Ten minutes with Rory Olcayto, Open City Director


Ten minutes with Rory Olcayto, director of Open City.

 My Thames

My relationship with the Thames began in the 1970s with Rainbow, a kids programme I watched on telly growing up in Scotland (by the Clyde) and broadcast by, yep Thames Television, whose logo was a kind of crushed up London skyline – a bit like the Open House capriccio! – rising above London’s mighty river. So for me, the Thames was always something in my mind that stood for London as a whole – it was the element that bound the whole city together. And despite its reduced role in driving London’s economy, and as part of its public life – few of us really spend time on or by the Thames today these days- the Thames is still as emblematic of ‘London’ as its famous skyline is.

 London's relationship with the Thames has changed

When I first arrived in London to work – in 2006 – I was based on the South Bank by Blackfriars Bridge, and every day I would walk to work from St Paul’s underground station which took me across Foster & Partner’s (no longer) wobbly bridge. It was a pleasurable route through the city to take each day. The way the bridge linked Wren’s London with the new emerging neo-iconic world capital of the 00s – the wild first decade of the 21st century – typified by the reborn Tate and the London Eye on the South Bank, felt significant. Since then we’ve seen the older London – Beefeaters, Buses, black cabs and bowler hats – recede, as New London – the Gherkin, the Shard, the American Embassy and coffee shops everywhere  – create a new image of the city, a new global brand. For better or worse, I don’t know.

 A new skyline

London’s skyline is a curious thing: the one we use to show the city off to the rest of the world today, is in fact, very, very new. Think about it: the London Eye, the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheeesegrater, Tate Modern, the re-made Battersea Power Station, have all emerged in the past twenty years. And they speak of London today to an international audience. Forget Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, or even St Pauls – Rafael VInoly’s bendy, some might say, silly-looking skyscraper, dubbed the walkie-talkie and with a rooftop restaurant that is popular with punters but hated (mostly) by professional architects – says more about London and what it means today (a townscape dedicated to massaging and making money?) than any of the older icons. This is unprecedented: no one great city in the world has done this. Rome, Istanbul, New York, Paris, Moscow – these cities still rely on their well-worn established icons to draw visitors close.

 Power and personal taste

Architecture critics tend to be really down on so-called iconic architecture. It’s considered indulgent, selfish, almost anti-democratic. ‘Why should the rest of us have to live with a private client’s gaudy tastes?’, they ask. And they have a point. But the truth is London has specialised in making iconic architecture for much of its long life and in fact, revels in the process. The Tower of London, St Pauls, and St Pancras Station are all expressions of great power, which along with cash is London’s key ‘asset’. In this respect, the super-expressive, almost bullish forms of the City of London skyscrapers, feel right – or rather they appropriately reflect the ever-increasing power accrued by the capital’s finance sector these past few decades.