London, past and future city

The stars finally came into alignment and I was able to take a brief trip to London last week to see a couple of exhibitions. They were excellent, and I’ll have a few things to say about them here when thoughts crystalise. But as ever with London, I also wanted to go just to wander and watch, to sink into the city.

It’s a fathomless place, a metropolis so vast that it seems a phenomenon of nature rather than human design. It isn’t really a single city at all, rather a conglomeration of interlocking cities, an impossibly complex network, its circuits spreading below and above ground.

There are other great cities with ancient histories – Rome, Jerusalem, Athens – and others that pulse with commerce – Dubai, New York, Tokyo. But I can’t think of any that are both so old and yet so new as London, a city that is both museum and marketplace, tomb and trading centre, its ancient streets electric with energy 2,000 years since the foundations of Roman Londonium were laid on the banks of the Thames.

And I’d say it is precisely that claustrophobic juxtaposition of past and future that makes London the most prescient of cities, the model of what younger cities will become as they evolve, bearing evidence of both their past and present ages: London is what the future will look like.

The first thing I notice when the London skyline comes into view from the train window is the forest of cranes. The city seems in a perpetual state of construction and reconstruction. There is no discrimination between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Londons, ‘historic’ and ‘modern’ quarters: new buildings rise beside the old, everywhere.

The sci-fi horizon of the financial district rises beyond St Paul’s Cathedral when approached from The Strand. The Shard looms over Southwark Cathedral and the reconstructed Globe Theatre. Shining office blocks cluster on Ludgate Hill, the heart of old London. The city’s centre is an endless labyrinth of shimmering glass, sooty Gothic, Corinthian columns, Brutalist giganticism, ivy-clad legal chambers, Victorian redbrick and Bladerunner billboards.

Somehow we never quite seem able to imagine that the future does and will look like this. My own idea of the ‘city of tomorrow’ was set in childhood by books with titles like The Usborne Book of the Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond, and comics like 2000AD, the former imagining an uncluttered, rational space of parks, steel and glass, the latter a lawless post-apocalyptic Babylon of grime-encrusted megastructures.

These utopian and dystopian visions, inspired by the sci-fi of that time (and much like the sci-fi of today) shared the assumption that – for better or worse – the city of the future would be utterly different from the city of today. In doing so they overlooked the obvious truth, one of those truths so obvious it is actually hard to see, that the cities we know today would still be recognisable to us if we could travel hundreds of years into the future, would still bear the traces of the present. Cities progress by evolution, retaining through the centuries much that would be familiar to previous generations, both the best and the worst of the past.

This inevitable untidiness will always create tension between those who want to modernise and those seeking to conserve.

Modernists dream of clearing away the past, scrubbing away the cobwebs, ‘erasing the traces’ to make space for a new rational future to shine forth. Owen Hatherley in Militant Modernism writes:

There are countless Modernist communiqués and pronouncements that exhibit a sharp distrust of the dreamlike, fantastical city that came about from the hoarding, replication and preservation of the old, something which extends as much to the European streetscape of today as it does to the interiors of the late 19th century. El Lissitzky wrote of his Wolkenbügel ‘horizontal skyscrapers’ that ‘the city consists of atrophying old parts and growing, live new ones. We need to deepen this contrast.’ This would heighten the contradictions between the new and the old ‘atrophied’ city, a battle inevitably ending with the death of the latter. Modernism dedicated itself to fighting the old city tooth and nail, as in the famous pronouncement in Marinetti and Saint-Ella’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture – ‘our houses will last less time than we do, and each generation will have to make its own’, a call for ‘constant renewal of the architectonic environment’ … This is what is meant by erasing the traces – outrunning the old world before it has the chance to catch up with you.

Traditionalists want to hold on to the best of that old world, distressed by what they see as the desecration of past beauty as the soaring towers of the new world surround and close in on the temples of the past.

A living city will always be an untidy mixture of both, the old and the new. If it isn’t oriented to the future – if it doesn’t allow each fresh generation to imagine different skylines – the city ossifies, becomes a beautiful graveyard. But a city that doesn’t preserve the memory of its past is hollow, a snapshot of the dreams of a single age, a picture of a moment in time. By respecting its history the city preserves its ‘past futures’, the visions of previous generations, each of which sought to transcend what had come before. And the backcloth of the past is necessary to allow the new to stand forth. London’s hypermodernity depends on London’s past, its chrome and steel shining all the more brightly when seen beside the gargoyles on the opposite side of the street.