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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

A chess set for London

Today is London History Day, the annual celebration of the capital's past started a while back by Historic England and supported by the Mayor of London, the City of London Corporation and the Museum of London. It takes place on 31 May because that was the day in 1859 when the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster started ticking, so this year I thought I’d have a little fun by designing a chess set using London buildings for each of the pieces. Some are old, some are new, and I’ve explained how and why I’ve gone for each of them below. Let me know if you’d have chosen differently in the comments.


For the King, I needed a tower with a distinctive, masculine profile, so The Shard (2000-13, Renzo Piano Building Workshop with Adamson Associates) seemed like an obvious choice. I discounted the current batch of super-tall structures going up City of London as they lack the necessary recognition factor, whereas the eponymous angularity of the building that is still London’s tallest undoubtedly has that.


I wanted the Queen to be softer but just as representative of the city, and what is now known as the Elizabeth Tower (1840-70, Charles Barry, Augustus Pugin, Edward Barry) fulfilled those demands nicely as well as having a female name to emphasise that difference. Housing the Great Clock and the bell that was quickly called Big Ben, the London History Day link is actually accidental.


The Bishops in the chess set I used at school had a tulip shape at the top, so I sought a tower that had that same form. Popularly if incorrectly dubbed the Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe (1997-2004, Foster + Partners) was perfect with the added bonus that the spirals of darker glass on its exterior emulate the diagonal notch of the bishop’s mitre that also featured on that childhood set.


Horses’ heads are usually seen in the Knights, and so I thought it would be good to have a building whose shape evoked that. A challenge? Well, Guy’s Hospital would have worked well – it even has a jawline and ears – but I’d already thought of Trellick Tower (Ernö Goldfinger, 1968-72) which is in any event much more famous. The corridors linking the service tower to the main block can read as a neck, too.


That leaves the Rooks, which were often called (at school anyway) castles so what better choice than an actual castle for this, the last of the main pieces. Within the Tower of London is the White Tower (1078-1095, Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, under instruction from William the Conqueror), which has a suitably sturdy outline and is also the oldest building to be used in the set.

As for the Pawns, well… This rank of small, identical pieces needed a similarly modest but ubiquitous structure to represent them, preferably one that a person could enter in keeping with the theme. The cabman’s shelter came very close to being picked, but the dozen that survive are not quite the same and perhaps too close in shape to a semi-detached house. I’ve thus plumped for the Telephone Kiosk No 6 (Giles Gilbert Scott, 1935-36). Of course they too are found all over the country, but happily the all-timber prototype stands just inside the main gates of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London, so I’m giving myself that one.


Now, if only someone would actually make this…Happy London History Day!


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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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