Inside Drabble’s developer

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 6.23.02 PM.png

Gasometer with largest dome in the world. (digitalcommonwealth.org)

Margaret Drabble’s 1977 novel The Ice Age is supposedly about Britain and its existential angst during the ’60s and ’70s, but I just started reading it. For a few pages near the outset, at least, it concerns the career of her protagonist, Anthony Keating, son of an Anglican churchman. Keating starts out as a commentator on the BBC and becomes a property developer in London. In his first project he and his partners buy and raze an ancient tottering candy factory, the Imperial Delight Company, after which they name their new firm. She writes:

Anthony found the site inexpressibly romantic and exhilarating. … There was a large, open, cobbled space in the center of the site, which had a strange look of the countryside about it. Weeds grew up between the stones. There were horseshoes, nailed on the warehouse wall. Once there must have been a stable; no doubt the sweetmaker’s had distributed its sweets a hundred years ago by horse-drawn van. There was even a small tree: an elderberry had managed to root itself between the cobbles. It would be a pity, in a way, to remove this space, though nobody had seen it for decades, except for the handful of people who worked there, but it too would have to go. Anthony was quite relieved when Rory suggested that the local council might find their redevelopment plans more acceptable if they incorporated in them an open area for public use. “We could point out,” said Rory, who knew many developers’ architects and their ways with zoning boards, “that this present area hasn’t been seen or used for years, and we’re going to return to the community a nice patch of open space. With trees.”

That project was successful, and Anthony grew to enjoy driving around the city, looking for more property to redevelop.

London became a changed place to Anthony. Before he had seen it as a system of roads linking the houses of friends and the places of his employment, with a few restaurants and shops included in his personal map. Whole areas, hitherto ne- glected, acquired signifi- cance. At first Anthony went around dazed by achievements that he had once taken for granted: what genius had assembled the land for the Bowater House, for Eastbourne Terrace in Padding- ton, for soaring Millbank Tower and elegant Castrol House? And who could regret the forgotten buildings these giants had replaced? Even the much-maligned Centre Point of Harry Hyams revealed itself to him in a new light: indeed, he began to remark casually to friends, he had always thought it a rather fine building. …

Next, to assemble the site for another project, they bought a huge gasometer.

[H]e would drive down to look at [it], for the pleasure of looking at it. It was painted a steely gray-blue, and it rose up against the sky like a part of the sky itself; iron air, a cloud, a mirage, a paradox, defining a space in sky, changing subtly in color as the color of the sky changed. It stood dark and cold, it would catch the pink wash of sunset, it would turn white like a seagull, it would take upon itself the delicate palest blue against a slate-dark background. It was a work of art. It would have to come down, of course, for who wants an obsolete gasometer? But while it stood, while the I.D. Property Company negotiated for the other parts of the jigsaw, Anthony would gaze upon it with more pride and more wonder than he had ever, in childhood, regarded the cathedral outside his bedroom window, though that cathedral was thought by some to be the finest building in Britain. It thrilled him more to own it than it would have thrilled him to have a Velázquez, a Titian on his wall. A derelict gasometer, radiant with significance. One could see it from miles away, right across the Thames, from some directions. It lifted the heart. Up soared the heart like a bird in the chest, up through the light and airy metal shell, to the changing, so much before unnoticed sky.

Hmm. What came to mind immediately here was the image of the alien bursting from Sigourney Weaver’s colleague’s chest in Alien.

Drabble describes Anthony’s admiration for Len Wincobank, the young developer who had introduced him to the business.

… [H]e loved what he was doing, loved his buildings, believed in them, thought them beautiful, thought people ought to like them, was outraged when they didn’t (and, of course, they didn’t, as most people dislike anything new), and was determined, with a kind of blinkered faithful zeal, to make people like them. He was an enthusiast. Anthony liked Len’s girl, Maureen, too. Occasionally he had misgivings about the appearance of some of the actual developments: the center in Northam looked to him, from outside, sinister and blank, but when Len explained to him that this was the new kind of architecture, that there was no need to have any windows at all in that kind of building, that most new buildings were going to be windowless, and what about the height, the fine expanse, and of course perhaps architects hadn’t yet quite got the hang of building without windows, but they would, they would – well, Anthony began to see even the Northam center with new eyes.

Knowing little of Margaret Drabble or her work, I picked up The Ice Age on a whim at my library’s annual book sale the other day. I had no idea such a trove of developer mindset lore lurked within. I will print more excerpts if other such gems show up.

(The gasometer pictured above, in Providence, supposedly featured the world’s largest dome. It may have been built in 1850 and demolished in 1920. Or built in 1872 and demolished in 1938. Sources conflict. I was searching on Google for a gasometer with a dome to illustrate this post and found that be- fore I realized its location. I had figured it was in London or, when I started reading the text, Boston.}

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Inside Drabble’s developer

  1. Pingback: Drabble does ornament | Architecture Here and There

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s