Nairn’s London #15
THEN: Cutty Sark has leapt like a dolphin into a concrete dry-dock next to Greenwich Hospital. The superstructure is impressive enough, but the really marvellous thing is the view from the bottom of the dock, reached by steps from either end. The part of the boat that nobody every saw billows out in a proud copper sheath, as necessary as the shape of an aerofoil. The thing that Victorian architecture missed, and modern architecture has missed also (though modern aeroplane design has reached it because it had to): sheer need, pared of anything inessential. But sheer need on all levels – as much a spiritual need for the figurehead as a functional need for the precise shape of hull. Everything has got to be just where it is, and the rightness is worth more than any artificial tension. Inevitably; and you can try for all your life and miss, like George Bernard Shaw.
NOW: The Cutty Sark site is probably unrecognisable versus Nairn’s day –the entrance and support structure was only built around ten years ago. But the ship remains at the centre, as beautiful as ever. Almost entirely reborn from the ashes of its 2007 fire, the upper and tween decks both have the feel of a new build. But it’s the gleaming copper hull, as Nairn mentions, that is remarkable here. And with a café at the south end, it’s a great place to stop, have a cuppa, and enjoy the passing of time.