If we’re thinking about architecture and city building, surely London’s zenith was the era of Georgian town squares? Perhaps 1700-1800. But if, as this book’s subtitle — A City at its Zenith — suggests, we’re thinking about an imperial city that finds itself at the centre of world trade, empire, finance and manufacture, the author probably has it about right. Andrew Saint, a respected architectural historian, suggests that London between 1870 and 1914 was a modern city in formation, a pioneer. But you might equally argue that it was a straggler, a laggard.
Paris had just built its grand and enduring network of boulevards (crushing the medieval city ruthlessly). Chicago was the world’s fastest-growing city and doing so mostly upwards. Vienna, Berlin and Budapest were building functional and often very beautiful modern forms. London was turning out poky Victorian terraces and faux-baroque town halls.
The irony, looking around the UK capital today, is that this was a city pioneering social housing, schools and public architecture from museums and baths to fire stations. It had strict rules about height and fire that kept buildings largely low and only the spires high. The London County Council (and before it the Metropolitan Board of Works) was always distrusted and hamstrung by a central government wary of giving it too much power.
Yet look what it achieved: an entire infrastructure of civic fabric. Now we can look on the shrouded shell of Grenfell Tower and the disastrous shape of a city that has squandered its riverside and skyline, an irreplaceable resource.
London was never going to be Paris. There was no top-down plan. Even after the Great Fire in 1666, developers built back so fast the authorities barely had time to respond before the streets were full of buildings again. Those cherished Georgian squares were the piecework of private developers.
But between 1870 and 1914, big chunks of the city as we know it were made. Kingsway, London’s great unappreciated boulevard, and Aldwych; virtually all its West End theatres and Shaftesbury Avenue itself; the humane new Boundary and Millbank estates; the great department stores; much of the Underground network; and that very emblem of city, Tower Bridge — all date from that time. It was an incredible mix, both functionally and stylistically, an explosion of grand, pompous classicism, restrained, Gothic brickwork and blowsy, theatrical Victoriana. The architecture was rarely really beautiful but it reinvigorated the city, making it more suitable for modern commerce and consumption.
There were also elegant mansion blocks, their name an attempt to persuade house-proud Brits into flats; slum clearances, dodgy developers and grand houses in Kensington; and ice rinks tapping a new craze. This was the time when London was the global capital of finance, but it coincided with the rise of an activist, often socialist metropolitan authority that had the power and imagination to transform the lives of the working classes not just with housing but also with education and leisure.
Saint is a little hobbled because much of the best British architecture of the period, the Arts and Crafts and fellow travellers from CR Mackintosh to Edwin Lutyens, was built in Scotland or in the country. There might, perhaps, have been a little more here about the City, which was largely made in this period — and then destroyed again in ours.
It can be a little painful to draw parallels with today when the libraries thrown up with such gusto are being shuttered and municipal housing seems a thing of the distant past.
On the other hand this is a portrait of a city driven by business rather than beauty, developers rather than designers. London is again living through a moment in which it is attempting to impose itself on the global landscape of business and, just as in 1870, finds its skyline and streets struggling to compete with the new pretenders. Then it was Chicago and New York or Berlin and Budapest, now it is Singapore, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Dubai.
London 1870-1914: A City at its Zenith by Andrew Saint, Lund Humphries £29.95/$59.99, 240 pages
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