Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new book casts a glance over the architectural follies of London’s former mayor.
Say what you will about Boris Johnson, he unquestionably left a mark on London.
As a new book from British architecture writer Douglas Murphy makes clear, during his tenure as London mayor the city became scattered with major building projects that Johnson played an active personal role in bringing to life. There was Emirates Air Line cross-river gondola, the Olympic observation tower known as the Arcelor Mittal Orbit and—chugging along the city’s streets—the toy-like Boris Bus designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Never-realized works under his watch include Garden Bridge (also designed by Heatherwick) and a proposed reconstruction of Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace.
In Nincompoopolis (Repeater Books), Murphy shows how these projects are a fitting monument to Johnson’s reign. They’re flashy, vacuous, poorly-thought through, beset with sleaze and, in the long run, either useless or close to it.
Murphy’s book throws up many interesting perspectives on the story of Johnson’s London follies and their murky genesis—not least because it is threaded with personal recollections of Murphy’s time as a London architect. While talk of Johnson’s heavily promoted Garden Bridge project might read like a catalog of dishonesty and ineptitude, for example, we learn that its awfulness could have easily been outshone by the disaster-waiting-to-happen of the Crystal Palace reconstruction.
With this impossible project—which quickly gave up on the feat of genuinely recreating Paxton’s vast glass and iron exhibition hall—London came close to granting a shady Chinese corporation a planning constraint-free 125 lease on a huge chunk of public park, one to whose maintenance it would be in no way obliged to contribute. London might not count itself lucky after paying through the nose for a gondola nobody rides, a shoddy observation tower with a view of nothing and a claustrophobic bus that boils its occupants. Murphy’s book nonetheless reveals that at least the city dodged one Johnson bullet.
American readers, meanwhile, will be interested to note the spectral influence of New York’s High Line in Johnsonian London’s monument planning. As Murphy’s text makes clear, it was partly the Garden Bridge’s wrong-headed attempt to mimic the Manhattan linear park that made the project so problematic. Whatever you think of the High Line, the project unquestionably found a new use for a piece of defunct infrastructure. London, alas, had no such bit of conveniently located railway to retool, having ruined chances of creating a linear park on an old East London railway by turning it back into a functioning railway. To create its own High Line equivalent, London thus had to build a piece of useless infrastructure anew in order to convert and prettify it, which could be why we almost ended up with a bridge planned for a stretch of river where no one needed to cross.
Does all this matter? If they survive, Johnson’s edifices will no doubt eventually blend into London’s background, amusing relics of some distant, half-forgotten age’s follies. What is more serious, Nincompoopolis suggests, is the cynicism and self-interest with which Johnson’s reign polluted London, in which he treated accountability and transparent fair dealing with contempt, using every opportunity to overrule planners to the benefit of corporate profits and plundering the public purse to bail out private projects. The citizen attitude that leaders like Johnson help to foster—that public life is a joke—chips away at the public sphere, leaving the remaining space narrower and less fit for purpose.
Now, as Britain’s foreign secretary, Johnson is more influential than ever. Indeed, as the book notes, he’s been maneuvering for years to have a crack at being Prime Minister, an ambition which Britain’s current political vacuum might feasibly give him. It’s this that makes Nincompoopolis more unsettling, implying London’s fate under Johnson may be a harbinger of what he could do with national power if given the chance. At one point, Murphy describes Johnson’s yen for “architectural confetti” as part motivated by fear of London’s scarcely disguised shortcomings:
“As if somehow at some point there would be an emperor’s-new-clothes moment, and the world would realise that London is a scrappy mess of a city, all false decorum and barely concealed spivvery, deserving of little of the reputation it holds.”
This phrase could equally hold for Brexit Britain as a whole, having ripped its own veil in two, now exposed to the world in all its dysfunction.