Getting Wonderfully Lost

There’s something so urbane about standing on those terraces on a sunny afternoon gazing across London. It makes you feel like a citizen of the city.

So said Steve Tompkins, the architect who redeveloped the Young Vic, about Lasdun’s modernist National Theatre on London’s South Bank. And it is a feeling I share on Saturday afternoon, when weaving my way around the South Bank, getting lost on my way to the Hayward Gallery.

I get off the bus on Waterloo Bridge and then go down, and then up, and then around, and then up again, and then around a bit more. I lose my bearings almost immediately and am soon reduced to guesswork, following the concrete around, occasionally climbing a staircase, turning a corner, hoping for the best.

And, as I walk, each step brings new vistas across the concrete. I see again and again incredible interlocking planes, lines, spaces; the greyness the perfect foil to the colourful crowds of skateboarders, freerunners, theatre-goers, families, tourists and the backdrop of the London skyline.

Needless to say, I don’t find the staircase leading directly from Waterloo Bridge to the Hayward Gallery entrance until it is rather too late. But I don’t mind – getting lost amidst the concrete is a wonderful experience.

But this experience of getting lost in a concrete jungle, finding oneself stuck in something akin to an Escher drawing, is usually a criticism of the South Bank and also another of London’s modernist complexes, the Barbican.

Architect Piers Gough responds to this criticism in a pretty inspiring article for Building Design (here), in which he lauds the Barbican as inspiration for his own architecture:

The criticism is a bit off because we expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades. If you’re in the mood to explore, it’s a wonderful place with its changes in level, vistas up and down, intimate areas, dramatic piazzas, the gardens opening up below then there are amazing glimpses out to the city’s slick office buildings and the dome of St Paul’s. Of course the residents themselves rather revel in their maze-like world.

He’s right. Getting lost in the Barbican, or on the South Bank, can be exhilarating, eye-opening. It makes one see the city in new, unexpected ways. It makes me feel proud of London, excited by it again, amazed at how it all meshes together. As Steve Tompkins said, ‘a citizen of the city’.

Of course, on the occasion that one is running late and trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible, getting lost en route isn’t always such a fun experience. Enough of these amazing concrete views, where the hell am I? would be the predominant thought.

Yes, getting lost isn’t enjoyable, playful or particularly enlightening when one doesn’t have time to kill. And people rarely have time to kill in London – one of the most fast-paced, time-precious places in the world.

People often have a similar frustration in the bookshop. The books are arranged in a slightly, well let’s say ‘idiosyncratic’, manner. Most people expect everything to be arranged A-Z by author and neatly divided into sections like ‘Philosophy’, ‘Women’s studies’ etc. Frustrated when looking for a famous book, they march up to the till asking crossly, ‘Why don’t you have The Quiet American?’

Then we calmly explain our system and dash off to fetch them the book, often dragging them slack-jawed in tow.

Somebody complained to me about it the other day. ‘How am I supposed to find anything on my own? I always have to come and ask you to get it for me.’

Well, you see, that’s kind of the point. Everyone who works in the bookshop really loves books. We have all been involved in the book world for several years. We are all full of recommendations, tailored to suit a huge variety of needs. What makes the job interesting, and what makes the shop a success, is being able to talk to people about books.

If a customer comes up and asks me for The Quiet American, this sparks all sorts of conversations. We can talk about Vietnam and other good books about it – perhaps Norman Lewis, for instance – about Greene and other books by him, and then I might mention the new biography of Greene’s family by Jeremy Lewis. Likely as not the customer doesn’t know about this new biography but is very interested in it. Or he hasn’t heard of Norman Lewis. Or he’d like a few suggestions of other particularly good novels by Graham Greene. I go and bring him all these books and he spends a while in the shop having a very happy browse. Either he leaves with The Quiet American and is grateful for the help, sure to return soon. Or he leaves with The Quiet American and some of the other books that I’ve suggested, pleased as punch to have been introduced to them. And, of course, I’m happy as anything not only to have sold some more books, but to have helped someone find a good book or two.

Surely this is better than having everything unimaginatively signposted? Yes, people get momentarily lost, but then they get help and then they find all sorts of things, as well as what they were looking for.

The problem with the Barbican and the Southbank is that people – perhaps Londoners (dare I say male Londoners?) in particular – are rarely inclined to ask for help or directions. Rather than asking a passer-by which way to get to the Hayward, or where to find an elevated walkway, or the loo, people tend to persist in trying to work it out for themselves.

This trait has been greatly worsened by iPhones, with their Google maps app. Why bother to start a conversation when one can plug into some technology and work it out for oneself? Well, perhaps because people aren’t always as adept as map-reading as they would like to think. And because the Google maps of the Barbican and the Southbank are as good as useless in any case.

So perhaps an unexpected product of these two Modernist complexes is the need for conversation. Perhaps, in these particularly urbane London landscapes, we should be less urbane. Perhaps we should step out of our insulating bubble of iPods and iPhones and solitary individual lost wanderings and ask other people the way. After all these complexes are Modern, not Post-Modern. Conversations aren’t such terrifying things to start. Other people hanging out at the Barbican and the Southbank are generally pretty friendly, pretty interesting, happy to help if they can.

Unless, as was the case with me on Saturday afternoon, one is in no particular hurry and perfectly happy to get quite wonderfully, unexpectedly lost.

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