It seems there are as many images of London as there are minds.
The cultural-historical strata of London is deep and composite. The thoroughly British pageantry of the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies demonstrated this in technicolor splendor. The kaleidoscopic presentation of London turned through history, poetry, royalty, music, science, art, architecture, fashion, and sport. A personal catalog may include figures like Nelson, Dickens, Shakespeare, Elizabeth, Lennon, van Dyck, Boyle, Foster, and Beckham.
We have different reasons to travel. Alain de Botton identified two of these motives in his book, The Art of Travel -the exotic and curiosity.
Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions… The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones.
A different London beckons to different people. Our curiosity reveals something deeper than we might have expected. If you find out what interests someone, you may be able to trace it back to bigger questions.
It’s appropriate then to ask someone who has recently been in London, “which London?“
I’ve been in London the last 9 days, and having studied architecture in school, a major priority when I travel always consists of seeking out various buildings.
I guess everyone has their own way of “relaxing” when traveling, but mine seems rather peculiar now that I’m thinking about it- trooping around town, navigating convoluted street passages, dealing with the pulses and contractions of the very entrails of the city, all to see a building.
Often they have just closed upon my arrival, like when I went to see the Robie house on the south side of Chicago (architecture books never tell you what kind of seedy neighborhoods you have to wade through to reach your destination). Often the cost of admission just doesn’t seem worth it, even after I’ve trekked half way across town to get there, so I end up just admiring the exterior or craning my neck in the lobby to see what I can. The Guggenheim Museum in New York ended up being this sort of building.
But there is something compelling about connecting a tangible structure with the idea in my head that I’ve constructed through reading and imagination.
Of course, disappointments are inevitable.
That steeple — which, because I had read that it was itself a rugged Norman cliff on which seeds were blown and sprouted, round which the sea-birds wheeled, I had always pictured to myself as receiving at its base the last drying foam of the uplifted waves — stood on a Square from which two lines of tramway diverged, opposite a Café which bore, written in letters of gold, the word ‘Billiards’; it stood out against a background of houses with the roofs of which no upstanding mast was blended. And the church — entering my mind with the Café, with the passing stranger of whom I had had to ask my way, with the station to which presently I should have to return — made part of the general whole, seemed an accident, a by-product of this summer afternoon…
It’s at times like these that I feel the chain of curiosity being tugged from within by “blunt, large questions.”
Beyond the novelty and excitement of the Olympic venues decked in their vibrant pink banners, lay countless architectural wonders. Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Windsor Castle, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, the British Museum– all were within my reach. And although I sought them out, just as for Proust these seemed to me, “reduced”, “tainted”, “accidental.”
These building projects, although breathtaking, can’t compare with the building of God.
For he eagerly waited for the city which has the foundations, whose Architect and Builder is God.
Most of my time in London was spent volunteering with a UK charity called Amana Trust to distribute free New Testament study Bibles. We distributed roughly 61,000 Bibles during the Olympics, with teams spread all throughout the city. Working with local Christian groups to build up the church definitely beats taking pictures of old buildings.
You can read a few of the other volunteers’ impressions in the posts below.
The last link is to the Baptist Press, which included a picture of the Amana Trust team handing out the New Testament.