DOSSIER – The British capital is changing. Long horizontal, London is becoming a vertical city. From now on, a whole life develops on its roofs and its terraces.
It was cold that day. Before getting on the roof of 3 Savile Row, John Lennon borrowed his coat from Yoko Ono. Ringo Starr slipped on his wife’s scarlet gabardine. George Harrison also wore a furry black fur garment, but Paul McCartney, still anxious to keep an irreproachable appearance, stood, shivering a little, in a strict dark suit. Perhaps he had bought it from one of those prestigious tailors who shop in this chic London street, not far from Piccadilly Circus? The story does not say. It retains however that, this January 30, 1969, the Beatles would give their last concert on the terrace of the buildings of Apple Records, their house of production.
The concert lasted forty minutes, under the reproach of bobbies also mounted up there to try to stop this annoying din. The four performed songs like Get Back, I Want You, Do not Let Me Down, Dig a Pony … Some would soon be on the album Let It Be, which, released in May 1970, would be the ultimate hit. brilliance of the greatest of all pop bands: the Beatles, then, did not exist anymore.
Today, at 3 Savile Row, no plate, no commercial recovery of this concert forgotten. The old Apple studios are now occupied by a ready-to-wear brand, and in the street, in fact bass Rickenbacker chords and Fender guitar, we rather hear the engines of big cars in search of a place of car park. But the Beatles, on their way up to the roofs to hurl one last time to the clouds their unalterable melodies had initiated, without knowing it, a movement which the traveler can see today, in London, the impressive demonstrations.
Because roofs and terraces are now the subject of a sort of obsession on the part of Londoners. So much so that one finds there almost everything, at almost all the heights: there is always something good to do in London, provided one is perched. It can start at only a few meters high, for example, in the trendy Shoreditch area, Box Park: stacked containers with shops and upstairs, bars and restaurants on the ground floor. There, in line with the Bethnal Green Road, a whole life takes place: we organize concerts and evenings, there are artistic exhibitions, parades, etc.
A superhero could jump to the roofs of the Boundary in a single leap: this hotel is just behind the block. At the top, Terence Conran, who is behind this project, had a large terrace with a restaurant and scattered tables installed. When it rains, we distribute umbrellas and, as if nothing had happened, the evening continues for guests comfortably installed, holding with one hand a drink and the other their glitch. A fascinating phlegm that our superhero, if he agrees to bounce over the passageway, will find another illustration not far from here, but always higher, at the Queen of Hoxton, a bar regularly occupied by the Rooftop Film Club. This company, also present in New York and Los Angeles, organizes screenings of famous films on the rooftops of London. Thus, we could have seen this evening pouring rain, covered with a sort of transparent plastic poncho, a pint of beer in hand, a hundred or so Londoners peacefully watching a rebroadcast of the questionable Cocktail, with the young Tom Cruise, sometimes wiping away a drop of water that crept into their necks …
Rising higher and higher, the superhero would now head to the nearby City, whose landscape is changing dramatically. He would settle at the top of the Heron Tower (230 meters high) to drink a cocktail on the terrace of the restaurant Sushisamba, land on the roof of Gherkin, famous structure that rises 180 meters above the Thames and owes its nickname to its cornichonesque form. It was designed by Norman Foster who, with her, launched the spectacular renewal of London’s urban landscape, begun ten or so years ago. Then, in a final thrust, he would reach the summit of the Shard, the highest of all, which is like a 310-meter-high glass burst stuck in the skies of London.
There is one thing the Beatles could never have imagined. London, a horizontal city it had always been, was going to become, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a vertical city, the first in Europe.
According to New London Architecture, a group of architects and urban planners who favor this process of change, there is currently in the green belt the belt in which London has been held since 1947, 263 projects of tall buildings, that is to say buildings whose height exceeds 30 meters. This usually goes up much higher. Nearly half have already obtained their building permit. Since 2008, 220 towers have already been built in the British capital. It is very simple: who has the chance to climb on one of these terraces sees on the horizon a field of cranes strewn with skyscrapers.
With pragmatism, the English respond to the double challenge facing their city. London, the world’s financial capital, must meet the demand of the big banks that need vast plateaus to align their battalions of traders. So, towers. Or at least very large buildings: “Some occupy up to three blocks,” says Edward Lister. Boris Johnson, mayor of the city’s urban planning policy, takes a few minutes to admire the herd of buildings massed on the other side of the river in the City.
“London’s population is growing by 70,000 a year,” he says. In 2015, we regained our level of 1939: 8.6 million Londoners. But in 2020 we will be 9 million. By 2023, 500,000 new jobs will have been created and in 2032, London will be a city of 10 million inhabitants. “Impressive forecasts that highlight the powerful economic dynamism of the capital of Britain: here, certainly, the crisis of 2008 is only a distant memory. And that’s not all: besides the towers, Boris Johnson announced the construction of 400,000 homes by 2020, a million by 2030.
Seen from France, where the development of large cities is much less explosive, these figures could almost leave doubtful. Unlike most of our cities, London, which was the largest port in the world, is full of brownfields and old docks.
Densifying the habitat is not a challenge and, as Edward Lister notes, “London is not Paris …” Here, no beautiful architectural unity, no Baron Haussmann to draw boulevards to the line. Since the great fire that ravaged it in 1666, London has developed organically, according to the needs. Just look at a plan to convince yourself. The London City Council considers that it remains faithful to this old empiricism by letting new tricks grow. Nor does it fail to recall that “visual corridors” protect historic sites: St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey …
An argument that does not convince those who see their city changing critically: too quickly, without control. Starting with Prince Charles who, as early as 2001, could not find words hard enough to vilify these buildings. “The City is certainly a financial success, but it’s a social disaster,” he said then before attacking those towers that “hide the light, darken the streets and suck their lives.”
Meanwhile, Oliver Wainwright, architectural critic at the Guardian, points to the aesthetics, according to him dubious, of these new projects “which recall instead the suburbs of Dubai or Shenzhen,” he said. But who are in the heart of the city? The nicknames given by Londoners also suggest that they are not necessarily convinced by their new skyline: besides the “pickle”, there is the “cheese grater”, the “walkie-talkie”, the “spiked”…
Walking through the streets of the City, it’s hard to imagine being in the oldest part of one of the oldest cities in Europe. A place that was built by the Romans. It’s more like Manhattan when suddenly, at the intersection of Mark Lane and London Street, appears an old tower, discreet, very small: it is the Tower of all Hallows Staining. It is a few meters high: in the shadow of the skyscrapers that surround it, it looks really ridiculous. It was erected in 1320, it is one of the rare monuments that escaped the flames of the great fire. In its own silent and modest way, it bears witness to this past, which seems totally forgotten here because, with all its energy, London is looking to the future. This is probably also why it is one of the brightest and most attractive capitals of Old Europe.