The 78th Floor
‘Scraping the Clouds’, original illustration by Laura Spark
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
- T.S. Eliot, The Wastelands, 60-63
I do not doubt that history will judge me poorly. For what I have done, I do not expect to be understood. When unborn denizens of an uncertain future look back, maybe they will be as perplexed as I was. They will say I was mad, no doubt, driven by delirium to undertake an inhuman act. They will say I was a radical moved by some elusive ideology, lurking just below the threshold of my awareness. They will say I was unhinged by vengeance I heightened, erroneously, to the status of prophecy. For all I know, they might very well be correct. I have no wish to defend myself. My actions are indefensible. All I want is for others to feel the rage that few have felt.
I cannot recall the sort of man my friend was. His likes, dislikes and personal habits are now lost to me, drowned in my new-found resolve. A thick miasma of suspicion clouds my memory of our relationship. The only firm outpost which forms beyond the fluttering veils of memory are the details of a single unsettling day.
We had been drinking together for the most part of the afternoon. A cold wind chilled our exposed faces as we left the Walrus and Carpenter, snapping at the nerves our pints were busy drowning. It was unusually busy. A rare Winter sun had driven a crowd onto the City’s narrow streets. My friend seemed unusually pensive as we passed the glass façade of Faryners House, home to the accountancy firm he had recently left. We silently burrowed outwards from Monument onto King William Street, more silent still as we strolled across the Thames. A gaggle of Asian students passed by loudly exchanging jokes, their alternating laughter fading from earshot with each unsteady step. A dozen or so boats, barges and liners struggled through the murky river, an indistinct brown into which the fading daylight sank.
We were early. My train would not leave for another quarter of an hour. We came to a slow stop as we turned the corner into London Bridge Station. It was the first time I had seen the Shard from below. The muscles in the back of my neck frayed like over-stretched elastic as I recoiled from an upward gaze toward its looming apex. Flecks of light danced across the white plaza beneath me as I recovered my composure. Marble paving slabs shimmered with each new pump of blood.
Do you know who owns it? my friend asked, breaking our silence. I recall the smallest hint of mania overtaking his widening eyes.
Please, enlighten me. I replied sardonically. Despite the greater pay-packet my friend received, I was convinced of his intellectual inferiority.
After the crash, the job stalled. It would never have been finished were it not for a group of Qatari aristocrats. Despite the cold, my friend was becoming animated. All trace of his previous forlornness vanished. This can’t have been the first time he had acted out this little anecdote.
Go on. I said, a slight annoyance creeping over me. With any luck, I would have an hour or so of peace on the train.
Well, the real juice is not who, but why.
What do you mean? I asked, more out politeness. Genuine curiosity would come much later.
Well, the Qataris fronted the cash as a diplomatic thing. As an oil-rich nation with a shitty military, Qatar spends a lot on building close economic ties with stronger nations. They’re worried about Iran, and what would happen if America bit the bullet and attacked. Qatar is home to the largest US outpost in the region, so any attack by the US means Qatar would feel the brunt of Iran’s retaliation.
Ah, but what proof do you have of this? I asked in polite despondence. After being forced from the firm, my friend had looked me up. We began drinking together shortly after. This was the first time that I had seen his conspiratorial streak. Too excited, my friend ignored me and continued.
By buying up huge tracts of London real estate, Qatari see themselves as doing what’s called ‘soft diplomacy’. They know that Britain wouldn’t stand back and allow a nation which owns their flashiest buildings to be invaded. My friend paused momentarily and reconsidered. Actually, the Shard isn’t a building at all, but a military allegiance signed in steel and glass.
My work soon picked up and our meetings became less frequent. I was in line for a promotion at the paper. Anyway, my friend hadn’t called for a month or two. I assumed he must have landed a new job in the City. An auditor firm or some such.
Some weeks later, I met a colleague for lunch, a critic for the Financial Times. We spoke with ease about our favourite subject: the drabness of modern architecture. Huddling over ours drinks, at times leaning in close for a little jibe at the people we knew, the time passed effortlessly. It was getting late, and the breezy cafe was practically empty save for a rather boisterous lunch meeting. Despite sporadic outbursts from their corner of the cafe, we were absorbed in conversation. There are few things more pleasant in life, I remember thinking, than talking with someone who is as versed in and cynical about a subject as you are. It wasn’t long before our conversation turned to the Shard.
Do you know what the architect’s fee was? He asked.
I don’t know, I said. A fuck load of money I expect.
He didn’t receive a penny for it, he replied, a wry smirk moving over his dimpled face. Renzo Piano’s only demand was to be given the penthouse suite at the building’s summit when it was completed.
Soon after, I was assigned a story about the opening of a chain of new spirituality centres in London’s affluent suburbs. After a morning of research, I stumbled upon a jarring oddity. It turned out that Renzo Piano had planned to build a meditation room at the top of the Shard. But my colleague at the FT had told me that Renzo Piano now lived on the top-most floor. They couldn’t both be true. I made a few phone calls. Little did I know that from that point my entire world would begin to slowly unfurl.
As it happened, there had been vicious debate about what the upper-most floor should be for. Piano initially wanted two levels above the public observatory – one for a mediation room, another for the world’s leaders to meet in and discuss the pressing problems of the day. But none of this ever came to pass, as the many hacks, subs and geeks with whom I spoke confirmed. No one lived in the top-most floor of the Shard. Renzo Piano was paid the customary cash for his work. My colleague was wrong. Why had I believed him?
I often think of that mediation room. Who was it meant for? Like child Lamas of a dying spiritual order, only the offspring of the mega-rich would be afforded any solace there. But then why would they want to meditate at the top of the Shard? My daydreams gave slow shape to the cold facts gleaned from research, filling in the human details. Maybe they would study profane Yogic practices. Maybe they would strive, like broken mendicants, to repair the damage wrought upon them by distant parents consumed in unholy work. Maybe, I wondered.
Sometime in the months after our last meeting, I learnt that my friend had struggled to find employment and had taken his life in desperation. At the funeral, his mother told me what had happened. No-one would hire him after he raised concerns over suspicious figures in the books of a prominent client, a multi-national mineral conglomerate. Word spread of his disloyalty, and no accountancy firm would touch him. It didn’t matter that the conglomerate was subsequently found to have been engaged in fraud of an epic scale. For doing his job properly, he was left unemployable in the only world he had ever known. In a dishonest world, his honesty had destroyed him.
My friend was the only guy smart enough to see what was going on (or stupid enough to point it out). We spoke of all kinds of things whilst we were drinking together. Why had he not trusted me with this? He must have taken me for a fool. Another thought dawned upon me, eliciting a deep sickness at the pit of my stomach. He hadn’t taken me for a fool. I was a fool, and my friend knew it.
From then on, I couldn’t shake what he had said the last time we met. The idea that the world around us is something other than what it appeared to be began working its way through my imagination. How could a building be anything other than merely a building? When I wasn’t working, I spent hours trawling through books and archives in search of some elusive fact that would make it all clear. I devoured architecture journals, utopian fiction and haggard daguerreotypes of European cities in construction. My first slow insights came from a careful study of dusty civic plans, in whose reams I dimly divined a human element, a peculiar sort of ongoing motivation in the work of dozens of seemingly unconnected draughtsmen. These diligent men had spent innumerable days churning out tidy blueprints in which calculated dances of steel, glass and concrete were described. Theirs was a silent governance industry paid for by an emerging class of border-less despot. In the many signs and sigils of these arcane documents, I found partial answers to my restless questioning. It was dizzying. Our solid world had been crafted to keep the masses of mankind in perpetual bondage for the protection of secluded elites. Soft diplomacy, I thought. A vast living symbol of the weakening trust between warring nations was being imprinted upon the surface of the earth. And everywhere people called it ‘home’. I could almost feel in the anxious crowds I passed a hidden pulse, as though the beating hearts of ancient streets had begun palpitating in the middle of some monstrous birthing rite.
As you peer across the London skyline, it is there. Centring, concentrating. The force of all I had came to learn was slowly transforming my view.
Now, whenever I see it looming over the London skyline, I remember my friend’s anecdote which I initially dismissed out of hand as conspiratorial. I recall his face, engorged with excitement as he acted out his bewildering tale.
Now, whenever I dwell on the details of my lack-lustre career as a feature writer for a minor magazine, I imagine the infinite suffering hewn into the Shard’s monolithic frame, the labour of a million hidden hands holding cheap glass walls in place.
Now, whenever I scan the trite articles of those I once thought were my peers, I wonder of the certain future which awaits London. I imagine numerous jagged pyramids piercing low-lying clouds, each interning pampered spiritual sylphs engaged in lifeless acrobatics. And all of humanity below them dream without direction of escape. I imagined the endless rounds of boom and bust, of lives broken against the insurmountable dictates of wealth just so that military allegiances can be signed in looming steel and glass. I imagine the exclusive conferences into which eager hacks and the leisured curious are impulsively driven, in search of the power which perspective brings.
Now, whenever I see it, I think of a brief conversation at the foot of the Shard with someone I thought was my friend.
Like mist hosing down wallpaper soon to be stripped, all I had ever known was evaporating into steam. I felt for so long as though I was clawing at the seams of life, unable to discern the contours of my prison. Little did I understand that the world had never been built for me, with the many in mind. The world is being taken from us in the name of the false anxieties of those wielding power. At least I knew.
After one fitful weekend, I took my work to a greasy spoon cafe somewhere near Liverpool Street Station. In the gloaming of a hangover, I observed a sobering scene. Just in front of me a rugged foreman was distributing the proceeds of the week’s graft. One-by-one, his disintegrating workforce streamed in, sitting momentarily on the cold metal chairs arrayed around him. Each stayed for a quarter of an hour or so, and each had a different grievance. He listened to each with gruff care. Violent split ups, rent-rises, drug addiction, an abortion – an relentless litany of suffering.
When I couldn’t bare it any longer, I turn to look out of the window. Tourists trickled around in confused swarms, circling the base of gigantic polished structures. It was almost as unbearable as the scene inside. Our stuttering urge for holidays, heritage and cheap hotels is born in the very same suffering the world kings who create our cities engender. Did they not realise that their lives are kept fractured by the work that went on in the buildings they worshipped with every click of their cameras?
As I think of the many skyscrapers in London, planted like poles towards whose centre the lives of a billion beings are centrifugally drawn, I recall my friend. I think of congregations, of crowds and cities, of mighty concrete maelstroms at whose tumultuous centre the lives of all those we love are finally shattered.
Everything was moving at an unbearable pace. I would bolt awake in cold sweats, dreaming of the slow-burning hysteria of it all.
Were things OK at home, with the family? My sub-editor asked. Maybe I should take a little break, she suggested, and Had I considered toning down my writing? Shortly after, the promotion I had been assured of was given to a colleague.
I vowed to do something. Our grim trajectory looked more certain with each passing day. It would soon be set. After an especially restless few nights, I walked to Hampstead for breakfast. The morning was clear and warm. Summer would soon transform London and its busy citizens. Joy and excitement would reign once again. That day, I bought the gun with which I killed Renzo Piano.
This story first appeared in The Handbook of Cultural Coercion, a publication of The International Center of Cultural Exchange and Diplomatic Friendship