Friday, August 07, 2015

As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise...for now

© Simon Poulter 2015
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night
People so busy, make me feel dizzy, taxi light shines so bright
But I don't, need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise
Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is the evening time, Waterloo sunset's fine.
Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don't want to wander, I stay at home at night
But I don't, feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise
Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is the evening time, Waterloo sunset's fine.
Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river where they feel safe and sound
And they don't, need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo Sunset, they are in paradise
Waterloo sunset's fine.
Raymond Douglas Davies © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

I'm no expert on this and, to be honest, am not inclined to audit this statement with anything approaching accuracy, but I'd wager that there have been more songs written and recorded about American cities than any other nation on Earth.

America lends itself to songwriting like nowhere else. Burt Bacharach wouldn't have received the same acclaim for Do You Know The Way To West Bromwich? as he did with San Jose. Likewise, Germany's A3 autobahn has never been hailed in song like Route 66. And as much as I love the English West Country, I can't imagine The Beach Boys would have been considered as cool singing about surfing off the Cornish coast.

American cities roll off the pens of songwriters like no other: New York and its diagonal coastal rival Los Angeles - decades-long attractions for creatives, performers and aspirants. And Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, San Francisco, Nashville, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, plus 110th Street, 5th Avenue, 8th Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard and the 10th Avenue Freezeout...the list goes on.

That's not to say other places can't be captured as romantically. There just haven't been that many. London's musical history is mostly condemned to Cockernee-sparra-knees-up music hall ditties or the New Wave's nihilistic punk anthems and fascination with urban disintegration.

But there is one London location that stands out: Waterloo Bridge. The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset is arguably the greatest modern song about London, a piece of lyrical genius, capturing, in just 17 lines of simple, evocative urban poetry, London in the 1960s. No wonder it has been cited by endless numbers of songwriters (Damon Albarn, Paul Weller, David Gilmour included) as the song they wished they had written. Even The Who's Pete Townshend - perhaps The Kinks' Ray Davies' most comparable songwriting rival - called it "divine" and "a masterpiece". And it is.

The irony of hailing Waterloo Sunset as an iconic tribute to the British capital is that Davies didn't intend to set the story of Terry and Julie in London at all, but in Liverpool as, at the time, he'd become obsessed with the city through The Beatles and Merseybeat. It was only at the last minute that he changed the location to "Waterloo" as he found it scanned better.

Although it is, essentially, a love song (the Terry and Julie were in fact Davies' sister and her then boyfriend, who were about to emigrate, and not Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, as is often wrongly suggested), it was meant to be an examination on a changing society in the mid-1960s. London was swinging, steam trains had just been replaced by the electric railways running into stations like Waterloo, and Britain was finally shaking itself free of the post-war era.

© Simon Poulter 2015

So, you might be wondering what has prompted What Would David Bowie Do? to launch into a gushing tribute about one of the greatest pop songs ever written. It all began with fifteen-minute stroll across Waterloo Bridge earlier this week.

In my former London commuting days I used to take the bus across this bridge every day, partly to escape the living hell of the London Underground, but also because sitting on the top deck of a bus afforded a fleeting view of one of the greatest city skylines in the world. A glimpse of Davies' paradise, every morning and evening. It is still an enchanting view, but you can't help wondering for how long.

From Dartford to Hampton Court, London has 34 bridges crossing the River Thames, and while Tower, London, Blackfriars or the Albert bridges might get all the architectural attention, only Waterloo - a fairly uninspiring stretch of concrete built in 1945 - has the Western view of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the South Bank, or the Eastern view of St. Paul's and the City of London.

Not having worked in London for 16 years, walking across Waterloo Bridge on Tuesday morning I was struck by how more than a decade and a half has transformed the skyline, and not necessarily for the good. Upstream, there is a wall of steel and glass erected from the Vauxhall Embankment down to Battersea, almost exclusively luxury apartment towers thrown up to serve the Russian and Middle Eastern oil money that has flooded into London.

Looking downstream, and Sir Christopher Wren's iconic dome on St. Paul's Cathedral now squats amongst a skyline dominated by an insane competition of architectural legacy that is beginning to render the City of London as preposterous as Dubai.

© Simon Poulter 2015
The starting point of all this was Renzo Piano's The Shard, next to London Bridge. When construction began, it was going to become Britain's and indeed Europe's tallest building, comprising a hotel, offices and apartments in its 87-storey, 1,016 feet height.

Now built, The Shard is a truly remarkable piece of architectural engineering - as indeed are all such projects. However, it was only meant to be a single addition to the London skyline, semi-reluctantly approved by city and national government, knowing what this glass dagger would do for the London skyline. Clearly money - and Qatari money - talks.

Since The Shard's erection, an unfortunate phrase I know, given the architectural prowess attached to these buildings, London has added the so-called 'Walkie-Talkie' (actually 20 Fenchurch Street, but sort of resembling a 1970s police radio) and, near completion now, 'The Cheesegrater' (122 Leadenhall Street) - respectively 525 feet and 737 feet tall.

These sit in London's eastern horizon along with the giant armadillo-like City Hall, The Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe), Tower 42 and the One Canada Square building at Canary Wharf which have, over the last decade or so, changed the view out of all recognition.

Now, however, there's another on the way: 22 Bishopsgate. The idea for this latest monument to excess is effectively 'bolt on' a three-sided glass skyscraper to an existing and abandoned (i.e. bankrupt) stump of a project to create a tower only 100 feet shorter than The Shard.

Simon Jenkins, the former editor of The Times, recently wrote in the London Evening Standard that 22 Bishopsgate - or "The Club Sandwich" as he dubbed it - would be "the Shard on steroids", pointing out that, like The Shard it would not only co-dominate the aerial aesthetic of London, but would be something of a money pit, as these buildings - despite their iconic status - prove difficult to lease out.

To be fair, Jenkins is no NIMBY. "All modern cities need denser development, London more than ever," he wrote in the Standard. "But sensible cities discuss where such density should be, in the centre or dispersed around the suburbs. Cramming ever more workers into the heart of London, packing them onto the Tube and driving up house prices has to be stupid."

And there is the rub. Jenkins' argument is that it is not just a lack of planning, it's a lack of political gumption to resist the egotism of allowing central London to be overwhelmed by these towers - the latest of which are, to misappropriate the expression, the tip of the iceberg.

© Simon Poulter 2015

According to the independent think tank New London Architecture there are as many as 263 towers more than 20 storeys high tall being planned for the British capital, all under the auspices of providing accommodation for London's affordable housing-starved residents. But with most average income earrners being priced out of these new developments, it looks likely that they will simply become home to the super-rich, or simply empty, as well as adding further blight to the London landscape.

The problem is that London seems to be of the conviction that you build up, not out, that altitude is more preferable to building houses on 'green belt' land. But not everywhere should or can be New York City. Construction sites of yet more towers are everywhere in that city, but no-one will complain. New York invented the skyscraper skyline.

I've always joked that it is part of New York's Dutch heritage that Manhattan, bound by two rivers, can only build up, not out. The irony of this is that when the original Amsterdam started to develop its Zuid and Zuid-Oost business districts, newspapers would photograph the new towers from fields south of the city to give the impression of cows making way for steel with captions like "Manhattan aan de Amstel" (Manhattan on the Amstel).

London is, though, not alone in its vertical ambitions. Whereas cities in Asia, the Middle East and, still, the United States, have no hangups at all at adding to their metal jungles, the Old World is still the Old World when it comes to building up.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Just look at Paris: ever since Haussman transformed it with his boulevards, squares and homogenous six-story apartment buildings (until he met opposition and Napoleon III sacked him), its skyline has been largely unchanged, save for the Eiffel Tower in 1887, which went unchallenged until the universally unloved Montparnasse tower went up in 1973, before a city ordinance in 1977 installed a 37-metre height restriction.

But just recently, Anne Hildago, the mayor of Paris, and her councillors approved plans for the first new skyscfaper in the city centre since Montparnasse was built. With most of the French capital's big office blocks located in the business district of La Defense, the 600ft 'Tour Triangle' will be constructed in the south-western Porte de Versailles area, close the district's expanse of convention halls.

Inevitably, the Tour Triangle has caused sharp intakes of tobacco-infused breath here in Paris, but there is a valid comparison to be made with the recent history of London's sky: two historic cities which have evolved in roughly the same periods of economic and industrial history, vying for the same international commerce today. But unlike London, Paris has hitherto resisted the temptation to abandon what makes Paris so attractive to accommodate foreign money.

"The beauty and richness of a city like Paris comes from the combined effect of lots of very small-scale buildings acting together," architectural historian Andrew Ayers recently told Newsweek, pointing out that in Paris, its tallest buildings complement the other monuments that define the city, like Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe. By comparison, Ayers says, glass monstrosities like the Tour Triangle "interact with nothing but themselves."

Like Paris, London has a right to maintain the fighting weight it needs to compete and maintain its status, especially as the notional financial capital of the world. But really, just as Parisians argue that disproportionate construction will dilute their city's appeal, will London allowing more and more of these skyline scars do anything to keep the 16 million tourists coming in each year, or the inward investment rolling in?

To return to Waterloo Sunset, London's baroque skyline had barely changed in three hundred years before Ray Davies wrote the song. Until 1962, the St. Paul's cathedral dome was the tallest landmark, famously captured in that image of the London under The Blitz.

Progress might be progress, but the question every Londoner - and visitor to London - must ask is "Yes, but at what cost?".

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