Waterloo Bridge has no greater significance beyond the many other bridges that span the Thames. Every vault has its own history, and that any particular recapitulation may be considered more vital than another is surely moot – a matter for taste or self-interest. That said, Waterloo Bridge was rebuilt by a largely female workforce during the Second World War, which to some might seem remarkable. For those who lived through that conflict it would appear less so. In stark contrast to our Teutonic enemy, Great Britain embraced the potential of its female workforce and invested in them with all sorts of heavy, menial tasks. What is worthy of remark is the fact that, on officially revealing the reconstructed article, there was no mention of the 25,000 female workers who'd put their back into rebuilding it. None the less, it is known to many Londoners as 'Ladies Bridge', which is an appreciation of sorts.
Hewn from Portland stone – a material respected for its ‘self-cleaning' properties, the process of lithification peculiar to this rock offering a resilience to the elements that appropriates its use in more urban settings – it is a graceful, contemporary bridge, cantilever in design. Its situation – breaching a north to east meander in the river – offers contrasting views. The riparian aspect to the south-west has changed very little in recent times. The London Eye has rested upon the south bank of the Thames for 14-odd years now, its initial five year planning application having long been forgotten, renewed, and the matter presumably taken over by the GLA or the LDA. I'm not sure I like the London Eye being there – I like it, but maybe not there – but have come to accept it. I am grateful for the buildings that lie beside – the Royal Festival Hall in particular – for they are just about capable of bearing the responsibility of ensuring that this ridiculous Ferris wheel doesn’t completely detract from its surroundings.
The bank of the Thames that faces the London Eye represents a completely different proposition. Compromised of Whitehall Court, the Norman Shaw Buildings, and Portcullis House, it is a spiky, perpendicular Gothic apparition very much in keeping with London's mythic pre-blitz past, and one that jars with the neoclassical Ministry of Defence building, and the Shell Centre (more Portland Stone) on the other side of the river (post war developments both). This architectural disparity evokes visions of some of the formerly Soviet cities of central Europe – Budapest springs to mind. One barely notices the towers of Battersea Power Station, or the panelled, glass-clad buildings beyond that are coming to define present-day Vauxhall.
In any case, we have an amalgamation of architectural style that appears to seek concord with a vision of London as a low-rise city. Forget the towers – Elizabeth and Victoria – that protrude from the Palace of Westminster: they are mere aberrations, and not all that tall anyway.
Looking east offers an entirely different perspective. It is to The City that I point this charge: The Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, Leadenhall Building, Heron Tower, CityPoint, and the many other developments that have filled in the gaps in and around Liverpool Street, St. Pauls and Fenchurch Street. The depth of field is deceptive, and it’s not as clustered as it looks, but from Ladies Bridge it appears a symphony of glass and height. Add to this the Blackfriars Bridge development, with its fragmented solar panelled roof, and the illusion is complete: the City of London is beginning to resemble some sort of Oriental metropolis, like Beijing or Singapore.
A similar thing happened to Docklands not so long ago, but without the ancient physical characteristics that have been forcefully assimilated into this new City of London. Docklands was a waste-land by comparison, and seems less exotic; there’s more of an American flavour to it, laid out along perpendicular lines.
There are other areas of London that exhibit their own distinct architectural flavour, although this distinction in character is not always so perceivable from street-level. If The City represents some sort of futurist Eastern vision with English Baroque elements, and the west a comfy tribute to both Europe’s Napoleonic and Soviet past, then Southwark offers up yet another schizophrenic tableaux. The South Bank extols the Brutalism that took hold after the Second World War: Bankside Power Station in the guise of the Tate Modern, and the whole of the Southbank Centre. Yet the area behind is a mix of Victorian terracing and low-rise tower blocks, and glass fronted buildings are intruding at any given opportunity. I like the atmosphere in and around Southwark, although it’s hard to put a finger on.
I wonder how much of this is deliberate. I speculate as to whether those in charge of town planning really know what they are doing. I entertain the thought that the whole of London is one circumstantial accident, and that its visual impact is entirely arbitrary. It probably is, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My concern, however, is that over time these separate architectural enclaves will segue into one another, as land is sold and built upon in whatever style happens to be à la mode. And then one could stand on Ladies Bridge and whichever way one looked would reap only indistinguishable, homogeneous rewards.