The shambolic pageantry of the Diamond Jubilee matched the muddle of the architecture on the Thames, observes William JR Curtis
Throughout history cities have served as centres of ritual and representation in which urban spaces and monuments are used to celebrate political events and express the role of the State through public assembly. The recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations in honour of Her Majesty the Queen’s 60th anniversary on the throne have combined the frivolous and the deeply serious in variety of architectural settings which link the present to the past, while touching upon the collective myths which are supposed to hold a nation together. Maintaining the monarchy involves a constant balancing act between continuity and change. Queen Elizabeth II has had to negotiate the transition from post war victory and post imperial decline to an era of increasing democratisation in which there is the challenge of a growing republicanism. In the recent events everything possible has been done to communicate the notion of a people’s monarch and to leave behind the annus horribilis of 1992 when the popularity of the Royal family reached a low point.
The British royals and their attendants are on safe ground when pulling out the usual array of ‘set piece’ rituals, whether it be the religious services in St Paul’s, the processions of open carriages and horse-guards down the Mall, or of course the appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, carefully orchestrated this time to remind us of the succession over two generations to come (albeit with the sad absence of Prince Philip). Axes and classical façades are made for such things, and in the action of representation the monarch recalls and re-enacts past appearances and events. The pomp of military bands and the processions from site to site provide urban theatre at its best and serve to underline the balance between Church and State. A knockout moment for even the most lukewarm patriot was surely the over-flight of the spitfires and the Lancaster bomber, a reminder of the solidarity of this branch of the royals with the heroic pilots of the Battle of Britain and the Londoners who suffered the Blitz. The naming of the barge ‘The Spirit of Chartwell’ was surely intended to underline the Churchillian connection to the nation’s ‘Finest Hour’ as a subtle gesture of legitimisation.
The intention of using the River Thames for a collective pageant for an ‘island nation’ was appropriate enough although the result was somewhat shambolic ( according to a royalist mariner it evoked the spirit of the evacuation of Dunkirk in small boats!!). London has always had an ambivalent relationship to its river, and the progress down stream past Parliament and St Paul’s to Tower Bridge is today marred by shabby office construction and by so called icons such as the Gherkin and the Shard which compete with Wren’s majestic dome even at a distance. The idea of a giant flotilla was a splendid one but the Spirit of Chartwell looked like a tourist boat with a Chinese restaurant decked out in red and gold stuck on top of it. Instead of dragons of course there were lions and other emblems of heraldry but the whole thing came across as a slightly tacky or kitsch mise en scène and one was not surprised to learn that this gaudy palanquin was put together by a designer of film sets. The Gloriana was supposed to hark back to the Lord Mayor’s barge portrayed in Canaletto’s famous view of the Thames and St Paul’s of 1745. Alas this retrofitted version of history is quite clumsy in its overall lines, a pastiche and a pale imitation. The sceptic will say: all this talk of ‘tradition’ is really a sham, that the ‘Firm’ is in fact a post-modern media show for maintaining a questionable establishment in the era of ‘branding’, a caricature of its former imperial presence.
If the Royals would put as much effort into the design of buildings and boats as they put into the choice of hats, dresses and uniforms it would be a boost for visual culture in Britain but design is not high on the list of priorities. When it comes to royal boats it is hard to beat the fleet of fifty one golden barges used by the monarchy of Thailand for several court and religious rituals linking the sacred and the secular, the present and the past. Each over a hundred feet long, their prows and sterns curving up and fanning out as symbolic representations such as Naga serpents and Garuda birds, they fuse together elegance of form with structure, function and religious meaning while recalling the aquatic roots of an ancient southeast Asian culture. Whether you call it propaganda or the theatrical face of power, an event like the Jubilee is a highly orchestrated show in which everything from architecture to clothing and jewelry is involved in the visual communication of themes, some of them overt and deliberate, others implicit and unconscious. It is like a play in several acts, from the solemnity of St Paul’s to the soppiness of outmoded pop singers, from the millennial references of regal splendour to the cheap tricks and publicity stunts of the modern advertising culture of ‘the society of spectacle’.
It was nice to hear Paul McCartney again but the attempt at eliding the façade of Buckingham Place with working class terrace houses in Liverpool may not have gone over too well with the increasing numbers of people below the poverty line in Britain. This homage to the Queen occurs at a time of sharp social divisions and at the very moment that Scotland may pursue independence in defiance of the idea of a United Kingdom. Military valour has been misspent on dubious wars that have left the ‘island fortress’ less secure. The Church of England is split on key issues. Shrill and insecure assertions of ‘Britishness’ are made in the face of multiculturalism and post-colonial identities. In all this effort at creating an idealized portrait of the Royal Personage as a symbol of national unity, the telephoto lens, whether in the hands of paparazzi or television crews, is both friend and enemy. The Royals court celebrity and publicity up to a point but in doing so they take risks. Whereas for past kings and queens the public stage was defined by singular events in particular places, today there is the parallel virtual space of film and the web. The confusion between public and private spheres has never been greater. The Queen’s advisors have surely told her that every flicker of the eyelid, every hint of emotion, is captured by the camera then transmitted to millions around the world and held on record. Pundits are at hand to tell us what she ‘feels’ but in fact almost no-one knows her true state of mind.
Then there is the backdrop of architecture. Many years ago Prince Charles made the glib observation that the National Theatre reminded him of a nuclear power station set down in the centre of London. I wonder if he took time to look at the same building last Sunday as the royal barge passed down stream under Waterloo Bridge and the Theatre came into view precisely at the same moment that the vista opened towards the dome of St Paul’s?. The terraces of Lasdun’s building were teeming with hundreds of people who were thus able to experience the flotilla and the surrounding cityscape as if they were part of a living drama. Then there was the astonishing appearance on the roof of ‘Joey’ from ‘War Horse’, which the Queen clearly loved. The architect always thought of the interlocking platforms (or ‘strata’ as he called them) as pieces of city, both stages and auditoria, on which the very act of visiting the building would take on the character of a theatrical event. This is an ancient theme in the history of architecture from the stepped levels of Egyptian temples, to Greek theatres, to Meso-American platforms, to the Baroque piazzas of Rome, but here recast in terms of concrete and modern architecture. Last Sunday the theme of city as theatre came alive again in the celebration of an extraordinary collective event involving the present and past of the Thames, and the reciprocal relationship between the people and the symbolic head of State.