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My Love-Hate Relationship With London’s Changing Skyline

My Love-Hate Relationship With London’s Changing Skyline

I can’t think of any city whose skyline has undergone such a dramatic shift over the last 25 years as London.  One by one, a series of modern buildings – each more odd-looking than the last – has changed London’s skyline significantly since my first trip to England in 1978.  One Canada Square (1991) and the rest of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers, City Hall (2002), the Gherkin (2003), the Shard (2012), and the Cheesegrater (2014) are just a sampling of this new London architecture.

In 1984, Prince Charles famously attacked a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”  I understood how he felt.  It’s hard not to mourn alien additions with nicknames like the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater.  And these new additions don’t blend seamlessly into the cityscape.  They draw your eye as if they’re jumping up and down saying “look at me!”  No addition to London’s skyline evoked as much ire for me as the London Eye.  I harbored a secret hope that Londoners would grow tired of this blot on the landscape and tear it down.  Of course more than 15 years later, it’s still one of the city’s most popular attractions.

I’m not quite sure why I was so disgruntled by this modern London architecture.  As a Chicagoan, I can remember when the John Hancock Center, the Sears (now Willis) Tower, the slanted roofline of 150 N. Michigan Avenue, and the rusty red CNA Center were each added to the Chicago skyline.  I don’t remember feeling any resentment toward them.

However something interesting happened during my three months in London last fall.  I began to develop a grudging acceptance of these additions to the cityscape.  I grew accustomed to seeing the Shard standing sentry over southeast London and to passing the rotund bulk of City Hall on my way to London Bridge Station.  The Canary Wharf skyscrapers peeping over the rooftops of Teak Close became a comforting sight. 

Even the London Eye began to seem rather festive as it lit up the night.  I finally began to understand the Eye’s place in Londoner’s affections when I walked to Westminster station on the Sunday evening following the brutal Paris attacks.  The Eye was lit red, white and blue in solidarity with the citizens of Paris.  It was a class act for such a brash adolescent.

My final acceptance of London’s changing skyline came near the end of my stay.  My husband and son joined me after Christmas to share my last ten days in London.  William had never been to England before, so I planned a “best of London” itinerary for their visit.

We started their visit with a Thames cruise.  Pointing out sights as we sailed down the river made me realize that I’d grown used to seeing modern London architecture juxtaposed against old stalwarts like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London.  We also rode on the London Eye, something I’d never done.  As we looked out at the lights of London, I knew that I had finally accepted these “carbuncles” on the face of my beloved London.

Near the end of their stay, we visited St. Paul’s and I finally achieved my ambition of climbing all 528 steps to the cathedral’s dome.  I walked around the outside of the dome looking down at the buildings, bridges, and neighborhoods I had come to know intimately during my three-month stay.  I realized that I loved it all, both the well-known historic sights and the brash modern additions.

Would I prefer to see the classic skyline I know from my research and from my earliest visits to London?  Yes.  But in reality, I know that London’s skyline has never been static.  It’s been in a constant state of flux since the Romans built Londinium.  The city has been altered by countless events over its history; fires, the merciless bombing of the Blitz, the regeneration of the decaying Docklands, and so much more.  As much as I love historic London, I also love the city’s ability to rise from the ashes of adversity.  In truth, without new constructions, London would be more like a historical theme park than a dynamic city.

So television programs and movies will continue to use establishing shots of both Big Ben and the London Eye, as well as whatever brash new addition to London architecture comes along in the future.  As these additions appear, I’ll continue to remind myself that the past and the present can co-exist in my affections.

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