The Christmas Tower - a fable on architecture by Bran Anson - Arhcitect
Táimid iontach buíoch do Bhrian Anson as an sceal seo thíos a thabhairt dúinn - We are very grateful to Brian Anson for sending the story below to us.
“Look up at a spectrum-washed envelope, whose surface is a map of its instantaneous
performance, stealing energy from the air with an iridescent shrug, rippling its photo-grids
as a cloud runs across the sun, a wall which, as the night chill falls, fluffs up its feathers and,
turning white on its north face and blue on the south, closes its eyes but not without
remembering to pump a little glow down to the night porter, clear a view-patch for the
lovers on the south side of level 22, and so turn 12 per cent silver just before dawn”
The architect, Mike Davies, as quoted in
ARCHITECTURE: A MODERN VIEW. by Richard Rogers.
Thames & Hudson 1990.
Richard Rogers describes the above as the experience of living in a “responsive building of the future”. Clearly, it is imagined that in the future a building may be able to feel and think - perhaps also see, smile, laugh and weep........what follows is a short story - a fable - of a building that can do all of these things.........but cannot speak.
The city is at its most beautiful as night falls.
The dusk flows gently into the darkness, smoothing away all the wrinkles and trials of the day. The colours, in those early shades of evening, are soft and gentle. Even the decrepitude of the Old Town huddled around the towers, where the poor live, loses its harshness and its daylight scars are temporarily vanquished in the soft, early evening, glow. Briefly, a quietness hovers over the city streets and love always blossoms in the dusk light. With the fall of night the colours are sharper and the city is transformed into a fairyland of towers and turrets, of structures and planes, all decked out in precious stones.
So it was, on that special evening as the snowflakes began to fall quietly on the tower, the great needle reaching to the heavens: a giant, all-powerful, structure clothed in glistening metal plates and great sheets of coloured glass, wearing its Christmas hat.
Other towers clustered around it, their own exotic dresses of marble, terra-cotta and strange metals also glistening in the clear, rapidly-chilling, air; but it was the prince of them all - the tallest in the whole universe, a beacon seen for many miles and even, some would say, from across the sea.
Tens of thousands had worked non-stop for a year to finish the structure for Christmas Eve. and at last its head was adorned in the most beautiful, and expensive, lights - marvellous colours crowned its top like jewels in the night: ambers and reds, purples and greens, deep shiny azure blues, pinks and colours still without names. Spontaneously, the citizens had christened it The Christmas Tower.
The tower had been created as a perfect machine. Nothing had been left to chance in its creation. The construction workers had raised it metre by metre, storey upon storey, from the mud flats at the edge of the river. Some of these workers had fallen to their death in the process. The engineers had worked the miracles of the structure - allowing it to sway gentle in the clouds above. Its millions of junctions and joints had been fashioned with loving care by robots almost human. Within its fifty floors sat machines which could trace the path of the Milky Way: machines which could tap out money in incalculable quantities and shoot the sums around the world at the blink of an eye. The life of a country, and that of the peasant in a field, could depend on this slim, beautiful, Christmas-adorned, needle in the crisp night of the city.
The tower was perfection. It was calm. It was quiet. And it knew it was rich beyond imagination. Within its bowels, in great caverns carved out of the river stone, were great stores of gold and precious stones. The tower itself knew so much - who had created it, the politicians who demanded it: the developer who gambled his fortune on it and, most important of all, the architect who had produced the vision for its birth.
The architect - so young - had been puffed with pride as he received the supreme medal of the Institute at the grand opening of the tower. The tower felt almost dizzy to recall it all. They had gathered on its highest level - the famous, the dignitaries, the pop stars, the TV people and the special guests from around the world - and the Prime Minister had lavished praise on the tower as a symbol of the nation’s greatness once again: the power of free enterprise, of competition, and the wealth once more being created by the country. Inventive genius had never really left our shores the Prime Minister had insisted - and we are as great and as powerful as we ever were, echoed the Lord Mayor. The president of the Institute declared that this great structures proves, yet again, that architecture is a great social art. Everyone had cheered and the tower itself felt its own glistening structure swell with pride: its machinery and technology gave an extra little spurt of energy throughout its fifty floors as the architect, his gold medal hanging by a blue ribbon round his neck, stepped up to the rostrum.
Architecture is the measure of our civilisation, he said. We are what our buildings are and I have been moved in my life by beauty and elegance. We must not accept what is shabby: we must resist ugliness. Our nation, once again, must lead the world in good design. The world must look to this nation and say - that is where civilisation lies like it did before during our great days of empire. When I won the competition to design this building I was proud to be given the challenge to bring greatness back to our nation, and by that I mean all our people for this tower is a symbol for everyone, not only for this great city but throughout the country. The audience gasped with awe as he described the technology of the tower. This is a building virtually human: this structure can think and feel - it is alive! It is architecture with a heart. A ripple of contentment spread throughout the crowd and, to great laughter, the architect concluded by saying that once again we on top of the world - in height at least!. The tower looked on with gentle amusement as the champagne swilled its floors and the chattering echoed around its elegant walls. Then they were all gone. And now there was nobody - not even security guards. The most modern technology now took care of that. The tower was alone as night and snow fell on the city.
The tower was warm, very comfortable, very large and very empty. Nothing would disturb it till after the Christmas holiday when an army of office workers would make it their home. For now, the hundreds of rooms on its fifty floors were just a deep-carpeted, air-conditioned, silence illuminated by the moonlight. Only the faint murmur of the technology broke the silence: the machines would never stop, particularly the one on its fortieth floor, for this was the tower’s heart - the computer which, silently, created the wealth - the wealth that was its lifeblood: ten million on that dial, a billion on that button; flash it to the east, swap it with the west, bring in the north now, and settle on the south. Without its heart the tower knew it was nothing. Its whole, marvellous, structure was created to envelope that miraculous machine and to guard the wealth hidden within its cavernous bowels. And the tower’s heart was also its brain. That magical machine on its fortieth floor was linked to its millions of joints and junctions, the sinews of its structure and the dark and gloomy cavern of its bowels in the river mud. Yes, the tower could think and see and feel. If only it could speak, could sing, could shout - then it could express how wonderful it felt in the beautiful, cold, moonlit night of Christmas Eve, with the soft snow falling all around.
But the tower couldn’t speak and so it looked all around the city and far beyond it across the river to the sea. How beautiful it all was with coloured lights everywhere and trees decorated in windows and on the streets. It heard singing in many parts of the city - songs about kings and princes of peace; about babies and stables; songs of shepherds and stars and wise men. Everywhere there seemed happiness and contentment, and the snow still fell gently. Within the city there was a great park of many thousands of acres. Now, in the darkness of the evening, it was a great black patch surrounded by the glow of the city but there were some small lights within the park. The tower’s sight strained to make them out and it saw a few small houses amongst the trees. From the warm glow of their windows the tower saw that sheep lay huddled in the snow around the houses. A door opened and a man stood illuminated in the bright light of the doorway. In great excitement the man was pointing to the sky calling others in the house to join him. The tower followed the direction of his arm and saw
what was exciting him. Through the falling snow could be seen a great star - a great light. It was still in the sky not like an airplane. Suddenly the tower did not feel quite so majestic: it stared at the sky for a long time but, in the end, all its feelings were brought back to the glitter of the city.
Now a little bored with all the beauty of the lights the tower began to look down from its great height - down into the Old Town which lay huddled at its base. It looked at the ragged roofs and the winding narrow streets. It searched into the alleys coming up from the river where the mist was now rising. The tower saw the crumbling tenements and the broken down houses and the streets where the snow was already turning black. It saw the dirt everywhere and people shuffling about as if they had nowhere to go. It saw the flashing blue lights of the police cars screaming up the narrow alleyways after fleet-footed children in rags. Suddenly everything was so different and the tower was shocked.
What am looking at? thought the tower. Why is it so sad all around me? Then the tower got angry and it didn’t know why. I am here in all my splendour; I can touch the stars - but what is this around me? The tower didn’t have an answer and it kept looking closer and closer into the heart of the Old Town. There was a flickering light in one of the ragged tenements - a different light to the rest. The tower’s eyes focussed on it and saw that it came from two candles in a tiny, bare, room. Sitting by a dead fire in an old rickety chair was an old woman wrapped in rags. He feet were covered in newspapers and she had a frayed shawl round her head. The tower could see that the only other furniture in the room was a little table and a small cot. The woman rocked herself slowly backwards and forwards as if the movement was important to her, and she clutched in her hands what seemed like beads. She was talking to herself - the tower could see her lips moving - but her voice was so low it couldn’t hear what she said. The tower strained every bit of machinery in its fifty floors - every junction, button and wire - but it was not enough. It still couldn’t hear her words. The effort it made to hear the old lady strained its structure so much that it could hear the creaking within itself. Some of its lights went out. The tower was both sad and angry. It knew the old woman needed help and was all alone. It wanted to cry out - Come into me! It’s warm here. You can look at the beautiful lights of the city from my windows - but the tower couldn’t speak.
In its anger the tower began to search all over the Old Town and suddenly it saw a man and a woman walking slowly down one of the dark streets by the river. The man was holding the woman’s arm and she, very fat in the front, was clutching her belly with both hands. They stopped at a great looming house with iron gates and pressed a bell. A dog snarled. Someone came to the gate and the tower strained again to hear what was said. It was so hard to hear. The tower could only catch a few words.
“.....help us...” The tower saw the man of the house shake his head. “..No!..call the police....if...”
The man and the woman moved slowly on towards the bridges of the river. The woman had to stop to rest a few times and the man removed his jacket and wrapped it round her shoulders. The snow still fell. A burst of light suddenly illuminated the street and the tower could see great revelry inside a building. Because of the light the tower could now see the faces of the two clearly. She was worn and pale but very young. Her face was streaked with tears and her hair grew wild from under the shawl on her head. He was also young but looked thin and pinched as if he hadn’t eaten for days. The man knocked on a side door and it opened. By now the tower was learning how to control the technology within itself and it could hear things much better.
“...can’t you read!” said the man who’d opened the side door. “No travellers...that means no vagrants, no gypsies, no people like you...go to the Council...go to the Sally Army...but don’t come here!.....” The door was slammed. The woman leant against the wall and her thin shoulders began to shake uncontrollably. The man wrapped his arms around her as far as he could, as if he was trying to take her into his own body.
The tower felt its structure screeching - a great window on its thirtieth floor cracked - and it heard the man speak. “...c’mon Mary we’ll find something...we’ll go down to the derries...the arches..it’ll be warm there...” The couple carried on slowly down towards the mist of the river. Several hundred lights popped on the tower’s Christmas Hat but the city didn’t notice - there were tens of thousands of lights in the beautiful decoration of the famous building. The tower wanted to move, it wanted to bend its beautiful head down and run to pick up the man and woman and place them inside itself. It wanted them to be in the great carpeted, air-conditioned, emptiness of its wonderful structure. It wanted them to break out the thousands of food and drink machines on its fifty floors. It wanted to
install them, like a king and queen, in the specially-designed executive suite on the forty eighth floor where there were kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms with great oriental quilts and wonderful balconies and roof gardens overlooking the beautiful city. All this, the tower had heard at the opening, had been carefully provided in case the COE must work late one night. But the tower could do nothing and now it felt tormented. They had created it and given it ears, eyes, a heart --a mind! WHY HAVEN’T THEY GIVEN ME A VOICE! .......If only I could shout across the whole city. They said I was beautiful, they said I was powerful...I am the highest in the world and I can talk with the stars - the tower suddenly shuddered as it remembered the great shining star above it. A few sober people in the bright city lights looked up and wondered why the Christmas Tower flickered so dramatically. Some telephone calls were made to inebriated dignitaries at wealthy parties. The dampness on the tower’s windows grew worse.....The tower was now weeping. They said I was miraculous, the Prime Minister said so, and the Lord Mayor and they called my creator, the architect, a man of genius. Why, therefore, can I not use all my miraculous technology and bring these poor people in out of the cold and the snow?
Somehow, the man and the woman had reached the arches of the bridge where, amongst the cardboard and the rags, many small fires flickered in the thick mist of the river. The tower saw that there were many ragged people there. Some lay in boxes, hardly visible for the rags and newspapers around them. Others staggered about with bottles in their hands singing raucously. The man found an empty box away from the throng and he gently helped the woman into it. A few of the ragged people came over and saw that she was not well. They gave her rags and paper to lie on. The tower heard the woman cry.
“Joe, it won’t be long....I’m frightened Joe”.
He lay beside her and held her head to his chest.
“It’s ok Mary....we’ll be alright”.
The tower could tell the man was crying. Three more windows suddenly shattered on it’s fifteenth floor. News of the plight of the young woman had been passed around the ragged people and more of them came across with old coats and more paper. Someone brought the embers from a fire and soon there was warmth around the cardboard box.
The woman moaned. The man held her tight with her head in his lap. Suddenly she screamed. “Joe!”
“Jesus!...get some clean rags”..a voice shouted. “Quick”....oh Jesus! ...where? for Christ’s sake!”
“Anywhere...shit...your shirt..Jesus..Holy Mother of God!...”
There were so many people huddled round the box now. The black shapes of the ragged people silhouetted against the flames of the fire. The shouting and the cursing. The tower couldn’t see the man or the woman anymore. But now it could hear everything.
“Joe!...Oooooh Joe. Joe it’s coming......”
“Hang on Mary....please God...oh God...”
“Jesus Christ..you fuckin eejut...that’s not clean..give us your shirt...” “Here’s the water”. a voice shouted from the back of the throng.
“Make way...make way...it’s alright missus....you’ll be alright...”
“Holy Mother of God!...”
“Not that way you fool...mind the water.....Christ!...you’ll scald her....
“OUT OF THE WAY!”
The tower heard the voice of another woman. Very loud, very firm. very authoritative.
The voice became more gentle. The tower could see bright red, ragged, hair shining in the firelight.
“C’mon love, we’re nearly there....give us that shirt, quick....now the water...someone dab her head, quick!...not you.. him!....there now love...there, there, there....Ah sure musha God help yer.....One more push love....come on....a real good one......
The tower heard the scream and thought the whole city must have heard it. Suddenly it had stopped snowing. The great star - the tower now knew it was a star not an airplane - shone even brighter in the sky. Then there was silence - a silence that seemed to go on forever, but it was only a few seconds. Then the tower heard the baby’s cry. It was so clear and the city seemed suddenly empty of all life. All that seemed to matter was that cardboard box beneath the bridge, enveloped in the mists of the river. Then the voices came back. The red-haired woman was ordering them all.
“.....and keep her warm. Here....give me that coat of yours - that’s nice that....just made to measure for this wee fellow....”
The water was dripping down all the great windows in the tower’s fifty floors. A chill was creeping through its hundreds of rooms and spaces. The tower knew that it’s machinery and sophisticated technology was breaking down - imperceptibly, but steadily. The tower knew that its illness was now terminal. The tower knew it was weeping. A junction here wheezed, another screamed very quietly. Down in its bowels - so full of gold and precious stones - the river mud squeezed and shifted the enclosing structure. No longer was it the prince of the city: no longer was it in touch with the stars. Nearly all the lights on its Christmas Hat were now gone. The water flowing down its broken windows was now drenching the expensive carpets on each of its empty floors. All the windows were splintering and its heart on the fortieth was bursting and gasping with red-hot heat. The tower now knew that it was nothing more than a heap of useless machinery - an empty heap: the biggest heap in the world. A jumble of uselessness which, for all its great wealth and miraculous machines, couldn’t give even a morsel of comfort to a poor man and woman and a little baby in a cardboard box.
The plight of the Christmas Tower was now the talk of the city. Hung-over citizens gathered at its base and a great army of important people were frantically calling each other by mobile phones. But now the tower didn’t care that it would soon be invaded by important experts, dignitaries and politicians. Numerous calls had been made to the great architect enjoying his vacation on some remote Pacific island. His poor, perplexed, wife could only mutter that he was out sailing and no-one could reach him....perhaps if they tried his pa. as she was with him.
But the tower knew nothing of this and didn’t care. Helpless though it felt, it was happy that the man and the woman seemed to be safe and warm for a while. The ragged people had gone back to their boxes and their fires. Some were sleeping and others were still muttering about the event.
“She’ll be ok. The nurses’ll be here soon”
“We’ll tell the Sally Army anyway”
“Stuff the Sally Army....stuff the whole friggin world!”
“Watch your mouth you drunken Mick!....give him a kick Jock”
“I wouldn’t like to cross Maggie....see the way she did it?.......red-haired bitch”
“Me mum said never cross anyone with red hair...they’re all witches”
“My dad always never trusted people who wear white shoes”
“Oh!....bugger off! and go to sleep youse lot”
“Gizza bite of that Mars Bar Eddie”
“No, it’s mine”
“You friggin well nicked it.....I saw you do it”
“WILL YOU FUCKERS GO TO SLEEP!!!......YOU’ll wake the baby”
The red-haired woman sat with two men round the fire. The tower listened as they whispered.
“We’ve got to give it something. It’s only right.....you always have to give a new baby something. The poor little bastard’s come into the world with nothing”
“It’s alright for you Maggie” said the older man. “I’ve got nothing. Nothing at all. A poor old bugger like me’s never got nothing “
“Yes you have”
“What? You just show me. What? You’re an interferin old bitch”
“You’ve got that ring. Solid gold you told us. It’s no use to you...you couldn’t sell it anyway. They’d say you nicked it”.
“It’s true it’s gold. It’s me mammy’s. I’d never sell it....even for a drink”
“Your mammy’s dead you bloody old scrounger. Now you bloody give it to the baby”.
“What’re you givin then ...y’old cow?”
“I’m giving me scent to the child. Me nice bottle of scent. I love it but I’m givin it because we’ve gotta give something”.
“You nicked that! We saw you do it in Woolworths...didn’t we Eddie?” The younger man grunted.
“So what? It’s mine now and I’m giving it to the baby as me Christmas present. C’mon Eddie...what are you giving?”
“I’ve got nothing at all man...nothing man.” and he turned out his pockets, and pulled his rags aside, to prove the point. “Absolute zero man!”
“Oh yes you have” said the older man. “All you fellas from Africa always have a little bit of something stashed away. You keep yours in your shoe....we all know anyway”
“I keep telling you man....I’m from Bradford”.
She glared at him.
“Look Eddie....we’re giving our most precious things...all our precious things for the newborn child. So bloody well take your shoe off......and anyway that stuff’s bad for you. Now, there’s my scent, Mickey’s ring ...and now, hand over your bloody stash!”
As the tower watched the scenes in the flickering fires of the river mist, the important people were struggling to enter its body. The lifts they took broke down half way up the structure and fat, pink-faced, dignitaries puffed and panted up staircases to try to reach the heart of the tower. But the tower was no longer interested in what took place within its body - it knew that it didn’t have much time left anyway and it was no longer interested in the miraculous structure of its own body. All that mattered now was that Maggie, Mickey and Eddie had collected all the possessions they had in their entire world ...........and they were about to present them to a baby a few hours old on this Christmas Day as the dawn broke through on to a snow bound city.
The three of them walked over to the cardboard box and sat by the little fire. Maggie spoke first.
“Listen missus. We’ve brought gifts for the child. We don’t have much but it’s Christmas Day y’kow, and all kids need something on a day like this”
The woman smiled very gently and she looked warm enough draped in all the rags and coats and shirts and papers. The child was fast asleep and so was the man, exhausted on the woman’s breasts.
“Thanks” she whispered. “You’re very kind. Joe says it’ll be alright. Someone’s gone for the ambulance”.
“I know missus” said Maggie. “Things’ll work out. Not everyone’s bad. Here...here’s Mickey’s gold ring. Maybe you can sell it...it’s solid gold y’know”. She put the ring into the woman’s hand and the woman put it to her lips and kissed it gently. “I’ll treasure it” she said. “I’ll never sell it. Thank you Mickey”
“It was me Mammy’s” said Mickey, with a sad look in his eyes.
“And here’s something for your old man” said Maggie. “God love him. Look at him. He’s flat out. Let him have a smoke when he wakes up. Eddie says it’s the best there is”.
“That’s true man!” Worldbeater. No problem man! Good luck to the kid man”
“Thank you Eddie. Thank you”. The woman put her hand on his arm and he dropped his head as if he was embarrassed.
“And here’s something from me”. Maggie opened the bottle and dabbed a bit of the scent on the back of her hand. She held the hand to the woman’s nose. “See!...it’s good stuff. Very chic. Look at its name...Spontaneous!....isn’t that lovely? “ She dabbed a little bit on the baby’s cheek. “There now! I’ve even baptised him. Isn’t that something? When he grows up you can tell him Maggie did it right for him”
The tears welled up in the woman’s eyes and she lifted herself up to throw her arms round Maggie’s neck.
The tower watched as the white ambulance arrived. It saw the nurses gently help the woman and her baby inside. The man followed rubbing his eyes. And the ragged people cheered them on wishing them luck. Its blue light flashing the ambulance sped into the, now grey, heart of the city and was swallowed up. Maggie, Mickey and Eddie returned to their fire to sit silently. It was Eddie who broke the silence.
“Anyone fancy a smoke?” he said, taking off his other shoe.
The night - with all its beautiful lights - was now gone. The snow-bound city was cold and grey and the ragged people wandered around beneath the arches taking the soup and sandwiches the helpers gave them every year. Christmas Day, for them, was pretty much the same as any other day. They still woke up stiff and cold with nowhere really to go.
The important people had now reached the heart of the tower and the experts were carefully examining the technology which everyone said would never fail. There was great consternation and great worry amongst the dignitaries.
“We could lose the election because of this” spluttered the puce-faced minister - “damned architects with their fancy ideas! “
“Why was there so much condensation?” asked another. “It was as if the whole bloody structure was weeping”.
“Some of the experts are convinced it’ll have to be completely dismantled”
“They said it was impossible to build it....but they did!”
“What was it that poncy architect said?....this building was alive....almost human?”
The cynical Minister of the Environment shrugged his shoulders.
“Well it had a bloody heart attack that’s for sure”.
The tower, battered, bruised and drenched, still looked into the Old Town. It searched for the window in the tenement. It wasn’t so easy to find in the cold, grey, light of day. Everything looked the same - shabby block upon block and little colour to distinguish one window from another. There were no lights to guide its search and the collapse of its technology made it hard to focus. The machines were no longer magical. But, at last, the tower located the window. The old lady was still sitting in the broken chair in front of the dead fire. It was the same room with its few sticks of furniture. The candles were now just a cold heap of grease. The tower looked hard and saw that the old woman, still wrapped in rags and newspapers, still clutched the beads in her hands, but she no longer rocked herself gently back and forth. ......She was completely still.
THE CHRISTMAS TOWER.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THIS PROJECT.
As the preface shows the project was inspired (10 years ago) by a quote in one of the books of Richard (Lord) Rogers - a superstar of the architectural firmament ..and a very dear friend.
The idea was that I would publish the fable (accompanied by a handful of my own illustrations) and give all the profits that might accrue to me to a suitable charity - preferably one for the homeless. The publisher could take whatever it wished but I had no wish to profit (in anyway whatsoever) from a project on homelessness.....particularly at Christmas time. Though I’m not a businessman I felt there was a commercial aspect to the idea. The fable was written to deliberately pluck at the heart strings of the buyer at a particularly emotive time of the year. It would also be a small object and therefore, presumably, relatively cheap. (maybe a stocking-filler).
Clearly, the market window for the project was very specific - those several weeks leading up to Christmas. The fable was deliberately written to relate to that market window.
Ten years ago the project actually got off to a good start. Richard Rogers was prepared to write an introduction and so was ‘Big Jim’ Thompson, the current Bishop of Bath & Wells, and a cleric I knew and respected when we both worked in the East End of London. So from the beginning I had two household names who had agreed (in writing) to publicly back the project. They were in correspondence with several celebrated charities in Britain including SHELTER (campaign for the homeless); CHARS (campaign for the single homeless) and, most important of all, CRISIS AT CHRISTMAS. But, in the end, we failed to pin down that illusive publisher. When the commercial window of opportunity passed (ie. after Christmas) the project went into my archive just gathering dust.
I recently resurrected the project and typed it up again. I did this for three reasons.
1. I believe that the message of the fable is as relevant now as it was ten years ago.....perhaps even more so given the phenomenal rise in house prices in the western world and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor.
2. After the events of September 11th 200, I suspect that people might now have a certain attitude towards towers - particularly those with an architectural symbolism.
3. I still believe that there is a commercial aspect to this project which the business world (publishing) can exploit at a particular time of the year. I don’t care how much the business world exploits this project.....it’s just that I don’t wish to. I wish only to get across the message of the fable.
It is now the month of May in the year 2003. It is my intention to send this fable to as many people (and organisations) as possible in the hope that someone will be interested and, therefore, have time to work on the project for this coming Christmas time.