How We Are Building Britain: London

Monday 18th, June 2007, 22:35 on BBC ONE (London)

Peter Ackroyd, writer, broadcaster and novelist presents his unique and eloquent perspective on the changing London skyline. He believes that London is witnessing its largest renaissance in architecture since the middle of the 17th century. London is a city that is built upon commerce and money.  As a result it is a brutal city and in many respects its architecture is also brutal.  Ackroyd argues: ”Any attempt to constrain or control this future is doomed to failure.”

As London is a city founded on water, Ackroyd takes a look at new plans to revitalise the Thames. “There is an attempt,” he states, “to reopen the Thames  to make it once again the silver river of Edmund Spencer and Alexander Pope.”

The buildings of London acquire affectionate nicknames, as if by some communal instinct.  In some cases the nicknames have preceded the buildings themselves.  A new office block proposed by Will Alsop has already been called the Doodle because of the bright artwork on the side.

The Walkie Talkie – plans for this include a ‘sky garden’ at the top of the building.  The Helter Skelter, so called because it is in the form of a gigantic glass spiral.  And most recently announced, the Cathedral of Cool, an extension of the Tate Modern on the South Bank.Shard of Glass tower
These new buildings will join a menagerie of familiar pet names like The London Eye, Ken’s Testicle and, of course, the Gherkin.

Once tall buildings were thought of as monstrous and brutal, built as they were with private capital and dedicated to the making of money.  The Gherkin, more properly known as the Swiss Re Building, has changed all that.

Throughout London’s history there has been criticism of the modern in favour of the traditional.  The prospect of 21st century skyscrapers obscuring London’s World Heritage sites has infuriated many observers and experts.

"I think the past and the present are entwined like lovers in an embrace”
Peter Ackroyd

Today, the focus of the anger of the conservationists is the Shard – a building that will be bigger and bolder than any before in London.  The London Bridge Tower will reach a height of a thousand feet, which is 250 feet higher than the Canary Wharf Tower. It will have the highest viewing gallery in Europe as well as the highest apartments in the country.

Critics fear that in dwarfing Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, the Shard will somehow dilute the spirit of London.

“For me,” states Ackroyd, “the Shard is the perfect embodiment of that spirit.  It is wholly in keeping with the great London tradition of boastful and monumental architecture, a tradition driven by power and money."

BBC One ▪ TX 18/06/2007 ▪ 1 x 30 min
Produced & Directed by Celia Lowenstein