Glass Temples


Watching the first programme in the series Andrew Marr’s Megacities provoked a number of responses about my own reaction to the cities I have visited.

There is that wonder at the man-made skyline, standing in the middle of Waterloo Bridge at night admiring the City of London, or the top of Victoria Peak looking down on Hong Kong, or on the Bund staring across at Pudong in Shanghai.  We lean back and wonder at the ambition to build so high, and look at all the lights twinkling through the windows, or watch the laser light shows arranged specifically to draw our attention to the sheer size and complexity of it all.

Building as tall as we can seems to be part of human nature; from ancient times, as soon as a civilisation had enough to eat, it started to build.

Andrew Marr visited the construction site for the Shard, the next big thing near London Bridge, and talked admiringly of the great glass constructions around and about.  It is the current architectural fetish, isn’t it?  Build it tall and make it glass, as if this somehow will flood us all with light and virtue.

It brought to mind a recent visit I made to a big glass office building beside the Thames.  From the outside it is a huge curvaceous structure; a glass curve facing across the river towards the Gherkin and the Tower of London, surrounded by an esplanade populated by tourists, runners and people sitting watching the world go by.  But looking more closely, peering in through the glass walls as much as is possible from a distance to see what the offices that lay inside were like, all I could see were stacks of files, orange rentacrates and eye level partitions leaning against the glass.

It seemed that in order to inhabit the great glass space, the human occupants have to create little walls around themselves, because the vast open spaces that would allow the through flow of light are impossible to work in.

When I walked into the Reception area of the glass edifice I felt as if all my enthusiasm and optimism were sucked out of me.  Instead of it being bright and welcoming, it had the cavernous echoing feel of a brutally modern airport departure lounge; shining granite floor, people rushing hither and there dragging little suitcases on wheels, a row of television screens with the ticker of stock prices and news nuggets scrolling endlessly across.

Situated at the dead heart of the building, a void three or four storeys high, the only natural light crept in through the front door, and every noise echoed threefold back and forth between the walls.

The meeting room to which I was led was an interior one; a little white box some six feet by four.  It was possible to imagine it being used for sensory deprivation experiments.

By the time I re-emerged into the outside world, I had forgotten that it was a warm sunny afternoon, so hermetically sealed had I felt inside the building.

Overall, it confirmed my thesis that generally these ‘great’ glass temples are better experienced from the outside.

Leave a comment


  1. brendan stallard

     /  June 6, 2011


    I like it when you go all, “Lord of the flies,” on us.

    Lots of imaginative modern paranoia in this post, I could feel my mind wandering off down various dark alleys:)

    Just a slightly different viewpoint. As someone who suffers allergies, and hates bushes and grass, I kinda like the hermetically sealed glass things.

    More than once in my life I have considered the possibility of living permanently in a couple of rooms of a serviced hotel. Might sound daft, but you look at what we spend on houses.


    • Brendan, I’m not philosophically opposed to the glass things; it’s just they often seem a bit of a con once you’re inside and can’t see any natural light.


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