The Towers of Afrasiab

The spider has wove his web in the palace of the Caesars, and the owl hath sung her watch-song on the towers of Afrasiab.”

Last week, I met with La Belle Japonaise to ascend the hothouse of corporate ego that is 20 Fenchurch Street. This building, better known as the Walkie-Talkie is perhaps the most comically hideous of all the post-Gherkin excesses that have been granted planning permission. When plans were being drawn up, it was sold as having a sort of high-altitude park, that would be accessible to the public, free of charge.

The reality is rather different: whilst it is indeed true that they do not charge admission to the ‘Sky Garden’, it is primarily a space for the restaurants and bars that they have put there. You aren’t obliged to buy anything, but you are made to feel that you ought to (especially as you get greeted by cafe staff, the moment that you step out of the lift). Either way, you will have to negotiate the somewhat Byzantine online booking system, then negotiate airport-style security, in order to simply step in the lift.

Normally, when people have to insert an adjective, before the word ‘garden’, it is a sign that the latter word should perhaps not be taken at face value (‘crystal garden’, ‘coral garden’ and ‘lady garden’ all spring to mind). Thus, the ‘Sky Garden’ is basically two steep beds of generic tropical foliage -a few palm trees and bushes, with no evidence of flowers (at least, not at this time of the year). A much better urban garden experience can be had at the Barbican’s Conservatory. Nonetheless, the message is simple: The City of London is Babylon and these are its Hanging Gardens.

For a building that is seemingly designed for our current culture of conspicuous consumption, via the medium of Instragram, it is infuriatingly difficult to get a decent photo of the view, because of the highly-reflective glass and abundance of small lights that appear to be turned on, even during the daytime. The situationcertainly did not improve, as night fell.

After having walked up and down both sides of the building (tip: the best view is from the walkway to the restaurant), we made our way over to the cafe. The sandwiches were surprisingly reasonable (smoked salmon for £4), although I felt that the staff were rather unhelpful. Puzzlingly, my tea came with hot milk -the second time that I have encountered this problem in about two weeks.

As night fell, we went back up the stairs, sneaking past a corporate cocktail party that was being held at the top. The building is actually more beautiful at night, as the daytime views had been rather curtailed by the presence of a flaccid, beige fog. I thought to myself about how nice it would be to come here on a crisp, clear, snowy day -before remembering that, in the City, snow rarely lasts for more than a couple of hours, even if the rest of London is thickly coated in it. It also made me think of François Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis:

Dites-moi où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo, parlant quant bruit on mène
Dessus rivière ou sur étang,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Où est la très sage Héloïs,
Pour qui fut châtré et puis moine
Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis ?
Pour son amour eut cette essoine.
Semblablement, où est la roine
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fût jeté en un sac en Seine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

La roine Blanche comme un lis
Qui chantait à voix de sirène,
Berthe au grand pied, Bietrix, Aliz,
Haramburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jeanne, la bonne Lorraine
Qu’Anglais brûlèrent à Rouen ;
Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Prince, n’enquerrez de semaine
Où elles sont, ni de cet an,
Que ce refrain ne vous remaine :
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Indeed, where are the snows of yester-year? We’ve barely had any since 2013. In a week when Vint Cerf warned about the dangers of a digital Dark Age (a conversation topic that I have been annoying my friends with for well over a decade), one wonders, if, despite all of the (invisible) money that emanates from the City, is anything truly permanent today? Despite the enormous increase in living standards that occurred over the latter half of the 20th Century, very little will remain of our current era. Most of our visual culture is electronic, few of our possessions are treated as objects of permanence, few of us have jobs that do not require a nuanced explanation, identities are increasingly transient and not all that many of our dead are being buried.

I say this because, like most of the edifices constructed over the last twenty years, the Walkie-Talkie is made of glass. It feels very temporary, even ‘disposable’. These buildings lack the solidity of those built a generation earlier, such as the Barbican Centre, or even the comparatively recent, post-modern groundscaper that squats above Liverpool Street Station. I would not be at all surprised if the Walkie-Talkie had ceased to exist, twenty years from now, perhaps replaced by an even larger, yet somehow flimsier confection. Or perhaps not -given the inherently distasteful ‘let them eat cake’ (albeit fairly inexpensively and with a pretty decent view) logic that has been used to justify its construction, and the minimal benefit that it actually provides to London residents (some of whom have lost out on their views of St. Paul’s), can this era last forever? The seeds of revolt have already been sown. Londoners are fed up with the current generation of tower blocks, which, whether residential or commercial, merely serve to entrench existing wealth. Can people in glass houses really throw stones? Maybe not, but for now, they are certainly throwing cocktail parties.

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