I know I shouldn’t. It’s bad for me. It raises my blood pressure and causes an involuntary, reflexive movement whereby I smack myself on the forehead for a period that can last a couple of hours in extreme cases. I grind my teeth, gurn, clench my fists and exhibit all the symptoms of a mammal in extreme distress. But I just couldn’t help myself.... I read a Simon Jenkins article in The Guardian.
Sir Simon Jenkins, for those unfamiliar with his work, is an incorrigible curmudgeon. Think John Humphrys with toothache. In the rain. In many ways he is an unusual columnist for The Guardian: he’s certainly not a denizen of the politically correct, wet liberal or ultra-left constituency. No Polly Toynbee or Seumas Milne, he. Indeed his career has mostly been at The Times, The Economist and the London Evening Standard (he is also chairman of the National Trust). On paper, at least, he would seem to tick all the boxes of stiff British conservatism, so what he’s doing contributing to the bible of the liberal chattering classes is anyone’s guess. Maybe The Guardian lost a bet and had to swap him for David Aaronovitch and a packet of scotch eggs or something.
Anyway, pick a subject – any subject – and Simon Jenkins will write a sour, contrarian column about it. It’s what he does; it’s what he’s paid for.
This week the focus of his frustration is The Shard – London’s latest skyscraper and the tallest building in Europe. I like it. I like tall buildings generally. Who wouldn't look in wonder at, say, the Manhattan skyline? I certainly did the first time I arrived in New York, coming over the Queensboro Bridge in a taxi. Indeed, it reaffirmed a love affair with skyscrapers that I’d had since being but a wee lad. This is what cities should look like – big, bold buildings prodding the sky with their magnificence. Clusters of imposing towers of brick, glass and steel boldly exclaiming “Look! Look at this! This is a city!”
But not to Jenkins. Oh no. To Jenkins The Shard is an act of vandalism, a vicious assault on London’s skyline. To which I say: what skyline? For a major city, London’s skyline is uninspiring. Sure, there’s Docklands, but that’s all over THERE *points*. There are a few high towers in the City: the Gherkin, Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest tower) and a few more due to be completed in the next year or so, but that's about it. Mostly this is not so much due to a lack of architectural ambition but regulation that for years ensured that nothing obstructed or distracted from the view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Sacred St Paul’s. Hallowed St. Paul’s.
I worked for years in or around Paternoster Square so I’m very familiar with St Paul’s and I'm not dismissing it. It’s an amazing construction, part of London’s heritage, indisputably an iconic landmark and has been for over three hundred years. But should it have this protected status forever? A lot has changed since the 17th century, as you may have noticed. Nobody is suggesting that St Paul’s be bulldozed, just that, perhaps, it would be nice to add some additional impressive structures within a mile or so of its vicinity. The cathedral would still be there, where it’s always been, for anyone to go and see, but we’d also have some other buildings bringing variety and spectacle to a skyline that is, for a major city, dull.
The Shard is a good start to this. Personally I’d like to see another dozen such structures going up. Although according to Jenkins anyone who thinks this way is in the grip of some kind of Freudian crisis: we “equate phallic prominence with civic prowess”. Indeed, in one of his more eccentric statements (even by his standards), he says that The Shard is “an adjunct of Tony Blair’s foreign policy, a cure for erectile dysfunction”. (This is unsurprising although I’m amazed it took him six paragraphs before finding a bridge between this subject and our former prime minister; usually he gets there a lot sooner than that.) “The Shard,” says Jenkins, in full hyperbolic mode, “has slashed the face of London forever.”
It’s not hard to imagine Jenkins in New York City in the early 1930s bemoaning the Empire State Building: “This monstrosity will ruin Manhattan’s skyline!” he would have said. No doubt his ancestors had similar misgivings in ancient Egypt, wailing that the “ghastly pyramids will destroy the view of the desert”, decrying them as an “adjunct of Khufu’s foreign policy”.
The Shard is a controversial building but so was the World Trade Centre in New York in the early 1970s. It didn't take long for the Twin Towers to become established as a prominent feature of the city, part of its very identity. Similarly, The Shard will soon become considered a familiar landmark to the residents of London. Maybe even old misery guts Jenkins will learn to love it too. I say let a hundred Shards bloom. But then what do I know? I’m just a vandalistic modernist obsessed with erections.