History is a City

Explore cities, explore the architecture of time.

Whilst sat on a train en route from London to the North where my mother and hundreds of years of ancestry are, I lapsed into my usual reverie, staring out the window for the entire duration of the journey, books, laptops and other distractions soon forgotten, watching the city rush by cinematically like a film on fast-forward. Past suburbs, crumbling grand facades, council estates, brand new apartment buildings and the towering office blocks of Canary Wharf.  It struck me that traveling through a city is like exploring our collective consciousness and that these rapid, rushing snapshots are like the swift passing of centuries shaped by thought and creativity. Architecture, no matter the era, is never entirely divorced from the context in which it was originally conceived. Like all ideas it is not plucked cleanly from the void.

This is especially noticeable in the ancient cities of London, Kyoto, Rome and Athens where the old and the new exist side by side, atop and under one another. Cities are often the birthplace of ideas and innovation, every idea has its day and each building is a remnant of some idea or concept in its ascendancy. In London there is the obvious example of Buckingham Palace, representative of hierarchy and patronage, a time when bloodline mattered most. And, then, not too far away the ubiquitous tower blocks: symbols of socialism, egalitarianism and welfare.

And there are those structures that are illustrative of dissolution and decline. Dotting the countryside as the train speeds into the North once proud factories, emblems of the mighty industrial age strike a plangent chord;  abandoned and obsolete. As these buildings fell into disrepair and disuse the made over docklands, now Canary Wharf, began to teem with life and activity: the rise of the service economy. Perhaps one day those gleaming towers of wealth and high finance will also seem eerily anachronistic.

I was once in Kyoto for the annual Sakura festival, where the beautiful blossoming of the cherry tree is celebrated. This event symbolizes the transient nature of existence, its inherent temporality; the old adage that change is the only constant. Time, along with death, is the great leveler.

We too will be swept away by the tide of history and perhaps resurface in some other form altogether – like the Kingfishers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses harking back to halcyon days.

This essay is excerpted from our eBook, Psyche in the City. See more below: