• Nina Hanz

On Cranes, On Nothing

Cranes are nothingness. Fixed in a sheltered bed of concrete, they are temporary resurrections of steel lattice, hydraulics, and chains; a mere tessellation of acute triangles left empty and uncoloured. Although they are framed by a skeletal border, cranes are filled only by negative space, made up more of lashing winds blowing through them than by their metal bodies. In a way this makes them absent – soulless. Yet, London cannot be without them. Without them, London would plateau, stunted by its own inability to grow.

But London does grow, at the extended hand of the industrial crane. Load after load, layer after layer, they choreograph the picturesque postcards of London with ease. But cranes are never seen on these glossy, sunset images sold at souvenir shops. They are cropped, edited out and mentally deleted from the memories tourists make. Yet these filtered memories are twisted, altered, distorted. They give an impression of conclusion, that London is complete.

What they represent, and maybe what people resent, is London's changing landscape, its dynamic culture. Fiscally, cranes symbolise economic growth and culturally, they are the vehicle of social progress. Aesthetically speaking, they are too urban, even for Hackney. This, however, is a narrative not many care to see, writing them off as an unwanted interjection to life in London. But cranes, replicating the square scaffolding covering the trendy glass buildings they stack, are like a contemporary tribute to the city’s industrial past.

Since the 18th Century, London has been the maverick of development. It was the Industrial Revolution and London was dirty and cruel, a smoky cloud of overpopulation and disease – images Londoners now care to forget. When you think of this time and its factories, you think of the ghoulish soot-covered brick walls of 10 Downing Street[1] rather than the progress it paved for the decades to come. You forget that these unsightly moments of London were also part of rapid growth for civilization and the age of Enlightenment. Cranes are part of a similar image of London, unrefined and unfinished, purposely overlooked as not to spoil the mental image we wish was London. But, cranes have wedge themselves into the cityscape, establishing themselves as part of London with a subtle and bantering ego, knowing that their work will never be completely finished. Like growing pains, the cranes are a necessary blemish on the map of London.

Only by night, when they are predominantly unseen, these nameless landmarks surpass the lure of London’s urban life. It is at dusk that these machines string the sky with ruby-red fairy lights and shed a soothing aura across their cold exteriors. Crane lights become a cosmic game of Connect the Dots, cyphering the sky with their abstract stories – replacing the stars. Moving from one location to the next, these signs change with London, predicting where the next modification to London’s urban landscape will be. And like stars, these lights always return as red burning planets alien from the warm glow of domestic lights. Taller than the towers they amass and brighter than the homes lit at night, these cranes remain a preamble for the lives they help construct. Unlike the lights seen through the windows of apartment buildings, the red beams endure, becoming nothing but small dots speckled across the sky.

As dawn rolls over London and the city begins to wake, these lights vanish. They are instead echoed only by the high-vis jackets of the contraction workers on site. Like the cranes, these labourers are subject to repetition. From story to story, wall to wall, man and machine work in unison. Together they shape the buildings like the repetitive folds of a single origami square making a paper crane.

Not all cranes are used solely for construction, however. Like the birds they are named after, most of London’s mechanical cranes (along with human civilisation in general) seem to flock to the water, the River Thames. In a port industry still discernible from the fortified towers of the commercial district, cranes used to transport cargo offer a fleeting reminder of the past. In 1965, the tightly thronged cranes found along London’s river bowed in mourning with the rest of the nation during Winston Churchill’s funeral procession, forming their own archway of swords [2]. Undoing their strength with dancer-like control, these machines imitated a compassion not expected from machines, not expected from the stoic pace of development.

This demonstrates the gentleness of cranes altogether, the innately delicate side of industrial cranes. Their prismed bodies, however, are expected to be sturdy, unwavering and resilient to the gale winds and heavy burdens. They are supposed to be model of pillared strength for the buildings they succour to mimic, all the while making something out of nothing. But they are fragile, can unfold into a creased mess. In control, the machines are at best, a might of human engineering, but at worse, they are a catastrophic human error.

London is not estranged to the unearthly collapsing of cranes, halting growth and taking lives, destroying the progress it has made. Binding these calamities: the same earthshattering sound. It is an ‘almighty crashing and rumbling sound’[3] many have witnessed. A falling crane makes a shriek that pinches you ears until the crash of materials and the roar of confusion deafens the area. Initially, its seems that only something unnatural, maybe something supernatural, could cause such a powerful force. At these moments, people often speak with pious diction to describe the sound: ‘I heard an almighty bang, which really shocked the earth, you could actually feel the ground move’[4]. But this sound is altogether human, constructed and destructed at the might of our hands.

But imagine if you could crush these cranes without such perils, leaving you with the mighty surge of supremacy alone. What would happen if you were to press with the palm of your hand hard enough to flatten the crane downwards, back to the ground? You would see it corkscrew along their patterned ribs, spiralling down with a card-castle’s sense of ease until it was completely compressed. You would be left with a paper-thin mass[5]. And this square would once again remind you of how truly nothing these cranes in London are.

[1] Since 1735, 10 Downing Street has been the locale of British Prime Ministers. Behind its black door, many of the country’s most important decisions have been made. The reason for its black exterior, is traced to the Industrial Revolution, when many houses like it were covered in black soot from coal-burning factories. While the building was originally yellow, it is now painted black, a silent homage, if you will. GOV.UK, ‘History: 10 Downing Street’, History of the UK Government, n.d. [accessed 2 November 2018] https://www.gov.uk/government/history/10-downing-street

[2] Nicholas Soames remembered, “For me, this was a moment of colliding emotions: of solemn pride and great sadness…the Royal Marine band played Rule Britannia as Havengore [the ceremonial boat used] slipped her moorings and turned out upstream on the leaden river…we watched in awe as the great cranes of Hays Warf dipped in salute.” Laurence Dodds, ‘As it happened: The State Funeral of Winston Churchill, January 30, 1967’, The Telegraph, (2015) para. 10 [accessed 2 November 2018] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/winston-churchill/11375818/As-it-happened-The-state-funeral-of-Winston-Churchill-January-30-1965-live.html

[3] Lucy, a resident of Falmouth, Cornwall who witnessed a crane collapse at the local docks in 2017 said she heard an ‘almighty crashing and rumbling sound’. She added, ‘Immediately the air raid siren started and then there were loads of sirens.’ BBC, ‘Crane Collapse at Falmouth Docks’, BBC News, (2017), para. 5-6, [accessed 2 November 2018] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39870240

[4] In 2013, a helicopter hit a crane in Vauxhall, London at 8:00 am in the morning. The helicopter captain and one construction worker on the ground were killed. Five people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries, but the Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Basu told the BBC, it was ‘miraculous’ that the accident was not worse. The quote referred to in the text was given by a construction worker on duty during the incident. BBC, ‘London Helicopter Crash: Two Die in Vauxhall crane accident’, BBC News (2013), [accessed 2 November 2018] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21040410

[5] It is estimated that if flattened into a coin with the diameter that circumscribes its base, the Eiffel Tower would only be 4cm thick. Image how thin a crane would be! Data Genetics, ‘The Eiffel Tower”, Data Genetics, n.d. [accessed 2 November 2018] http://datagenetics.com/blog/april22016/index.html