April 18th, 2007

Fishy Circumstances

The London Within

In a private club in central London today, I saw the city. It coalesced around architectural highlights, a shining cluster of Canary Wharf, sun-lit; lowering clouds over Battersea Power Station; dappled light on the London Eye. The images were in my mind, eyes still open. Rows of well-preserved Edwardian houses occupy a different niche of my memory from the Hammersmith Flyover. My experience of each place, the way I've interacted with them, distinguished them. Thus, in visualization, cloud and sun vary across the city.

I saw London within rather than the usual London without because, for possibly the first time in her career, the art historian talking to us about London architecture couldn't used slides; the venue didn't enable it. The talk's attendees were largely local, and all resident in the UK, so most of us probably knew most of the buildings, but I'm sure we each missed out on mental slides here and there. I don't know that I've ever really looked at The Arc before, for example.

The places I do know I approached instinctively in different ways. The Barbican was a video, recreating the walk through the underpass to the Loreena McKennitt concert the other week. The Eye was static, for all the structure itself moves incrementally, constantly. The Swiss Re building, aka The Gherkin, was the monument for the ancient Roman teenager newly buried under it, modern and ancient all in one unexpected conglomeration. The Tate Modern is sunlight on the Thames from the Millennium Bridge, edged glass declaring current exhibits from the top floor. Its extension is no more than preliminary drawings, a glut of glass protruding irregularly skywards, floors crumpled into a building. The Shard of Glass is hard, alien, striking; I could picture the building but had no sense of place associated with it, a skyscraper without a home.

I realized to my surprise that I don't think of London a a cohesive whole of a city, the way I do for so many others. It's a puzzle of pieces, of layers and details and back alleys and undercrofts, tunnels and walkways, exclusivity and compexity and vast, free museums. It is either too big, or too divided into boroughs, or too much a product of winding roads for me to hold in my mind entire.

(Wonderful bonus to going to the talk: sharing a moment of austengirl's birthday with her!)