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Lay for the Day
8th October


1871: the Great Fire of Chicago breaks out and in two days destroys the majority of the city. Its reconstruction provided a laboratory for new styles of building, notably the steel-framed skyscraper. The hubbub of work, still going on a dozen years later, made Chicago the natural destination for a gifted young architect from Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was to become one of the great artists of the United States
.
In the area of London described below, the monumental commercial style established in late nineteenth century Chicago is dominant, while the “organic architecture” that Wright espoused is almost entirely absent.


Canary Wharf, 1997. Photo: John Gibbens

‘Fox at Canary Wharf’ was written in the mid-1990s, when the Docklands project was still in its infancy. Later parts of the poem (for example, the part that’s the Lay for 4th May) speculate whether the whole development could grind to a standstill. This has been resoundingly disproved, and new developments have mushroomed around the original Canary Wharf tower (officially “1 Canada Square”). Corporate tenants have filled up the space, and workers, shoppers, eaters and drinkers flock in.
Commercial wealth is matched, however, by architectural poverty. A change of fortune would soon return the place to the gigantic desolation of the derelict docks that preceded it. The ruling aesthetic, established by the original tower, seeks to impress upon the individual his or her smallness and insignificance on the economic scale. Frank Lloyd Wright’s aim, on the other hand, was to enhance both the environment his buildings occupied and the lives of the people who occupied them.


Fox at Canary Wharf (first part)


Delivered into the dream of steel
what was that glimpse?
where the light railway bends sharply
gingerly curves through 90 degrees
on its untidy trackway
all hi-tech
it’s all still perilously
up in the air
with a sharpish squealing
and brings us at a certain elevation
that glimpse of rufous fur
this toy-like train, to our destination
the wind-tunnel of Canary Wharf station

 

Bloody wind
like some revenge of nature
cold colourless and unending
against the cold and colourless
and would-be unending building
through every would-be public space

 

Coming in at the north door
of Cabot Place East
out of the bloody wind
into the dream
the oddly prosaic dream
a man was delivered down diagonally
before my eyes
in mid air
of course I mean on an escalator
and who did he remind me of?
a man who comes down an escalator
while others go up
to all intents and purposes identical
and identically shaped women
pause by shops
in an architect’s rendering

 

Confessions of an ant:
what glimpse of a point
of a white tip to it?
I left and went
until I lost the scent of my fellow workers
It wasn’t far
till the smooth stone gave way
and the benches, railings and trees identical
to all intents and purposes
gave way to water-eroded
stone and long beams of rotten wood
and a beautiful length of green
old rope lurking half-submerged
and I’d got as near as I could
to eye-level with the river
and I sat on a stone and smoked
and no-one looked

 
John Gibbens
from Sand of the Thames

 

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar