Is there is a panorama of London these days that can best what meets the eye on Lambeth Bridge? The classic prospect of the Houses of Parliament commands attention, of course, but so does, in quite a different way, the upstream vista. There, Millbank Tower surges skyward, proclaiming the arrival of modernism since 1963, while apparently seeding the newer, smaller and more exotic versions of itself that have been springing up on the opposite bank, frolicking in the shade of their parent tree all the way down to Nine Elms and the new diplomatic precinct at Embassy Gardens.
But it is the view of the south bank up as far as Westminster Bridge that really seizes the imagination. To begin with, close by is the pleasing jumble of Lambeth Palace. The gatehouse was built by Cardinal John Morton in the late 15th century. The tower of the former parish church of St Mary-at-Lambeth belongs to the 14th century. And the Great Hall, whose flank runs parallel to the Thames, was rebuilt after the Restoration, having been ransacked by Cromwellian troops during the Civil War. Pepys called it the “new old-fashioned hall”.
At the other end of Lambeth Palace Road, still bearing the name of a great medieval saint, stand the red-brick, Italianate pavilions of St Thomas’ Hospital. (Florence Nightingale, believing in the power of ventilation to reduce mortality, was an eager champion of the pavilion model of hospital design.) About half of the original buildings were destroyed by bombing during World War II. Their squat, rectilinear replacements crowd around the survivors, looking for all the world as if they are intent on finishing the job and shouldering their Victorian counterparts into the churning waters of the Thames.
It is, however, the space between Lambeth Palace and St Thomas’ Hospital that completes the picture and elevates it to its true significance. Here, the open spaces of Archbishop’s Park and the continuous meandering of the river combine to create an uninterrupted skyline composed of some of London’s newest architectural totems: the Shard, the Cheese Grater, the Walkie Talkie, the Gherkin, along with a few older models, such as Tower 42, and a lot of cranes. The spire of the Oasis Church near Waterloo does its best to hold its own, overlooked by the Shard (which can itself resemble the steeple of an enormous subterranean cathedral bursting from the ground).
This is new London marching dramatically, unapologetically, right into a gap naively left by the old. Yet despite their confidence, their impressive height, their “cold and glassy elegance” (as Theodore Dalrymple put it), these gigantic buildings do also create a skyline oddly reminiscent of the floor of a toddler’s bedroom with variously shaped play bricks scattered and abandoned.
Architectural juxtapositions of old and new similar to this one at Lambeth Bridge have led some writers, including Catholic ones, to detect movements not just of taste but also of the deep tides of morality and identity. “Who am I? I have detected people asking themselves. Am I Dome or Abbey?” So wrote Charles Moore about public attitudes (to the monarchy, tradition, World War II) in the days after the Queen Mother’s death. The funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. The fiasco of the Millennium Dome was still fresh in Moore’s mind.
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