Tall Buildings And What They Stand For In London And New Orleans


London super-skyscraper The Shard (pictured above, from a recent bike ride) joined the city’s skyline in 2012. It stands at over 1,000 feet, and is currently the tallest building in the European Union – and, in our mainly low-rise city, pops up everywhere you look.

I can see it from the window of the building I live in in north-east London, and at various points of my train journey to work in south London. I’ve recently been surprised to see it emerging by the Albert Memorial and while I was biking to the cinema in Chinatown.

In London, as elsewhere, tall buildings certainly make their presence felt and, perhaps for this reason, we imbue them with all kinds of symbolic significance.

They are symbols of civic pride – in London, going up the Shard, the London Eye, or the Gherkin and taking a good look at out city below is often a way of marking a special occasion and just celebrating where we live. That’s partly of course because tickets for any of these are expensive, and often hard to get hold of at busy times (or at all in the case of the Gherkin), which reflects the elitist aspects of the presence of these constructions.

The wealthy and well-connected can not only afford tickets more easily, but also have enhanced access to these buildings through corporate events and also the expensive restaurants, hotels and apartments that buildings like the Shard tend to host.

Tall buildings in New Orleans, a city long famous for its beautiful architecture, are also both treasured landmarks and symbols of social tensions.

More high-rise living is part of the in some ways controversial process of reshaping and gentrification of the city that has accelerated since Hurricane Katrina. Upcoming changes to zoning laws could lead to more skyscraper hotels for New Orleans’ significant business and holiday travel trade, and more high-rise blocks in a city where, as in London, house prices are rising alarmingly.

I’d also like to mention one of the tallest buildings in New Orleans’ history, whose memory was recently rescued from obscurity by one of the city’s pre-eminent geographers and historians, Richard Campanella. New Orleans’ Shot Tower, completed in 1883, was 214 feet tall and was built to be used as a funnel down which molten lead would be dropped, solidifying during the fall into globules that would cool and set in a pool of water at the bottom to later be used as ammunition.

Campanella writes that, like the Shard today, the building was a significant local landmark: “Its prominence and the novelty of its purpose made the Shot Tower locally famous. Citizens used it as a spatial reference (e.g., “near the Shot Tower,” “between the Shot Tower and Lee Circle”), as we use landmarks like the Superdome or the High Rise to orient ourselves today.” The New Orleans public were also able to go up the tower, giving them a new perspective on their city unavailable anywhere else at that time.

Like today’s high rises, the Shot Tower was also connected to the social tensions of its time, having given a notorious local criminal group, the Shot Tower Gang, its name. Eventually the tower became regarded as a social and environmental hazard and was demolished in 1905.

Its story reminds me of that of the 385 feet tall Centre Point tower, located near Tottenham Court Road tube station at what I think of as the almost perfect centre of the city and which is also the site of a former gallows. It was once a flagship commercial building, then a symbol for the plight of homeless people in the city and the greed of the property industry, as it remained empty for nearly a decade after its construction and has never been fully utilised.

Its demise and that of the Shot Tower are reminders that while tall buildings tend to attract attention and act as powerful lightning rods for the issues of their communities, it is also in the nature of these enormous and fragile constructions to be particular susceptible to redundancy, decay, demolition and, ultimately, being usurped by something brighter, better and, inevitably, taller. Perhaps it is in this sense that they’re the most towering examples of the way in which the environments we live in function.


What Alexander McQueen Exhibition “Savage Beauty” Says About London – and New Orleans


This weekend I went to Savage Beauty, a significant and striking retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, originally presented at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and, until last Sunday, on show in an expanded form at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The show was the most popular in the museum’s history, a gesture of appreciation for the designer’s work from the city that he deeply identified with. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration”, McQueen said, in a quote reproduced on the wall of the exhibition’s opening room.

For me that identification was obvious even without the quote. This collection of work from a man who was the son of a black cab driver and who trained on Savile Row was crammed full of details that I associate with London, sometimes for reasons that are hard to explain. To list just a few: impeccable tailoring; tough feathered creatures; handmade theatrical magic; punk tartan; piles and piles of bones; and the inescapable presence of water.

Together these details also summed up something about London as a whole: it is a city that has a culture that is all its own but, paradoxically, has been shaped in large part by cultures from elsewhere – hardly anyone or anything in London has ever really been just from London.

That elsewhere could be ancient Rome, eastern Europe, Africa, Ireland, or any one of a thousand other places, regions and worlds. McQueen himself, as the show made clear, saw himself as a Londoner through and through but also deeply identified with his Scottish roots and engaged with Indian culture, African culture and many other cultures from across the world in his work.

And on top of these geographical elsewheres, London – that seemingly civilised capital of government, law, commerce, culture and church – has also always had to contend with the heavy presence of its long history and a deep salting of the uncanny and uncomfortable.

There is the city’s rich tradition of harbouring the unconventional and the macabre; the way it has been carved forcibly through the ages from a place that once was wild; and its problematic relationships with colonialism, slavery, inequality and desperate poverty. All these seem to be to be present in McQueen’s work – in too-sharp Victorian-style tailoring, ripped kilts, sealed leather masks, and fabulous creations seemingly designed to transform their wearer into half an animal.

The show also made me think about some of the fashion traditions of New Orleans, particularly its habit of costuming for carnival, and about the city in comparison to London.

Many Londoners would see themselves as ultimately from somewhere else, while many New Orleans’ inhabitants always feel inseparably associated with the city, especially those who have found themselves exiled from it in recent years. A London designer creates suits and party frocks solely for very rich people that seem on the verge of flight away into a multiplicity of lives of their own, while the ordinary people of New Orleans make fantastical costumes for high days and holidays that stitch unusually real communities together.