What’s the Secret Behind London’s Beauty?
For all of its charms, London is pretty easy to complain about. It’s loud, dirty, expensive, and crowded. It’s a world class city yet sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, especially when you compare it to New York, Paris, or Venice. There are no gorgeous boulevards or rows of fantastic skyscrapers or beautiful canals.
Instead we have a smattering of rainy-grey stone buildings built in a neoclassical aesthetic, alluding to an empire that no longer exists; graffiti-clad train tracks and other crumbling old buildings, such as our much sneered upon 60s council blocks. For a city that’s more than a thousand years old, it can sometimes feel a bit dumpy. But such an opinion only holds any sway when judging London on the scale that other cities are measured on, and it is exactly where so many people go wrong when discussing London and the wonderful feeling of magnificence it summons. London isn’t beautiful like Paris or Venice (though, of course, there are pretty parts), it’s sublime.
One of the first people to outline the distinctions between “the beautiful” and “the sublime” was Edmund Burke in his book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. It was published in 1757 when one could still write books with ridiculously long titles. In it, he described the beautiful as something uniform and symmetrical, something that brings us comfort (imagine the neatly arranged gardens of Versailles). The sublime, on the other hand, is something immense and awe-inspiring, unnerving in such a way as to cause a feeling of pleasurable terror (imagine a lofty mountain). Burke puts it as follows:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
In other words, the sublime is the pleasurable feeling felt in the presence of fearful power and magnitude like standing over an infinite abyss. But it is only ever a pleasurable feeling (or “delightful” feeling as Burke would say) from a distance. There is nothing sublime about actually falling into such an abyss.
London, with its endless unfurling streets, is a mad labyrinth of mindboggling roads and passages very much comparable to a bottomless pit. You can only ever catch a tiny glimpse of the city’s machinery working, you can never see or comprehend how it all fully comes together. London, in other words, is an incomprehensible gem of chaos—but one that is extremely satisfying to witness.
Two particular buildings that exemplify this feeling of London’s sublimity are the Thamesmead Council Estates and the Battersea Power Station.
Thamesmead is a group of housing estates built in South East London back in the 1960s. It was originally envisioned as a socialist utopia, though it now has become an eerie and almost abandoned set of council tower blocks. The tall structures that connect through grey brick hallways and arches set high up in the sky were designed in the modernist and concrete-heavy Brutalist architectural style that predominated during the latter half of the 20th century. The buildings are massive and symbolize the sheer power and labour of humankind. Unsurprisingly, Stanley Kubrick shot A Clockwork Orange around Thamesmead. Sadly though, it seems that the film director’s dystopian vision was much more prophetic than the original architect’s plans. It was designed to house 100, 000 people and its current population is half that, leaving many of the buildings derelict and empty. Thamesmead was a failed social experiment, a utopia that never quite came into being. As someone passing by it’s difficult to reconcile its original purpose with its current enigmatic one. The sublime feeling comes from the dread and tension one faces when witnessing these lofty structures; that is, seeing a hopeful dream wrestle with its haunting reality.
Battersea Power Station (pictured above)
It’s that very lack of purpose and diminished power that links these two buildings. Both structures have redevelopment plans that include partial demolishment. They’re crumbling remnants of something lost to history, reminding us that we too, are beings moving through time, slowly deteriorating until ultimately forgotten. The sublime terror these buildings evoke is the vast infinitude of time itself. It’s this preoccupation with time—which you can see everywhere in London from the Greenwich Meridian Line to the giant clock on Westminster tower—that sets London apart from other cities. Paris and Venice are uniform and frozen in the past—its what makes them safe, comforting, and beautiful. London is sublime because it fearlessly exhibits time’s passage, and stares the future in the face. This city is constantly building new structures, roads and reconfiguring new ideas overtop dead Victorian visions. This city is always moving forward – with no sympathy for stragglers.