Friday, 25 March 2011

A Canary Wharf Sunday

25 Canada Square, below ground
Source: MJA Smith

Above ground, Canary Wharf's spires of commerce are a thing to behold. The cluster of tall office and residential buildings on London's former docks has a Stateside feel, evoking the design of a more clinically utopian take on Manhattan's Financial District - though the buildings are far, far smaller. Unlike the City, just around the bend in the Thames, the streets and buildings of Canary Wharf are resolutely planned; the City, in contrast, is confusing to me even after ten years of working there, the street pattern having evolved into a seemingly random and inexplicable web of alleys, short dead-end streets and passageways over many centuries. The City's architecture is more austere, mostly stone; the newer glass and steel structures provide jagged aspects of juxtaposed modernity, taller structures nestled up against older buildings, sometimes conspicuously, sometimes comfortably.

Around Canary Wharf, old architecture is hard to find, and fast disappearing. Beneath the shade of the State Street building at Churchill Place, the old Fulton umbrella warehouse is now a pile of part-demolished, twisted metal. In a neighbouring street to where we were staying at New Providence Wharf, we found a row of three of four old workers' cottages, common to nearby Poplar or Greenwich, but against the backdrop of the Ontario Tower and the emerging Swan Streamlight they just looked like vestigial appendages, long since abandoned by architectural evolution and ambition. Billingsgate Market, with its spindly spider's legs cradling the main market hall, looks dated and threatened by the bulk of the nearby HSBC tower, itself one of the few buildings at Canary Wharf with curves rather than sharp, precise edges.

Below ground, Canary Wharf is a confusing web of malls and subterranean access points to the office buildings above. Escalators, elevators and passageways are the principal means of movement here. Doors open automatically into service tunnels and further below still a network of car parks extend far under the waterline. Everything is bathed in fluorescent light and after a while you wonder what natural daylight looks like.

There are two sets of shopping malls at Canary Wharf – Cabot Square and Jubilee Place. Both have the slightly surreal effect of making you feel like you're in a vast airport departure lounge, and the shops are dominated by the upmarket brands that proliferate and thrive at international terminals. I spent some time with Daughter#2 here one Sunday in January; we were in London for the weekend, and on that day Mrs S and Daughter#1 went off to the O2 to watch Strictly Come Dancing. Faced with what turned out to be nearly four hours walking round those glistening corporate catacombs, we took the DLR and headed over to Greenwich instead, providing a welcome relief from tunnel living.

On that particular cold, damp Sunday, the main draw of Greenwich was its vast Royal Park, which I always find more interesting than Hyde Park over in the west, thanks to its rolling hills and the predominance of the imposing Observatory, to which Daughter#2 and I ascended. In this there is a beautiful irony – you escape Canary Wharf's clinical atmosphere only to purposefully take in the breathtaking view of the vast corporate palaces and sleek apartment buildings from the summit of the Observatory hill. Somewhere beneath those towers, I reflected to myself, are those malls and boutiques I'd chosen to escape from that weekend. You'd never believe they could really be there.

There is a great kids' playground in the park, which Daughter#2 thoroughly enjoyed to the point of I-don't-want-to-leave-yet-daddy-waaaaaaahhhhh tantrums that only precocious, unselfconscious two year old girls can produce. Writing this it occurs to me that Canary Wharf is almost entirely denuded of things that would appeal to children, with the possible exception of Wagamama. Heading back to the retail malls when being outdoors got too cold, and before I spent too much money at the Greenwich branch of Music & Video Exchange, we found ourselves sitting in the Jubilee Place branch of Waterstone's where their small stock of books for children distracted Daughter#2 from the abject boredom of pottering around shops we had no intention of buying anything from.

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