The new Blackfriars train station in London is a marvel. The airy cavern of glass and steel straddles the Thames River, giving passengers magnificent views of the city. If they look downriver, they will see St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of London’s best-known landmarks for more than 300 years. Clarification: They will barely see St. Paul’s, for today Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece is lost in a vertical jungle of skyscrapers, as if London were competing with Dubai.
Londoners have invented colourful names for their new towers, including the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie. The 310-metre Shard, the tallest building in the European Union, dominates the south side of the river. It is shaped like a skinny pyramid and is strikingly elegant.
Two of the most startling new towers have Canadian pedigrees. Not far from the Shard is the Strata, developed by an arm of Toronto’s Brookfield Asset Management. It looks like an electric razor and is laughably hideous. In 2010, Building Design magazine awarded it the Carbuncle Cup, for Britain’s ugliest new building. The Cheesegrater, officially named the Leadenhall Building, was co-developed by Oxford Properties, the property giant owned by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. The building at least appears to be stable. The Walkie Talkie is fatter at the top than at the bottom and looks like it could topple over.
The problem isn’t modern architecture per se. When the modern complements the old, it can enhance a city—the Blackfriars station, the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery and even the glass pyramid at the Louvre are all examples. But when the scale is enormous, and when it has no connection to the features that have given the city its personality for hundreds of years, it overshadows that city’s character. The new look is bland and homogenized. […]