Pages of The Ingenuity Gap
Just over nine
hours later, the 747 touched down at Heathrow airport. I had a twelve-hour
layover before my flight to Toronto, so after checking my bags I caught a cab
into London to meet a friend in Lewisham, a borough across the Thames from the
Isle of Dogs. It was early on a weekend morning, the streets were largely
deserted, and the cabby was able to take me right through the heart of the city.
Again I felt as if I had hyperlinked to an entirely different reality: from New
Delhi with its congestion, heat, grime, and omnipresent poverty to the tidy,
modern, wealthy, and weirdly empty streets of London.
After breakfast, I
talked my friend into visiting Canary Wharf, since we could see Cesar Pelli's
bold tower, capped with its pyramid, from her house. This time, though, I
approached from a different direction: we took the Greenwich foot tunnel under
the Thames into the Isle of Dogs and walked north through Millwall towards the
tower. We passed the things I'd seen on my last visit - the restored loading
cranes looking like praying mantises, the newspaper printing plant, and the
redoubt of low-income housing surrounded on all sides by fences and walls. In
the sun of a fresh, midsummer morning, though, everything looked far more benign
than it had in the evening gloom many months before.
Soon, with Canary
Wharf now in full view in front of us, we reached the edge of South Quay, a broad
stretch of water that blocked our progress. This was where I had crossed that
futuristic pedestrian bridge - the one constructed in a long horizontal spiral
like a writhing snake. But this time the bridge wasn't there: it had been turned
sideways on its pivot in the middle of the quay, so we couldn't cross. According
to a local resident out for a morning stroll, the bridge's deck was very slippery
when wet, and someone had recently been blown off it in a storm, so the bridge
was closed till it could be made safer. Maybe, my friend remarked, a little less
architectural finesse, and a little more practical engineering, would have made a
Three kids, boys about ten years old or so, were sitting on
their battered bikes by the edge of the quay. It looked like they were from the
low-income houses nearby, and they seemed to be waiting for the bridge to turn
back so they could cross. We talked to them about the bridge for couple of
minutes, and they accepted that waiting any longer would be futile.
know," one of the boys asked, as they got ready to leave "if there's a fountain
"Sure," my friend replied, "there's a fountain right in front
of that big tower."
"Are their coins in it?"
"I don't know.
"Because we want to get some coins from the fountain!" And with that
they laughed and rode off down the side of the quay, taking the long route to the
tower. Now that was one of life's sharp edges! Three boys from a poor zone of
London going to look for coins in the central fountain of a complex of buildings
housing the immense forces of capitalism and worth hundreds of millions of
As the boys disappeared in the distance, we followed them on foot
around the edge of the quay, and down the grand, Haussman-like avenue into the
center of Canary Wharf. We were now in Cabot Square, in the middle of a bowl of
huge buildings, with Pelli's tower soaring above us on one side and with five
distinct types of architecture surrounding us on the others. One building
recalled nineteenth-century Neoclassicism, another 1920s Modernism, and yet
another the dreary utilitarianism of the 1960s. I looked at the tower. "The
important buildings," I remembered Pelli had said, "are not in the scale of the
body of man, but in the scale of his ideas. St. Paul's was like that, and, I
hope in its own way, the tower will be as well."
On my previous visit to
London I'd had dinner with an investment banker who worked in these buildings.
He told me that, according to a security guard at the complex, two years prior to
the IRA bombing on the other side of the writhing bridge, a truck full of
explosives had been discovered early one morning parked in this very square. The
bomb's detonator had failed to go off. I'd later checked through back issues of
London papers to see if there were any references to this event, but found none.
While I didn't know whether the story was true or not, it certainly didn't sound
implausible. In this confined space, the damage would have been horrific. For a
split second an image flashed through my mind - a boiling purple and orange
fireball rising upwards, the buildings around us heaving from the force of the
explosion, facades disintegrating and floors collapsing on each other, office
workers' faces - faces again - shredded by shrapnel of concrete and
There will be more attempts to attack the symbols of wealth and
power in our rich societies - attacks by aggrieved people with newly acquired
knowledge about the technologies of violence. Because our governments are
acutely aware of this danger, very few will succeed. But as the head of the
Central Bank of Sri Lanka told me, a terrorist only has to be successful once,
while we've got to be alert all the time. And the potential costs of a
successful attack could be much higher than we realize: an acquaintance of mine
who has closely studied the risks of bio-terrorism argues that a single,
large-scale strike on a major Western city - say an attack in New York,
Washington, London, or Paris that kills 50,000 people - could send urban property
values plummeting in cities around the world, as people suddenly realize how
vulnerable they are in dense urban cores. An impossibly apocalyptic scenario,
surely - until we remember that groups such as Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo have tried
to launch exactly this kind of attack. Our intertwined global economic and
financial systems are probably resilient to a wide range of shocks, but a
worldwide collapse of urban property values is almost certainly not one of
It was peaceful in Cabot Square - a couple of cabs idled quietly at a
taxi stand and a family of tourists craned their necks to admire the buildings.
The three boys, though, were nowhere to be seen. We strolled over to the
fountain and the large circular pool that surrounded it and sat down on the
carved low wall of black granite containing the pool. A shaft of sun reached us
from high between the buildings. I looked down into the pool, past its rippled
surface, and into its cool, dark depths.
There were no coins in the
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