Two buildings in London tell very different stories.
Over one million tourists flock every year to view London’s gothic beauty, Westminster Abbey. Tourists choosing to forgo the £18 admission price to tour the abbey line up for the Evensong service just to get a short peek inside. Rambunctious teenagers, the elderly, believers and non-believers all line up and are ushered in quietly by men and women in vestments who keep a close eye on the behavior of this oftentimes rag-tag group. Even those without faith attend the prayer service in the hopes of seeing the interior and (I hope) to appreciate the beauty of one of the world’s greatest choirs singing some of the greatest pieces ever written. Tallis, Duruflé, and Purcell fill the expanse of carefully crafted stone and glass.
Outside the abbey, sitting pathetically across the street is another building which no one stopping by London on a quick visit will likely ever notice. The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre which once, perhaps, was lauded for its cutting-edge design and sleek, modern exterior is now tired, sad, and largely ignored. After a mere 28 years, any excitement its novel design may have caused has now ended, while nearly 800 years later the abbey still exudes as much beauty and grace as the day it was built.
Despite the unfortunate mar on this otherwise stunning part of London, observations of the scene struck me as hopeful. Amidst the continuous construction of buildings which are simply a plague on the eye and soul, the truly beautiful structures they stand beside stand firm. Apart from the obvious juxtaposition of the two buildings there was something more unmistakable: no one turned an eye toward the concrete and glass slab of a conference center. Every tourists’ camera, every person waiting in a long line or craning their neck was focused on the beautiful abbey, St. Margaret’s Church to its side, or the houses of parliament just a stone’s throw away. Beauty is not trendy, and tourists, perhaps unconsciously, seem to recognize this. Tourists, those seekers of beauty, do not flock to the QEII Conference center to bask in its presence nor will they ever. In fact, it is modern architecture to which they continually turn a blind eye. It’s true that tourists tend not to see much in the places they visit fleetingly, but we should be comforted by what they do choose to see when they travel abroad.
Even though I would gladly join a protest, start a demonstration, or sign a petition to have the QEII Centre razed to the ground, perhaps we may use it as an example of “progress”, and point to it as progress’ folly. Unlike the abbey, the QEII Centre does not inspire, lift the spirits, or remind one of the Maker of all. We are blessed to always have beauty and truth on our side, and, as always, we can show the world this beauty starting on a small-scale. We must do what we can to make our homes, churches, even the clothes we wear a “thing of beauty” and “a joy forever”. For now, let the conference center stand as a testament to the progress cherished by the secular world, as it continues to lie in the shadow of a magnificent abbey nearby, one that directs the observer straight to the heavens.
Blair Katherine Kelly is a Gonzaga University graduate and a Regional Director for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. She is a Spokane, WA native, but now resides in a small town of porches, West Chester, PA.