London Called

London. In this amazing city Americans can see their past and their future. I’m meeting tomorrow with my seminar group, one third of the 25 students we have here. I’m going to ask them what surprises them most about the city, how the real city aligned with their expectations, what confuses them. So how would I answer my own questions?

What surprises me, just as much this summer as last, is the joyful fearlessness of the architecture and the seamlessness of architecture and engineering. What US city would have built the Eye? It’s completely ridiculous and wonderful…literally, it is full of wonder. Can you imagine such a proposal for Washington, in the side yard of the National Mall, as the Eye is to Parliament? Opposition would ooze from the landscape itself to stop it, save the Mall, save us all, preserve the vistas, don’t be frivolous, don’t waste money, you’ll attract the wrong element, someone could put an eye out, call the lawyers! We’re like overly serious children, and the British like wickedly playful elders.

What also surprises me is the complete confidence, the Prince’s lamentations notwithstanding, of the modern to take its seat next to the old, the ancient even. The visitors’ entrance to Parliament is a perfect example. Visitors walk through an elegant glass, wood and stainless pavilion, down a ramp, and through another elegant security pavilion. The modern addition wasn’t hidden, like a laundry room, from the view of polite society for fear of offending. The entry performs a modern function, modernly. That seems to be a theme through the architecture of London: let the old continue to do what it does best, but new problems, new programs want new clothes. Corbusier told us that a century ago, and we all misunderstood.

Final surprise for today’s post? Congestion, despite congestion pricing. London traffic is sloooooow and heavy. The tall buses and the bendy buses lumber through narrow streets like herds of elephants and hippos with myriad taxis underfoot. It’s the nature of an ecosystem, in this case an urban ecosystem, to fill the niches available. The city abhors a vacuum. With private cars culled by the congestion fee, the taxis reproduced to fill the space. I don’t know that for a fact, so I’m interested in the numbers and licensing of taxis to know if in fact that’s what happened. I do know that more buses were put into service, and they certainly seem to be the alpha species here now, charismatic urban megafauna.

Today it’s off to the Transport Museum to see what I can discover!

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