I work in an office near a large construction site in Victoria, where work is underway on the new Crossrail project. I said “work”, but one of the enduring mysteries of building sites is how anything ever gets done. As I walk from Victoria tube station to the office I pass by the Crossrail building site. There are a lot of men (and the odd woman) in bright orange jackets, with their helmets and goggles, standing around. Some of them stare at mobiles and pieces of paper. Some chat or point. One or two sit in motionless diggers. Three stand by a gate onto Buckingham Palace Road, ready to open it and block the pavement if a lorry arrives with a load.
Overhead, six or seven cranes lurk, their only motion being a slight swaying in the breeze. All is peaceful.
How does anything ever get built?
Now, I appreciate that much of the construction on this site at the moment is probably taking place underground. But this sense of busy inertia is there at any building site. Take a look at the next one you see.
From all this inactivity, slowly but surely, structures emerge and buildings form. And still, men stand around in orange jackets, looking up at the miraculous edifices that have grown from their unstrenuous efforts. How they have done it I don’t know, but the building has been built.
This is not unique to building sites. I once visited the Rolls Royce factory in Derby (2001, I think). We walked through a building full of half-finished aircraft engines. Magnificently complex and gleaming, awesome in prospect. Again a lot of men were standing around. One or two tweaked a nut or turned a screwdriver (robots were surprisingly scarce). Others drank tea. The atmosphere was serene. Time clearly needed to be taken on these ultimate machines. Perfection was all. Progress was stately. Or so it seemed.
I suppose an office isn’t that different. The vast majority of people are in front of screens, staring, tapping the keys. Expressionless. Others lounge in meetings, discussing who knows what. Thinking about who knows what, too. When my children were very young and they asked me what I’d done at work that day, I’d say “well, I talked to some people, I wrote some emails, and er…”
So maybe standing around on a building site, or a factory isn’t really all that different. And at least at the end of it, there’s a building, or a machine to appreciate. A thing.
Crossrail will be brilliant when it’s finished. And all those men (and women) will be able to say “I built that”.
Even if they were just standing around most of the time.