Spires and Gherkins: Ideology in Architecture

It is tempting for the modern observer, the inhabitant of Larkin’s “unarmorial age”, to conclude smugly that our buildings are free from such overt displays of ideology. Our sophisticated modern subject might conclude that we have moved beyond such barbarism, and that today’s buildings are totally fair; sanitised neutrality domes without agenda or intent. Of course, this would be a catastrophic assumption; one only needs to glance at London’s skyline to observe the dominance of a different regime: that of conspicuous wealth.

Chief architect and High Priest of this regime is the ubiquitous glass-fancier Norman Foster. Observe his skyscraper known colloquially as ‘The Gherkin’: great swirling lines rising dramatically through the air, unifying at a central point somewhere high above street level, an effect only achieved thanks to the most sophisticated engineering of the era. We’ve seen this somewhere before, I think. What is this building if not the cathedral of its age, a display of wealth and knowledge far beyond that of the layman in an attempt to legitimise the existence of its moneyed creators? One can imagine tourists milling around it 700 years in the future, remarking with disdain on its pointless, aesthetically lifeless extravagance.

30 St Mary Axe, a.k.a. The Gherkin

30 St Mary Axe, a.k.a. The Gherkin

And therein lies the difference between a cathedral and London’s ragtag collection of ‘postmodern’ atrocities. Cathedrals, while implicitly oppressive in their original intent, are also a triumph of aesthetics. Striving to embody the absolute perfection of the divine, medieval masons created environments in which the passion, terror, ecstasy and suffering of the medieval religious experience is brought crashing down on its observer. Towering spires reach with a tragic desperation towards the heavens while colossal stained glass windows adorned with complex tracery gather sunlight and thrust it forwards, casting long shadows behind rows of innumerable pillars, as though the inhabitant were not in a building at all but some kind of sacred grove (indeed, it is alleged that cathedrals were built in part to recreate the effect of a clearing in a forest, places which often appear in medieval literature and culture as sites of spiritual hardship and regeneration). Meanwhile, hidden away in corners are grotesque faces and leering demons, visceral reminders of the eternity of suffering faced by the sinner. All these architectural details and countless more combine to create an effect of absolute otherworldliness and exhilarating drama. It is no accident that cathedrals, no matter how full of people, are always eerily quiet.


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