I went along to the launch of architecture writer and broadcaster Tom Dyckhoff’s new book, The Age of Spectacle, last week. Speaking to his audience at the event, Dyckhoff rehearsed familiar questions about life in the late capitalist metropolis and the appearance of the buildings and spaces its inhabitants negotiate daily. “Why is my local leisure centre dressed up like a harlequin with flashing lights and colours? Why does that library call itself an ideas store?” There were hums and chuckles of recognition from the crowd. “Humour,” noted Sigmund Freud, “is a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing effects that interface with it.”
I mention Freud because if the atmosphere on the night was jolly, it was also laced with horror. For the event, Dyckhoff had invited three colleagues to pen and deliver short psychogeographic sketches of future Londons: cultural historian Patrick Wright looked 5 years ahead, journalist Anna Minton 25, and novelist and design writer Will Wiles a full 75. Minton’s scenario was told through the point of view of an LIP (Low Income Pass) holder prohibited from entering central London at all times except strictly proscribed hours. (Amused chuckles from the audience.) The medical appointment to which the protagonist was on their way was at Moorfield Eye Hospital on Old Street, its original Victorian building having been augmented by a state-of-the-art extension wing when the National Health Service was replaced by the fully privatised Better Health for All. (Loud laughter.) Wiles, looking three quarters of a century ahead, had to account for at least four degrees of global warming, which “supposes the loss of most of London’s traditional flood plain,” he quipped. “That means Barnes, Fulham, the Isle of Dogs, the Greenwich Peninsula and everything between the river and Peckham are pretty much submerged.” (General hilarity.)
Countering horror with laughter is a fundamental psychological move and it made me think, on the way home from the book launch, about the affective dimension of the built environment and the language we use to frame it with. The bus took me past London’s Square Mile – the heart of the city’s financial district – and the construction site of 22 Bishopsgate, the PLP Architecture-designed skyscraper rising out of the plot for which the Pinnacle (or HelterSkelter), a skyscraper half built and then halted in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, was originally destined. This is precisely the kind of building, along with 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin), 122 Leadenhall Street (the Cheese Grater), and 20 Fenchurch street (the Walkie Talkie), that Dyckhoff and friends took as examples of spectacular architecture. On street level at 22 Bishopsgate, branded barriers keep pedestrians off the site. “Multiplex,” they say (that’s the construction company appointed by developers Lipton Rogers and AXA Investment Management), “Built to outperform.” If horror and alienation are what city-dwellers are increasingly feeling in the face of the obsessive iconicity of such projects, it is a desire to inspire one-upmanship and outperformance that characterises the developers’ own language.
It’s been said before, but it’s worth reiterating with renewed emphasis: these buildings are pissing contests. 22 Bishopsgate was set to tower at 62 storeys, not too far off from The Shard’s 72 habitable floors. A few months ago, following consultations with London City Airport and the Civil Aviation Authority, it got a 23m “haircut”, but the bulk of the building will still leave parts of the City in almost permanent shadow. The superlative-laden language, moreover, remains ingrained in all aspects of the project. Despite the three-storey shave, it will house the highest viewing deck in London, boasts a promotional video. The building’s 57 Otis lifts will all travel at 30kmph, making them the fastest in Europe, overtaking the previous record-holders, Kone’s lifts in the Cheese Grater, one of 22 Bishopsgate’s nearest neighbours.
I requested press imagery of 22 Bishopsgate from PLP Architecture the next day, and headed down to the construction site for a closer look. Tucked into a niche in the scaffolding, I found one of those Happy or Not feedback devices with a spectrum of smiley face buttons ranging from happy or half-smiling to disgruntled or distinctly unimpressed – the type you get in airports asking how your security control experience has been. “Are we being a considerate neighbour?” asked the device. Pondering this question, I returned to the office in time to receive a phone call from a PR consultant addressing my image request. “Can you tell me more about the article you’re writing?” asked the consultant. “It’s a bit of a rambling editor’s letter on London’s changing skyline in the light of Tom Dyckhoff’s new book,” I said. “OK. But is it positive or negative about 22 Bishopsgate?”