13 Jun 2014

'Think of them as tents' - Will Self on London's glass behemoths

Will Self: On Architecture

Knowing how I walk into bins because my eyes are on the buildings, my friend Faruk asked me if I fancied going to see Will Self talk about London’s evolving skyline. He, like most people close to me, knows I need to be bought the ticket and told where to be or I’d never go to anything. I’d just walk from one coffee shop to the next, joining up the coffee beans in a hazy, over-caffeinated malaise. 

Will Self is taller than you’d expect even for a tall person, with a face the shape of a California Raisin. He has that appealing grumpy stare that most people with an acerbic wit have, before tossing deadpan words across the room like chest height frisbees.

Will Self is either a genius, or he’s practiced spewing ribbons of alliteration like a rapper masters the ends of lines. Nobody but an orator committed to daily word workouts could speak like Will Self, who uses such long and complicated words he has to chew them a few times before they’re out. I did catch every other word, though. Gherkin. Walkie-Talkie. Shard and ‘like a massive hard-on’. I started enjoying the talk most when he was answering questions as his free-style is both more impressive and more fathomably to the point.

His talk, rather obliquely titled When Liquid Turns to Solid: The Spatialisation of Capital Flows, didn’t have a clear argument for or against London’s new (and Will emphatically maintains, temporary) glass icons, though he seems to be a socialist at heart which of course is at odds with the City by default. In a nutshell, buildings like the Shard are built on (or to attract) flight capital and are throwaway physical manifestations of mammoth money machines. I’m reminded of Elsa in Frozen, when she’s trying to control her runaway magic (which is to unwittingly turn everything to ice) and frostytowers spew from her fingers into a palatial world of cold crystal. They look nice, but will melt.

The first glass skyscrapers were designed (but not built) in 1921 and 1922, by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

New London does look exhilarating, Will said. I’m glad he said that. Not close up, of course, where they’re all done to spec and have a business-world coldness that you don’t want to let creep too deeply into your soul, but he does admit he’s moved his bed for a better view of the Shard. 

Just because they’re temporary doesn’t mean they won’t be replaced by tens more each, and so on. Will says that by 2040 the S-bend of the Thames will be flanked by super structures in our own version of Manhattan. Our solid London logos will project into the sky like Batman beams. Of course it’s exciting and crass in equal measure. Dystopic and almost virtual, since the CAD-designed buildings can’t help but represent the floating virtual world of their in utero phase.  I loved his quip, ‘hit F7 to add a roof garden’. 

The Gherkin has gone bust; last time I heard anything the Shard couldn’t attract tenants. Are these buildings waiting for their time to come, in anticipation of an economic turnaround?

The audience had a lot to say too – clearly made up of design students, architects, town planners, enthusiasts, developers, investors and us. One woman said that the puffed-up bulge of the Walkie-Talkie might be explained by the direct correlation between floor size and money-making capacity. A man mentioned that the Right to Light act makes it easier to get planning permission for developments close to the Thames, and also, this might be why the Walkie Talkie’s girth expands as it rises and obscures less views. At one point Will slipped in a ‘behemoth skyscrapers couldn’t happen in a socialist country’ remark, at which a man in front of me said, ‘What about Russia’; ‘What about China’ – and then there was a murmur-level hoo-hah about whether these countries have ever been socialist in the truly ideological sense (Will thought not).  

Anyway, it was agreeable to listen to Will Self ruminate on architecture, even if I only understood one word in four. 

Is London set to become the new Singapore?

“How about we digest it a bit, before talking about it?” I rather shadily asked Faruk, as we left. Even a good soak in the bath counting ceiling spiders didn't help me piece together more than an impression of what WS really thinks about the impact of the City's changing landscape on the regular guy. I'm happy with just an impression, though. In my over-caffeinated cloud, I'm used to it. And doesn't the skyline look nice from parks?

If anyone else wants a go at explaining his talk to me, you can read an abridged version on the Guardian website.