On July 15, London Mayor Sadiq Khan nipped Lord Foster’s proposed Tulip in the bud. Fine. But why? It does not “represent world-class architecture,” quoth the mayor. “Mayor rejects ‘unwelcoming, poorly designed’ Tulip,” stated Architects’ Journal. One study declared it looks like “a surveillance tower,” which it was to have been, except for the use of tourists, not prison guards. “Of insufficient quality,” echoed a mayoral aide, adding that it would “harm London’s skyline.” Really? How could he tell?
Look at the photo above of London’s skyline. Look at the buildings around the Tulip cropped into the photo across the street from the Gherkin (also by Foster). By what standard do any of these buildings qualify as “world-class architecture”? Which are “welcoming”? Which do no harm to the skyline of London? Not a single one of them. No doubt the hardest job in the world is service as a member of the Pritzker Prize jury. Modern architecture has no comprehensible set of standards by which to judge the quality of its prize submissions. It’s a movable feast, if that’s the sort of thing you find tasty.
One observer of that photo no doubt sported images in her memory of the London skylines of the distant past, skylines in which church spires literally aspired and the Tower Bridge actually towered. She wondered whether it was really London and not, say, Qatar. Surely her question was rhetorical, because in fact it really is not London, not the London beloved for centuries around the world. Although some tourist precincts survive intact, that London has been gone for at least a couple of decades.
Even 40 years ago, when I first visited London, many streets were pimpled with low- and mid-rise modernist buildings, often filling in for the rubble left by the Luftwaffe. The only real tower I recall seeing in central London then was Lloyds of London, designed in the ridiculous inside-out style of Richard Rogers, weighing in at a mere 14 stories and still incomplete in 1979. It was shown to me by my host, a boyhood friend enrolled at the London School of Economics, whose girlfriend and eventual wife we met at the building, where she worked for the Rothschilds. That was long before I ever thought of being an architecture critic, and five years before Prince Charles’s famous speech condemning a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”
Those words killed that project, just as Mayor Khan’s words appear to have killed Lord Foster’s Tulip. The difference is that the Prince of Wales knew whereof he spoke.
(Residents of Providence will wish Mayor Elorza had Mayor Khan’s authoritative powers over the fate of buildings.)