Letter from London


I had been hoping to spend the summer looking at art, architecture, and design in London and other places in the EU. And then sharing what connections I could make. I have done the former, but not much of the latter, except for a few photos on Instagram (the better ones) and a few on Facebook (the newsier ones). I witnessed Gehry, Gaudi, and Zaha Hadid. Everywhere we’ve gone, there has been excellent food. Yesterday we went out to Ham and saw 1950s-era projects by architects James Stirling and Eric Lyons. My new passion is British social housing after the war.

Looking up at St. Pauls, London. Architect: Christopher Wren

But I am having a hard time conjuring up a cohesive thought. First it was the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London. Is this a logical result of the dilution of Brutalism, or the logical result of late capitalism? Or both? More recently, there were the nuclear threats from the leaders of North Korea and the United States. And then in the past few days, the violence in Virginia. Suddenly, London, with all of its strange twists, seems a safe place to be.

Are all these events related in some way? In the loosest sense, they are linked by a lack of compassion for human beings, especially the humans we don’t know. They can be from a different economic status or race or just live in a different culture. Respect for human beings should be basic to all faiths, to living.

Langham Close, Ham near Richmond (1958). Architect: James Stirling

At each stage of the 2016 election, I didn’t believe Trump would win. He was obviously a spoiled idiot—a kind of clown bully. He has interrupted the American idea of progress. We (liberal elites?) deluded ourselves into believing that we had moved from slavery to an African-American president. Trump’s election told us that progress was a false idea. David Duke’s declaration after the violence in Virginia, “We are determined to take our country back,” is just one especially ugly reminder that we have a long ways to go. But maybe Trump has done the country a favor in that he has revealed that the original sin that the US suffers from (genocide and slavery) has not been scrubbed away. The stain was just hiding under a white sheet.

We miss our friends at home and our sun-filled apartment. But we feel ambivalent about leaving the UK. As weird as it sounds, Theresa May is not as awful as Donald Trump. She will be gone soon enough. We are not so sure about the bully clown.

Parkleys Development Office Building, Ham near Richmond (1954). Architect: Eric Lyons

For our book club, I am reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It is not the kind of novel I favor, but I am intrigued by the idea of the bardo. Let me quote from Wikipedia: “In some schools of Buddhism, bardo is an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth.” This may be the state we are all in right now.

Recently, I read a conversation in Interview magazine  between Zadie Smith and George Saunders that gives me hope. To quote from Saunders towards the end of the interview,

“Also I think people have come to expect that in artistic representation; that every work of art should be a work of extravagant hope.”

Posted Wednesday, August 16th, 2017 | Essays

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