Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

The animated city and its decline

The bustling metropolis bustles no more, as emptied docks become waterside developments, markets move to the peripheries and industry elopes, draining the lifeblood of the city

Some years ago, while researching a BBC Radio programme in New York, I was introduced to the oral archives of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. A ferry ride from Battery Park, Ellis Island is, of course, where some 12 million immigrants to the United States were processed between 1892 and 1954 in the long, lantern-lit shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

I listened to the voices of long dead immigrants recording their immediate impressions of New York. In particular, I remember the lilting voice of an Irishman describing his first encounter with this thrilling and hopeful city. It was 1913. Someone had shouted ‘Land ahoy!’, and what our man saw first as he raced, aged 18, to the side of the deck was, no, not the Statue of Liberty waiting to receive its ‘huddled masses yearning to be free’, but the pinnacle and then the improbably tall Gothic shaft of the Woolworth Building.

Newly complete, the Woolworth Building rose a staggering 241 metres above the teeming city streets. Far higher than the most ambitious medieval cathedral, it was the world’s tallest building. Dubbed the ‘Cathedral of Commerce’, it was a symbol of dynamic American enterprise as well as of freedom and the opportunity for anyone to make it as big as Franklin Winfield Woolworth had done with his famous 5c and 10c stores.

And then, as its fellow liners were to arrive for several more decades before the advent of the Boeing 707, our young Irishman’s ship sailed right up to those cliff-like Manhattan streets and berthed alongside them. The two − liner and skyscraper-studded streetscape − were inseparable. They fed each other with people, promise and prosperity. And how wonderful they looked, each enhancing the aesthetic, scale and sheer wonder of the other. Generations of New Yorkers and visitors to Manhattan thrilled to the surreal visual games played by the scale of great ships lined up at the end of boisterous streets, ending vistas in portholed hulls, fluttering masts and steaming chimneys, and plumes of nautical steam intermingled with clouds of steam rising from the very pavements of the city. Here, urban games were taken to a further level when liners were tugged from their city berths and, as they turned, so streets and individual buildings appeared to waltz around them in slow motion.

42_15367601The long-gone surreal sight of liners at the ends of Manhattan streets explains the otherwise faintly mystifying equation by Modernists (such as Le Corbusier) of ships with buildings

Many of us must have felt at least something of this much-missed New York spectacle as our own ships − not quite as grand perhaps as Lusitania or Queen Mary − have nosed their way into Helsinki, Liverpool or Venice. Arrival by air today is nearly always a disappointment with airports located, understandably, miles from great city centres, and entry to them made by public transport.

To stand on the prow of a big ship, however, as it points towards Engel’s supremely confident Neoclassical cathedral commanding Helsinki’s South Harbour, or noses close by Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore while turning in front of the Doge’s Palace, or approaches Liverpool’s Three Graces head on, is to feel the connection between city and sea, urban trade and ocean waves, the ebb and flow of commerce and culture, currents and even tides of immigration and emigration: it is, in fact, to look, face to facade, at the very reason great cities exist, and why they were created in the first place.

And, so, when we hear of plans to move ships − passengers and cargo − ever further from major city centres, we should be ready to take up metaphorical cutlasses and fight them every inch of the way. Ships, ports and the flow of people, traffic and goods they fetch and carry animated city centres for thousands of years. They have only gone in the past half-century, and their loss is plain to see in cities as far apart as London, New York and Shanghai. It is not only that the big ships have so often gone from the ends of central city streets, but what has replaced them − continues to replace them − is, all too often, a banality of global design, a cleaning up, a sanitising of what were until recently, or even now, energetic, life-enhancing, theatrical and highly animated places that were part and parcel of what made a truly great city great.

All that mighty seaborne trade affected not just the character, spirit and tempo of life in city centres, but also the design, structure and purpose of many of their major buildings. As your vaporetto whines and growls into Fondamenta Nuove, look afresh at ‘San Zanipolo’, the magnificent Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo dominating this flank of Venice. This, of all churches, resembles a powerful galleon that has berthed here, much like those steel-hulled transatlantic liners in Manhattan, its doors wide open to city life around it. Its principal space is, of course, a nave − from the Latin, navis, a ship − and the sacred building is a ship of souls, its course set far over the bar, and beyond the furthest imaginable horizon.

So the animation of the sea, and seafaring, is set into the very stones of Venice; of Helsinki, London, Liverpool and Shanghai, too. Buildings, and institutions, like San Zanipolo, have gone further. They have produced and nurtured pageantry and processions, legends and, of course, saints, that have brought colour, imaginative life and animation to their host cities. Each year, the Doges of Venice − and their less powerful and less glamorously dressed successors − re-enact the wedding of Venice to the Sea, a festival both sacred and secular, and one that still matters. Venice might no longer be the physical heart of an empire, yet water, travel and a sense of wonder are still the principal ingredients in its story of survival as a tourist city, if one haunted by a magisterial past.

Helsinki_and_shipLiners still berth beside Helsinki’s cathedral, but in greatly reduced numbers

Liverpool_Three_GracesLiverpool’s Three Graces dwarfed by ship power

Giovanni_Grubas_Venedig_Piazza_San_Giovanni_e_PaoloGondolas − once the doughty transporters of merchandise rather than supersized tourists − pull into Campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice

Beyond this, ships brought food and goods to city markets. From childhood, I remember well the London wholesale markets served directly by the ships I could walk to and watch unload from where American-style skyscrapers loom today in all their sanitised and hermetic high-rise bathos. Narrow streets leading down to the River Thames past Wren’s City churches were filled with fishermen’s baskets. Covent Garden market was an ever changing and wondrous garden of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Cockney sparrows − birds, not the market porters − flitted from fruit stalls to pallets laden with cabbages and cauliflowers.

In the evenings, cloud-like congregations of starlings wheeled in chattering, ever-changing formations over the market, over the theatre and cinema queues of close-by Piccadilly and Leicester Square. It was as if, from morning till evening, the city expressed itself exultantly, through nature and what it had nurtured in commerce and buildings, from ships to churches to market squares: here was one of the great, animated cities expressing its identity through its economic lifeblood.

The richness of this animation grew in great trading cities over centuries in ways that encouraged pageantry, rituals and processions. These might take the form of festivals celebrating city trades, London’s Lord Mayor’s Show, or sublime and supremely theatrical religious processions like those that take place in Seville during Holy Week between cavernous churches set along streets that keep pace with the Guadalquivir, the navigable river that flows inexorably south linking this compelling Andalucian city to the sea.

Added to these are sights that still help to make moments in the 21st century somehow surreal: Horse Guards trotting en masse along the Mall glimpsed between columns of plane trees from the lake in St James’s Park where pelicans sail like stately white galleons between clattering flights of feral pigeons and with a backdrop of fairytale buildings, from the gleaming white stucco facades of John Nash’s Carlton House Terrace to the romantic roofscape of Alfred Waterhouse’s National Liberal Club.

Between 1976 and 2003, there were moments in the afternoon here where pretty much anyone and anything alive stopped in that exquisite park to look upwards and gawp at Concorde, the thunderous and sensationally supersonic sky-god that passed over the city centre in much the same mythical manner as Ra had ridden across the Memphis sky in his boat Sektet, or Apollo had soared across the sky dome of Athens in a fiery chariot drawn by horses even wilder than those Ancient Greeks admired − as we do today in the controversial halls of the British Museum − along the friezes of the Parthenon.

The Parthenon itself, by the way, was not just a brilliantly wrought civic temple; it was also − possibly − an idealised representation in marble of a Greek warship, the force that preserved Greek cities and Ancient Greek trade. As with San Zanipolo, here was an architecture echoing to the sounds, movements, soul and (human) purpose of the sea.

PU1438_3A forest of masts in the old London docks

London_SkylineToday these have been replaced by a forest of wipe-clean towers, which conceal the economic activity inside despite their transparency


Acropolis_2The Parthenon was also a vast storehouse of money that towered above the city below it

Organic and elemental

New forms of urban animation that, in their own special ways, seemed almost organic and elemental as well as highly purposeful, emerged from the mid-19th century. These included railways, power stations and electric lighting. Steam trains plumed in and out of stations, their dramatic presence enhanced by rhythmic beats that echoed to the pulse of industrial-era cities themselves.

As a young boy, I can remember Merchant Navy, West Country and Battle of Britain Pacifics pounding out from Waterloo with long green trains for Southampton − its docks, liners and freighters − along by the River Thames and against the highly animated architectural spectacle of Barry and Pugin’s Palace of Westminster. On squally days, when seas were rough, gulls patrolled noisily over river, station and steam expresses. A little further west along the Thames, Battersea Power Station, dressed in soul-stirring architecture − at once as ancient as the Ziggurat of Ur and as modern as the steam turbines that raced inside its stately bulk− created clouds of pure white steam that, assisted by prevailing winds, sailed slowly back over Westminster, the West End and Waterloo. As children, we thought of this titanic power station as a machine for making clouds. As for electricity, who could fail to be thrilled − watching through top deck windows, as London buses turned into Piccadilly Circus − by the highly animated play of neon adverts writhing across and around the facades of corner buildings?

In recent years, I have been increasingly saddened on walks around ‘regenerated’ areas of old industrial cities, with their rivers, railways, ports and old commercial streets where things were once made or sold with gusto, and especially on visits to city planning offices when shown the same banal global presentations. In Helsinki, until very recently, it was possible to walk to a restaurant and visit an art gallery in the shadow not just of ships sailing in from across the Baltic, but in the company of giant new ships under construction. The very idea of building an 80,000-ton cruise ship close to Soho or SoHo might seem a little absurd, and yet Helsinki built ships with pride, as Venice had once done in its expansive Arsenale, and as close to its heart as it was possible to get.

For all too many planners, politicians, local people and architects, too, such activities are considered somehow dirty and demeaning today. Heavy industry in a city centre, when we can have ever more ‘luxury’ river-view, sea-view apartments with gyms and spas and enormous, built-in plasma-screen tvs instead? At an ever accelerating pace, such animated activities and the life and culture, the pageantry and processions, the life and soul that went hand-in-hand, piston-in-cylinder with them, are being eradicated from cities built on them. Wholesale markets are pushed to city frontiers, shipyards to other countries where labour is cheap, power stations to coasts …

Final_StarlingsClouds of starlings wheeling around St Paul’s Cathedral

HorseguardsEveryday pagentry and pomp brings brilliant life to the Mall

Corbis_42_36684116A machine, of antique design, for making clouds

More than this, the sheer animation associated with, and created by, such activities and commerce is being lost. There are, of course, many people who will argue that city centres are better off without steam trains, cloud-making machines, printworks, food markets and other pronounced and sometimes pungent activities. No, the city should be a polite place of global-style apartment blocks, staid avenues, silent docks and neat commercial, clerical and cultural industries. As clean as a new pin, as thrilling as a walk in a cul-de-sac in a far-flung dormitory suburb. The most exciting new ‘interventions’ encouraged by all too many planning offices and local politicians in great cities worldwide are shopping malls, marinas (for polite yachts and dainty meals) and the occasional new museum in which visitors can look at photographs of how their city used to be when it was alive, alive-o!

And, yet, it might be argued that our chaste, newly ‘regenerated’ cities and their most significant buildings are as much reflections of energetic trade and commerce today as Venice and San Zanipolo were five hundred years ago. Why? Because today it is banks, hedge funds, insurance companies and their piratical crews that sail the high seas of commerce, and especially of ‘e’ rather than ‘sea’ trade. Computers, the internet and new forms of communication and transaction mean there is little need for the ships, machines, trades, crafts and cultures of previous eras. The buildings in which the new electronic commerce is executed are a fusion of ship and market hall: today, these skyscrapers are berthed by old city docks − London’s Canary Wharf is a prominent example − and proclaim the efficacy of the businesses they house through the monumental scale, shininess and sheer audacity of their cloud-piercing structures.

Unlike ships and working docks, though, these new era ships of commerce are animated only inside their sleek superstructures. They offer nothing to the streets they dominate. Some appear to flash fire from relentless glass facades at sunset. One − the so-called Walkie-Talkie in the City of London − goes so far as to be actively hostile, with sunlight reflected from its convex curves and then beamed down like rays from an alien’s space gun to pavements below. Windows, however, are sealed. Unlike churches, markets, chattering printworks or Waterloo station in steam days, they are silent. As are the bland new apartment blocks lining the redundant port districts of Helsinki, the Thames from Battersea to Beckton and beyond and other once great cities by the sea. As for Venice, its commerce and the bulk of its population absconded to Mestre on the mainland decades ago. Although the ceremony of the marriage of the city to the sea is still enacted every year, I suppose the union today is that of global tourism to a city forced to prostitute itself as a supine theme park.

Where once the culture of a city was vigorously expressed through a sense of animation fuelled by the nature of its rattling commerce, today, the animation I am celebrating and pleading for is often imposed. Festivals, street theatre, public art and other events along with sensational and meaningless ‘iconic’ design projects − have you heard, for example, of plans for a kitsch ‘garden’ bridge across the Thames? − have become replacements for culture that has grown and expressed itself, from architecture to pageants, from the essential nature and working life of the city.

Artificial animation

Although such artificial animation is showered on cities today, it is mostly irrelevant, meaningless and more the stuff of ‘bread and circuses’ than heartfelt, indigenous artistry, celebration and display. But, if public art and all too many new festivals and cultural events can seem − and are − artificial, then architecture has been in danger of becoming even more irrelevant in cities that once knew, instinctively, and from the streets and markets up, how
to celebrate their special, their truly unique identities.

Because many new city buildings can belong to any other city, their design has tended to become, if not inevitably, much the same around the globe. Skyscrapers no longer speak of the rise from rags to riches of local-boy-made-good Franklin Winfield Woolworth, but of essentially anonymous corporate commerce. Equally, and perhaps more strangely, the new apartment blocks that line the shores of the old ports of old cities are all the same, too; perhaps this is because as cities lose their distinct qualities, and sense of animation, there is nothing special to express in the design of new houses.

Corbis_42_16773345the Sultan’s Elephant stalked London in 2006

And, yet, around the very South Harbour that the City of Helsinki wishes to blandify today, the streets of the Arts and Crafts Katajanokka district are alive with some of the most highly expressive apartment blocks to be found in any city worldwide. Their romantic skyline and animated facades encapsulate and celebrate a sense of National Romantic Finnishness at a time when Helsinki’s artists, musicians, poets and architects were creating the cultural upswell that would help lead on to the country’s independence from Russia in 1918. These apartment blocks seem almost alive − ‘building beings’ as the late Imre Makovecz would have said − and bring a festivity to the streets they adorn. How well they sit by the sea and ships and the sound of hooters, herring gulls, cathedral bells and icebreakers crackingly at work on the frozen sea in long winters.

I am not arguing for isolationism, for cities to be somehow frozen in space and time. All great cities have been exposed to and imbued with cultures from overseas, whether John Lennon buying the latest Elvis records newly shipped into Liverpool from the States, or London dining on chop suey and curry as 19th-century ships returned to the Port of London from Canton and Calcutta. To enjoy and to adopt the best of design and culture − special to other cities − is not just to be open-minded, but also to nurture and further animate home-grown culture.

I was, for example, among countless Londoners thrilled by the arrival of the Sultan’s Elephant in 2006. This astonishing automaton − a gigantic and deeply exotic 50-ton robotic elephant − was designed by François Delarozière, creative director of the Royal de Luxe theatre company of Nantes. It had been commissioned by the cities of Nantes and Amiens as part of celebrations to commemorate the centenary of the death of Jules Verne in 1905. For three days, the Sultan’s Elephant transformed familiar London streets into strangely exotic avenues and jungle clearings. Here was no imposed public art or local authority approved public event, but an expression of the imaginative souls of two distinctive French cities making its thrilling way through a city that has been in increasing danger of being sanitised, globalised and de-animated.

Today, the quest should surely be to find new forms of urban expression, to think of how new forms of trade and commerce might add to what has gone before rather than leading down a path towards a state of global inanity. Great cities were not made to sit down and gawp at computer screens; they were created for commerce and trade, each different, each special and each with its own voice, from the sudden screech of a rush of whirling starlings over central squares to the hooters of liners coming to berth in streets paved, if not in gold, then with a highly animated sense of their own special selves.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.