The Unusual Way London Became London
It may be a flawed masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece without question, the most exhilarating human construct in the world.
The corner of Borough Market on a Saturday morning is an astonishing sight: a jumble of Victorian alleyways, railway arches and warehouses crammed with food stalls and open kitchens. The crowds can be impenetrable as thousands of shoppers mingle with passers-by and tourists. They spill into the surrounding streets, the riverside wharves and the cathedral churchyard. It is Southwark as it was in Chaucer’s day—scruffy, vital, irresistible, a London seething with life.
Looming over the scene just a stone’s throw to the east, is an apparition. The gleaming flank of Bermondsey’s Shard rises into the sky, vast, silent, largely empty, its windows blind and its entrances guarded as if against imminent assault. The edifice seems without purpose, the pavements around it dead. Perhaps one day the Shard will swarm with people, while Borough Market will lie a vacant heap of dust. I doubt it. London is a composite of such contrasts, and I acknowledge that this is part of its appeal. It is a place of diversity and eccentricity, where citizens have grown accustomed to clashing streetscapes, to a present in perpetual contention with the past.
All cities are a resolution of such forces, between the demands of the property market and the efforts of authority to direct that market to some wider purpose. London was initially unusual. It did not begin life as a fortress or a focus of religious faith. Its purpose was trade, and the requirements of trade dominated its early growth. Authority sought to regulate that growth, though with little success. As a witness in the 12th century, William Fitzstephen, said in summing up the London of his day, it was “Truly a good city—if it has a good lord.”
Rarely has this been the case.
From the Tudors onwards the argument over how the city should grow has always preoccupied it. Planning the first Covent Garden, the Star Chamber dictated the design of the piazza and even named the architect, Inigo Jones. One of the earliest permissions, for Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1643, sought to “frustrate the covetous and greedy endeavors of such persons as daily seek to fill up that small remainder of air in those parts with unnecessary and unprofitable buildings.” The word “unprofitable” meant “to the public.”
From the Great Fire onwards, governments assumed powers to license building beyond the City’s authority, and to ordain the safety and form of the streets. It might not concern itself with the health or well-being of the citizens, or with the "noisome trades" settled anarchically east along the river. But to the west the crown collaborated with the owners of the land over which London was to expand, to ensure its “profit” to the metropolis. From the layouts of St James’s Square, through the building acts of the 18th century to the enterprises of John Nash and Thomas Cubitt, there was a consensus on how London should look. Better-off citizens enjoyed streets and buildings that were probably cleaner and more spacious than those of any other city anywhere. The house style was classical but never ostentatious—at least not until Nash—with classes of property fixed by statute to serve all tiers in society, other than the very poorest. The resulting buildings proved extraordinarily adaptable as the property market ebbed and flowed.
Even today, the attic of a back-street mews may hide a digital start-up, while the shell of a Spitalfields mansion may hide a rag-trade sweat shop. The most expensive commercial floor space in the world is not in some City skyscraper but around 18th-century Berkeley Square. Nor was it true that the terrace and square reflected a purely bourgeois taste. When in 1984 the BBC sought a proletarian setting for its London soap, EastEnders, it chose not a council tower block but Victorian “Albert Square,” based on Fassett Square in Dalston.
London was dilatory in moving on from the regulation of its buildings to showing a concern for its infrastructure and for the living conditions of its poor. The market-led arrival of the railways was crucial. These disrupted the property market more than anything since the Great Fire, and focused public opinion on the acute poverty in which, according to Mayhew and Booth, a quarter of Londoners were now living. From the 1840s to the 1880s argument raged, first over the state of the city’s water and sewerage, and then over the housing of the poor. In the latter case, response came first from philanthropy and then from the slow and painful birth of municipal democracy. Only with the 20th century did London acquire governing institutions which other English cities had enjoyed since the 1830s.
Even then, galvanizing the LCC and the metropolitan boroughs into urban renewal took a long time. It allowed the continual ripples of suburban expansion to meet the burgeoning demands of all Londoners to escape the slums, with little more assistance than statutory “workmen’s trains.” The expansion grew and grew. In the half-century from 1880, London’s land area increased a phenomenal sixfold, with new suburbs absorbing almost all of Middlesex together with portions of Essex and Surrey. Meanwhile the inner city saw “reverse gentrification,” as early Victorian leases came to an end and dilapidated streets were occupied by those who could not afford suburban flight. The result was an open door to Abercrombie’s 1940s revolution, to his dismissal of London as an “outdated city” and his proposal to renew its core fabric from the ground up. London, he said, had to be “made fit for the motor age,” its historic neighborhoods reduced to quaint enclaves.
From this emerged unquestionably the most destructive period in London’s history, as hundreds of thousands of working-class Londoners were decanted into council estates, many so poorly designed as to require early demolition. Communities were upheaved, and immense sums wasted, while residents were driven from Victorian homes that could more cheaply have been restored. Demoralized planners and confused politicians eventually admitted defeat, leaving a property market free, for the most part, recklessly to write its own rules. Having survived one potential affliction the metropolis faced another.
The strategic planning of London at the turn of the 21st century would appear to have all but given up the ghost. There was no debate on whether London’s continued growth was to be encouraged or discouraged. Older areas that survived the Blitz and Abercrombie were largely safeguarded by local designation. But wider planning was limited to documents and good intentions. The new London showed no obvious concern for how modern buildings should sit alongside old ones, common practice in cities abroad. Tall buildings rose with no relation to their streets. There was little effort to guide density, use and social mix. Shopping in local high streets was left to wither. The London horizon was abandoned to fate.
The most vigorous debate was over to whom London “belonged.” Large swathes had, since the 19th century, been increasingly one-class towns. This changed rapidly. As middle-class boroughs accepted pockets of public housing in the 1960s and ’70s, so gentrification took hold of many working-class ones. It was never clear to what degree these changes should be quantified and organized, nor on what theory of urban demography such organization should be based.
In my view, no one is “entitled” to the ownership of a great city. London has always been a vehicle for immigration and emigration, for Olsen’s incessant “comers and goers.” Its economic vitality has depended on it. In the 21st century, with a third of London citizens born abroad, the idea of a no-go area for immigrants was unsustainable. Equally, the idea of “freezing” any district to a single group or class, as had seemed the intention in the mid-20th century, was unrealistic. I recall Sir Robin Wales, for 26 years leader then mayor of Newham, telling me the problems of his borough could be summed up as, “We just don’t have enough ABC1s.” Newham lacked a critical range of spending power and local enterprise, largely through an excess of council ownership.
At the same time, London has never been a city without local personality. It is a collective of communities, of citizens who in an age of democracy naturally seek a degree of control over their neighborhoods. They want protection from the harshness of the property market, from the disappearance of places of work, leisure and shopping. They want some social mix in their communities.
Anna Minton’s account of the suburban dispersal of Heygate’s residents in 2008 replicated, albeit less harshly, the Southwark dispersals that followed the coming of the Victorian railway. Modern cities should be able to show more social concern than has resulted from the distorted housing strategies. A well-ordered city balances the flow of the property market against the needs of poorer and migrant workers and the virtue of neighborhood continuity and cohesion. It cares for its homeless and incapacitated. The metropolis, in other words, “belongs” to all its citizens, to its nation and to the world. It is a matter of political decision how, at any stage in history, they divide it up between them. This is why I have devoted so much of this book to London as a built phenomenon, to the city whose fabric will survive long after each generation of its citizens has come and gone from its streets. When I look at those streets, I try to imagine the range of occupations, classes and nationalities that must have walked their pavements and lived under their roofs. I agree with the critic Rowan Moore in summing up London as “a city of the present, too pragmatic to be a utopian ideal of the future, too messed-up to be a model from history, but able to give shape to whatever forces are running through the world.”
It is what drives me to conserve as much as we can of the buildings that have proved themselves over the centuries to be popular, lasting and adaptable.
Perhaps since my first memories as a child are of a townscape bombed, polluted and overwhelmingly black, I see today’s London as incomparably a better place to live, cleaner, richer, more diverse and more diverting than it has ever been before. Its public transport is improved, its food immeasurably so. The faces seen and languages heard in the streets are those not of one nation but of a world city. Its greatest and most recent loss has been of tens of thousands of houses and commercial buildings that would today be popular and throbbing with life, when so many of their replacements are costly, energy consuming and often empty. But we can still try to design a new city in the spirit of the old.
I am glad to have been present during the 1970s when London’s history was at a sort of turning point. Walking through Covent Garden long after its rescue, I encountered a former local councillor who had sought its demolition to make way for another Barbican.
I asked if he did not prefer it the way it had turned out. He grudgingly admitted that he did, but he could not quite explain where he and his colleagues had gone wrong, other than to blame “the planners.” Across London, I wondered how many politicians, architects and builders might have agreed with him.
My response to today’s London is best illustrated in two of my favorite walks. To me they offer the same variety and delight as a naturalist derives from a walk through field and forest. They are rich in animal, vegetable and mineral, and constantly changing with the seasons. My first is in the City. It passes from the buzz of Ludgate Circus through the back alleys of Carter Lane and Apothecaries Hall on the slopes south of Ludgate Hill. It threads through alleys between the occasional surviving townhouse and the old St Paul’s Deanery. The route crosses Queen Victoria Street to regain intimacy in Huggin Hill with its Roman baths, Trinity Lane and College Street, then down to the ghost of the Walbrook stream at Dowgate, where Romans once worshipped Mithras. With the great towers of the Gracechurch Street cluster to our left, we dive down Laurence Pountney Hill and Lovat Lane to Wren’s exquisite St Mary-at-Hill, before passing the bombed ruin of St Dunstan’s to emerge at the Norman Tower of London. We have traversed a millennium of history—two millennia if we count the Roman baths. Our scenery is owed not to any Wren or Abercrombie, but to the medieval aldermen and vestries who embedded these old lanes so deep in the soil of London that no road-builder has dared eliminate them and no architect dared crush them.
A second quite different walk runs across the West End north from the Embankment through the Adelphi into the back streets of Covent Garden. It passes tiny Brydges Place, at its narrowest barely 40 centimeters, to run up to London’s most humble roundabout, Seven Dials, before turning west into exotic Chinatown. Unlike in the City, the streets here are mostly straight, Georgian in scale, their upper stories still boasting the dimensions of the eighteenth-century building acts. What is intriguing here is not the buildings but their uses. Today’s Soho is impossible to categorize. It is part red-light district, part upmarket dining area and then, north of Brewer Street, doors, windows and name-plates indicate the hallowed shrines of the movie business and the editing suites of the world hub of post-production. The citadels of Hollywood must dance attendance on the basements of Soho. The true measure of the productivity of these conserved neighborhoods is that Georgian Soho’s employment density at 1,300 per hectare, is more than half that of massively renewed Canary Wharf, at 2,300. To the west, we find colorful Carnaby Street, surviving still as a promiscuous retail promenade, a relic of the 1960s in the shadow of pompous Regent Street. Beyond lies one of London’s unnoticed delights, the Edwardian rebuilding of the facades of New Bond Street, like a cartoon strip of baroque Rome. Bond Street’s “suburb” Avery Row, is the Crown Estate’s model restoration of what was a scruffy “borderland” of studios and warehouses, running through to the deserted streets of west Mayfair.
These are streets that have prospered where the city has kept its nerve and not run screaming into the market place. They are where fabric was the essence, offering a welcome to whatever the transient market ordains. London has its clusters and some of them are splendid. But it is clear that the creative juices that keep the city constantly on the alert crave the patina of time passing. The neighborhoods through which I walk can be replicated in Paddington, King’s Cross, Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Bermondsey and Lambeth. Their secret lies in their buildings because it lies in the people their buildings attract.
I used to fantasize that one day I would see London finished. I would see every construction site completed and every roadwork tidied away. I would look out from Primrose Hill and consider the metropolis a job well done. Successful cities are never like that. My London has no hours, no seasons, no years or centuries. It is always going about its business. We can take it or leave it, but it does not care. It may be a flawed masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece without question, the most exhilarating human construct in the world.
Excerpted from The City on the Thames: The Creation of a World Capital: A History of London by Simon Jenkins. Courtesy of Pegasus Books.