Sunday, 30 June 2013

29. Wonder: Tower Bridge

(For the Tower Bridge preview, please click here.)

Pictured above: my first ever hoodie. Inexplicably, I appear to have lost all my jumpers, so when visiting Tower Bridge on my first day in London, things started to get a little chilly. Fortunately, the Tower Bridge gift shop was there to help, and for a very reasonable £20. I might have spent most of my life in the northern reaches of Scotland, but I've visited London more times than I can count (probably around fifteen times: I can only count to ten) so it's fair to say I'm familiar with the unreliability of London's weather, even in the supposed summer. Likewise, it's also fair to say that I'm familiar with Tower Bridge. It's easy when very familiar with a sight to just take it for granted, without really thinking any deeper. I've crossed over and passed by Tower Bridge numerous times, thinking nothing more of it than it looks rather grand. Many Londoners will cross it daily and barely register that they're crossing one of the most unusual looking bridges in the world. But then, anything seen or done regularly will become normal. Locals of even the greatest buildings on earth can grow complacent towards the miracle on their doorstep; it sometimes takes the open eyes of a visitor to see things fresh. And so I arrived in London as an open-eyed tourist, trying to appreciate Tower Bridge with fresh eyes. The tourist hoodie was just part of the guise.

There are some buildings and constructions that could only ever have been built in one era. Tower Bridge is one of them. Despite the faux-medieval grandeur of its twin towers, it is absolutely pinned to the Victorian age. Looking back upon it with the benefit of historic hindsight, the Victorian age was a marvellous time of progress especially focussed on industrial, scientific, and technical breakthroughs, all underpinned by a thick streak of pomposity, optimism and magnificent men boasting thick beards and moustaches. Filling drawing rooms with pipe smoke, imbibing port and brandy, these men believed everything was possible. The Industrial Revolution and advances in iron and steel opened up a whole new world of mighty buildings and bridges, the likes of which had never been seen before. But it wasn't just brute function: it was an era in love with the notion of fancy. Gothic revivalism was in full swing; across Europe, ancient buildings were being restored and styles being copied. Absolute authenticity sometimes came second to whimsy. And so in 1885, when the decision was finally made to build another bridge across the Thames, to ease traffic congestion in London, it wasn't just any bridge that Parliament approved - it was a bridge with style.

Generally, the appearance of a building roughly represents its function, but looking at Tower Bridge with a critical eye, the first impression is that it's simply preposterous. It seems like sheer fancy: two huge and surely unnecessary Victorian Gothic towers sitting on a bridge. Knowing that the middle of the bridge opens up like a drawbridge (called "bascules") to allow boats through, there is a conclusion easy to arrive at: the Victorians, in the midst of their brandy drinking pomposity, thought it would be a wonderful idea to make a bridge look a bit like a castle, resembling the adjacent Tower of London. An act of pure whimsy, more or less. But, in fact, this is wrong: the whimsy is only superficial. Tower Bridge's fancy looks are a bit like Arnold Schwarznegger's features being stretched over the metal skeleton in the Terminator films. The masonry towers and the overall look of the bridge are just the cosmetic skin over a fully functioning body.

So, forget about the fancy skin, Tower Bridge actually looks as it does through structural necessity. When it was being designed, it had to fulfill more than just the usual role of allowing traffic to cross - it had to allow boats to pass through as well. This is easy to do for a bridge that is high over the water, but Tower Bridge is not. In the late 19th Century, a lot of boats needed access beyond Tower Bridge and many of these boats were big and high. A straightforward bridge would make access impossible. One solution was to build a much taller bridge - but this would simply slow down the road traffic considerably and road traffic, after all, was the reason for the bridge exisiting in the first place. The answer, therefore, arrived at by City Architect Horace Jones was to build a normal low-level bridge, but one that would open in the middle, on demand, to allow river traffic to pass through.This involved a rather crazy cast iron arch, flanked by twin Gothic towers which were the elaborate means by which steel cables would pull the bridge open for passing boats.

Close, but no cigar - or smoke of a pipe with a pinch of snuff chaser, Victorian gentleman-style. In 1884, Horace Jones teamed up with the engineer John Wolfe Barry, the son of the architect behind the Houses of Parliament and a prestigious engineer in his own right. Barry suggested a few tweaks, including getting rid of the ridiculous big arch, and including overhead walkways. The walkways would run between the towers, and would be for pedestrians who didn't want to be delayed if the bridge was closed to road traffic while river traffic passed through. The towers would contain stairways, and although looking ornamental, would actually be entirely necessary and used.

All of this is summarised by a video display in the north tower, upon arriving from an elevator at the base of the tower. It costs £8 to visit the bridge's overhead walkways (it is entirely free to simply cross the bridge), and so myself and Danielle squeezed in with another ten people and found ourselves 35 metres above the road, or around 44 metres above the water. The video display features an actor playing an excitable John Wolfe Barry describing the history of the bridge, with Horace Jones and Queen Victoria butting in with their own comments and occasional arguments. It includes the awkward moment when Horace Jones announces, mournfully, his own sudden death, at age 68 in May 1887, just as construction was beginning: "And then... I died..." I quite enjoyed the short display, but I have no idea if the rest of the room, mostly foreigners, had any idea whatsoever what was going on - Barry spoke very fast and in the pronounced manner of a Victorian English gentleman. Some subtitles might have worked wonders.

It was all a prelude to the real reason anyone pays £8 to go into Tower Bridge - to walk across the walkways. There are two, running parallel to each other, linking both towers. Originally, impatient pedestrians would have climbed the steps, walked through the walkway, then descended the other tower. The problem was, the opening mechanism of the bridge was too efficient. It only takes a couple of minutes for it to open, let a boat through, then close, so unless there was a long queue of boats to pass through, it was preferrable for people just to stand and wait. From Tower Bridge's opening in 1894, river traffic got less and less, and the effort involved in climbing 331 steps up and down to save a mere minute or two wasn't worth it. By 1910, the walkways were barely used by anyone save prostitutes and pickpockets, and they were closed down. It wasn't until 1982 when they were reopened for tourists.

These days, despite doing my very best, I couldn't find a single prostitute or pickpocket (though the latter are, by trade, hard to spot). Instead, the walkways have been done up, and are lined with information panels featuring sights of London, famous bridges around the world, and the history of Tower Bridge. The windows allow for decent views over London, although the steelwork somewhat obscures them. This space is often used for parties and wedding receptions, which photos would suggest involve a long table running the 61 metre length with chairs squeezed in the sides. I don't think there's much room left for dancing.

It's pleasant walking along both walkways, and even down the stairs on the other tower. Inside, Tower Bridge is far more industrial than the medieval exterior lets on. I guess some tourists must be a little surprised to find that these castle towers on the water are actually machines inside rather than stone castle turrets. All naked steelwork and engineering, albeit maintained well with a shiny gloss, Tower Bridge is revealed for the Victorian structure it is. Never moreso than the engine rooms, accessed via the south end of the bridge, below the road level. This features steam-driven engines and other hydraulic parts, once kept under constant pressure so that simply turning a handle would open the twin bascules. Now they are brightly painted and much cleaner than they would have been when they were in active use, which continued right up until 1974 when they were replaced with a more modern, partly electronic, system.

Also in the engine rooms, there is a small art competition going on. You can take a pink token and vote for your favourite of five pictures. As you can see, voting for the picture nearest is currently ahead by a country mile.

As I was sitting, watching the video on something or other related to Tower Bridge, a small girl wandered by with her token and, without even glancing up, popped it into the "popular" box. I don't want to detract from the quality of art of the current leader, but I realised - the voting is skewed. The most accessible box is getting all the votes, probably from unthinking children, simply because it's the first they see. The ones behind the chairs have no chance. Quite genuinely, I believe if I submitted the following picture in the "token hotspot" then I'd end up as art champion of London 2013.

So Danielle and I voted for some lesser favourites, but I can't help but think justice in the art world is not being done in Tower Bridge.

Visiting Tower Bridge is a pleasant diversion, but probably inessential. The main appeal is just looking at it from a distance. There are some landmarks that require exploring and interrogation to fully appreciate. Cathedrals are as much about the space inside as they are the grand facade, and it would be inconceivable to offer a full view on somewhere like the Palace of Versailles without having wandered its grand halls and chambers. But some places are perfect for just grabbing a seat and looking at them from a distance. Tower Bridge is very much of this ilk. Due to it being a bridge, it isn't crowded by other structures and boasts a terrific visibility often only afforded in cities to really tall buildings. Any prominent view across the city and the river includes Tower Bridge - it is very distinctive. This distinctiveness is what elevates Tower Bridge beyond its mere components of river crossing and twin towers. As a bridge, it does the job, and the opening bascules in the middle are a nice touch, but it isn't a titan of the bridge world in terms of structure. It's only 244 metres long - the likes of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Millau Viaduct span much more massive gaps and push technical boundaries: Tower Bridge just crosses a river. And the towers, removed from the context of being plonked on top of a bridge, would be pretty but unremarkable ornaments. But all wrapped up together, with the towers on a bridge, linked by walkways, create something truly distinctive. London has lots of other bridges, but none have the batty individuality of Tower Bridge.

The world recognises this, I believe. Travelling aross Asia, it was almost always Tower Bridge that I saw used to represent London. Perhaps Big Ben and red buses might make an occasional, or supplementary appearance, but it was Tower Bridge that had the Eiffel Tower stamp of identity that said: London. For a long time, it was the first bridge met on the Thames if entering London by boat from the east, and was a literal gateway into central London. There is now the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge about 15 miles east (and effectively outside of London) but Tower Bridge with open bascules remains a ceremonial gateway. As well as a visual icon and gateway to the city, it also represents a kind of fantasy vision of England. For critics, this might be a little hokey - like a giant souvenir or bauble, or Disney-like piece of faux-architecture. Like the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, it isn't one for purists. Perhaps it's a landmark less for the locals and more for the visitors. But for visitors, it's simply great. It's identifiable, it's unique, it's fun, and it's London as seen through a tourist tint.

What do I think? I fall firmly into the camp of finding it fun. And not just fun, Tower Bridge is impressive in its own right. It's easy to get snotty about fanciful creations, when architecture gets carried away with itself as though a glue-sniffing youth on a crime spree, but there is a joy at looking upon the unique, the non-generic, the quirky. Tower Bridge doesn't look like other bridges and that alone makes it interesting. I also take great joy in the unashamed boldness of its appearance. In terms of its steel structure and hydraulic engineering that powers it, Tower Bridge could never have existed before the Industrial Revolution, but in terms of its aesthetic, it's something that would never be attempted in today's world either. It's kind of ridiculous, I get that, but it's ridiculous in a wonderful way. Only Victorian England could ever have attempted it, and it sums up the era beautifully.

Let's get some criteria.

Size: 65 metres high and 244 metres long. A minnow compared to some of the huge bridges of the world, but bigger than London's other bridges. Big enough, but not spectacularly so.
Engineering: A pretty decent effort for the day, with the opening bascules requiring some innovative solutions. But it didn't push the very boundaries of technology or require a superhuman effort.
Artistry: It possibly doesn't represent mankind's greatest work of subtlety, but I still think it's pretty. It has an appealing element of fantasy about it and I rather like a bit of Victorian faux-medieval now and again. Tower Bridge is decorative and therefore not to everyone's taste - just as some people prefer their Cornflakes with just milk, some prefer them with lots of sugar, chunks of banana, and a Flake. I like a sprinkling of sugar and have a weakness for chocolate, so Tower Bridge's aesthetic appeals to me.
Age: Just over a century old, with the style sometimes fooling people into thinking it's older.
Fame/Iconicity: This is Tower Bridge's main strength - it is hugely recognised. Nowhere else in the world has a Tower Bridge (except for the occasional Chinese rip-off) and in a city full of icons, it is possible the most globally recognised. This is no mean feat. Seeing anything famous brings with it the inherent thrill of fame, and with the lack of true awe-inspiring grandeur, this makes Tower Bridge an over-achiever.
Context: Naturally, a bridge will be crossing something, in this case the muddy Thames, but by doing so Tower Bridge stands out from the rest of London. In a crowded city, it remains unobscured.
Back Story: London needed a new bridge: a new bridge was built. Despite the death of its designer, it was a fairly straightforward story of choosing a design, tweaking a design, and building it successfully.
Originality: The sum of its ingredients - iron bridge plus medieval-style towers - create something unique.
Wow Factor: It's not big or grand enough to truly take the breath away, but it has enough to hold the gaze a while.

Tower Bridge isn't the biggest and its not the best. It could never be described as captivatingly beautiful, nor an incredible feat of mankind. What it is, however, is charming. Sure, those who like their buildings classical and austere and strictly authentic might sniff at the whimsy of Tower Bridge and its medieval-style masonary covering the industrial skeleton - but everyone else smiles. It's a hugely likeable landmark of London. And lest it seems like I'm dismissing as just a quirkly little plaything, it is also a terrific example of Victorian engineering - Tower Bridge is more than just a tower or a bridge, it also a machine. However, in the end, it is a push to describe it as a World Wonder. Interesting and appealing rather than grand and awe-inspiring, I'd place it somewhere in my Notable Landmark category, just a little below mid-table in my current list, squeezed in between Edinburgh Castle and the Sacre-Coeur.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Eiffel Tower
4. Millau Viaduct
5. Angkor Wat
6. Bagan
7. Sydney Opera House

Other Wonders
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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