The Luftwaffe Civil Engineering Corps

Duri Price

The south of London, the Quays, is undergoing redevelopment. It used to be the major shipping stop for much of Europe, until Rotterdam surpassed it sometime in the last century. Until recently it was rotting in place, with its many canals and neglected buildings, old cargo cranes standing unused and rusting. You can still see some of that poking up out of the development now, but most of the area is radically different.

As the moment there are construction sites scattered everywhere, literally every block. Steel and glass towers stand amidst clear canals and trees, water fountains and sidewalks. The architecture, to my eyes, is unusual and interesting. Many of the buildings have more of an organic, rounded feel than their American counterparts. A lot of gentle curves and sloped angles, fewer monoliths or sharp edges. Instead of building straight up they tend to build to about half the height of an American skyscraper, but the buildings instead are broader and multi-tiered.

This area is turning into a financial district catering to institutions large and small from all over the world. London is not a high-tech town like Seattle, but has a long history of being a trading hub. More like Chicago or New York in many ways.

The downtown area of London is older, though most of the individual buildings post-date WWII. The Blitz pretty much leveled large parts of the city, though individual buildings and blocks survived so that you’ll see a newer building right next to something clearly Victorian in architecture and origins.

Despite being leveled, the Brits rebuilt on almost exactly the same road plan that had persisted since the times when the English King was charging around Europe bashing other kings in the head with a mace. Americans, and I think most Europeans, would have taken the opportunity provided by the Luftwaffe Civil Engineering Corps to reorganize the street plan into something that humans could negotiate without the aid of a native guide and a GPS system. Instead, the Brits simply threw up new buildings on the wreckage of old ones, leaving both road plan and some old buildings in place and intact. If you look at a city map, you’ll have difficulty finding any two streets that intersect on a 90-270 to 360-180 angle. They may be at 90 degrees to each other, though even that is rare, but they never really run parallel to anything else and it’s clear that they were laid out when the local concept of North and South was simply, “not the direction the sun sets.”

Navigation is interesting.

Most of the city has a slightly seedy, run down feel to it. Clearly there have been better days here, but much of it seems to stem from that tendency to leave things in place until they physically fall over on an American (or preferably, German) tourist.

It is with this setting in mind that we zoom in on Duri on his first full day in London, 60 pounds of pack on his back and 40 pounds in the saddlebacks, bicycling madly through London trying to find a place to stay other than the hospital.

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