Foster’s tower is simply a vertical version of a Victorian pleasure pier in all its huckstering, carnivalesque glory, writes Catherine Slessor
This week, as the nation was understandably distracted by the latest instalment in the ongoing Brexit psychodrama, City of London planners voted to approve the Tulip, Foster + Partners’ folie de grandeur, due to be constructed next to the Gherkin. It was a good day to bury bad news.
When it opens in 2025, the Tulip will join a cluster of priapic extrusions of capital jostling awkwardly for supremacy on the City skyline, like hideously mismatched guests at a cocktail party they can never leave. Within this architectural huis clos, size is everything. Weighing in at a symbolic 1,000ft or 305m, Norman’s Tulip is only very slightly less engorged than Renzo’s Shard, just across the Thames.
Architects are simply obliging pawns, sprinkling glitter on an increasingly towering dung heap
Giving hulking towers chummy nicknames – Shard, Tulip, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Orbit or Walkie Talkie – has always been like putting lipstick on a baboon, a vain attempt to perkily humanise the machinations of capitalism and gimlet-eyed corporate ambition that conspire to spawn such horrors. And, however they might care to dress it up, architects are simply obliging pawns, sprinkling glitter on an increasingly towering dung heap.
Floral analogies and worse (butt plug, cotton bud, giant sperm) have been doing the rounds since the Tulip was unveiled in November last year. Then, as now, its hyper-slick visualisations, which clearly worked their magic on the planners, transport you to a parallel dimension, a fantasy London of perpetual late spring dusks and radiant buildings. Never has the gradgrinding hellscape of the City looked more beguiling. Who wouldn’t want to whizz to the top of the Tulip, to linger in its bars and restaurants, maybe take a turn to nowhere in a teeny, tiny gondola? Within its plumply puissant tip – more budding amaryllis than tulip, if we’re being botanically picky – implausibly diaphanous walls enclose vertiginous viewing galleries, artfully thronged by crowds of photogenic visitors. Welcome to Foster world.
Arguments abound as to whether the Tulip is a ‘good thing’ for London. On balance, it probably isn’t. Sara Fox – Foster’s original client for the Gherkin – has publicly disdained it. Peter Cook thought it ‘not spooky enough’. And Historic Royal Palaces have fumingly asserted that it would reduce the Tower of London’s status to that of a ‘toy castle’. Twitter opinion can be summed up as a universally despairing eye-roll.
Yet the spectacle of critics and opinion-formers rending their garments on social media has rarely impeded the juggernaut of client vanity and wealth. The genuinely loathsome ArcelorMittal Orbit, brainchild of one of the world’s richest men, still flicks a nonchalant V-sign at its detractors from the former Olympic park in Stratford. In this instance, Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra, current proprietor of the Gherkin, has bankrolled the Tulip, so he can more or less do what he likes. But whichever way you slice it, the promise of a ‘classroom in the sky’ isn’t fooling anyone, nor is the prospect of some greenery tacked on to a downdraught-blasted ground plane.
My theory is that the Tulip is simply a vertical version of a Victorian pleasure pier in all its huckstering, carnivalesque glory. In the same way that a pier thrusts out questingly to conquer the sea, so the Tulip shoots upwards to claim the air. Calculated to distract and disinhibit, the pier/Tulip choreographs its own world-within-a-world. At its end/tip lies an infantilising fairground of attractions, set against unlimited horizons. From here, you can see forever. Perhaps, without really knowing it, Foster has cunningly reframed the quintessential English building type for our current wretched age.
But the fate of the Victorian pier is salutary, as evidenced by the charred and discarded hulks that still blight the British coastline. Once the novelty finally wore off, there was nowhere to go but down.