Yes, were shall we put those damn humans, with their crops and their laundry and their screaming kids? They just mess up the place, don't they! Good poem.

Walks And Walking said...

I agree and I live in London! I was walking around Bank last week and all you can see are pockets of beautiful architecture and then sheet glass buildings ruining it. That's progress for you!