The impossible city

Joseph Rykwert, is the author of, most recently, The Seduction of Place (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000; OUP, 2004).

The making of a metropolis

London has grown quirkily, and that quirkiness still determines the way it develops. The City of London which is the CBD (Central Business District - an acronym recent planners love) covers the area which has outlined it since Roman times. The Stock Exchange, the Mansion House and the Bank of England, its heart, are a few yards/metres north-west of the Roman Forum. The Roman boundary also delimited - more or less - the area ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666. The opportunity to plan the area grandly was then lost in property disputes.

State government - monarch and parliament - kept out of the City but had a joint enclave at Whitehall-Westminster. Between those two centres ran a riverside street just out of reach of the muddy tide - the Strand. These (and the bridgehead at Southwark) are London's kernel. Westward of it, land was developed for superior housing by the great estate owners between the 17th and the 19th centuries as a network of streets and squares up to the barrier of a royal (Hyde) Park, and then in a pincer to the north (Paddington, Notting Hill) and to the south (Kensington).

The Thames-side embanked docking areas in the City meanwhile spread into an even larger commercial development eastward, downstream. Lower-income housing formed a ring round the double kernel and over the river. The population increased mightily through the 19th century and the urban fabric absorbed the surrounding villages - Hampstead, Wandsworth, Brixton, Islington, Ealing - many of which still retain their administrative autonomy. The pleasure of London - as against Paris, Berlin, Rome - is the way a Londoner can still exploit this village character.

The gimcrack and the theatrical: Nash leaves his mark

The only major Enlightenment planning project was that promoted by the crown as a real-estate speculation - an avenue linking Carlton House, the palace of the then Prince Regent (later George IV), with his "suburban" villa in what became Regent's Park. Devised by John Nash - arguably the only architect, besides Wren, to put his gimcrack and theatrical mark on London - this development was intended to rival the works Napoleon was carrying out in Paris. The avenue, inevitably called Regent Street, changed direction where it crossed Piccadilly, and continued into Portland Place. When the Regent assumed the crown and moved to the newish Buckingham Palace, Carlton House was pulled down, as were the adjoining stables for Royal horses which were at the north end of Whitehall. They were replaced by the National Gallery and the yard in front of it became Trafalgar Square.

Through the 19th and early 20th centuries the Whitehall enclave was filled with huge and growing ministries. Building there and elsewhere was interrupted by the hiatus of 1914-18, and the more devastating one of 1939-1945. After the bombs had fallen, rebuilding was fast - but sporadic and relatively low-rise in spite of all the acute housing and office shortages. Building materials and labour were short as well. The dominant form was the slab-block - as at Churchill Gardens, a large municipal housing estate for Westminster City Council (5,000 inhabitants, 1946-62), which consisted of thin apartment blocks from seven to eleven stories high by the Thames, at right angles to the river; or the commercial/office development on the north edge of the Roman city, at London Wall (1955 onward) of blocks narrower but higher than the ones at Churchill Gardens, a project which had to take account of the ruins of the original Roman wall after which the street was named.

"Modern architecture" arrives - in 1951

In 1951, to celebrate the end of the war, the relaxing of austerity measures, as well as the centenary of the Crystal Palace, the government sponsored a "Festival of Britain" by grouping a series of exhibition pavilions on the south bank of the Thames where the bombs had struck hard. The largest was a low, shallow-domed circular building known as "the Dome of Discovery", the metal cupola supported by a ring of oblique, latticed metal struts. The Festival marked the first major official sponsorship of what was then called "modern architecture", and it left one permanent building on the site - the Festival Hall. It added a much needed concert venue for London's many orchestras and became the seedling from which a cultural enclave grew, to include a new National Theatre.

The project for such a National Theatre on the French model had a crossed history beginning in the eighteenth century, but was finally established by Parliament in 1951, though its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, was not appointed until 1965 and the building completed in 1971. Before it was finished, a series of other galleries and halls were built between the theatre and the concert hall. These buildings now shelter many cafés and restaurants, so that the southern embankment between Westminster and Tower Bridge has effectively become a very popular public park and waterside promenade - which is very much what had been foreseen in the plans which the London County Council commissioned in 1943/4 and was asserted as one of the main aims of the 1951 proposal.

London County Council had regulated the height of buildings for human occupancy at 80 feet (24 metres) in 1897, but removed the limit in 1947; the first high-rise point blocks appeared after 1960, incongruously, round the edge of Hyde Park: Knightsbridge barracks (designed in 1960 but not finished until 1970) has a small one - 40 metres, while the 28-storey London Hilton in Park Lane was started in 1961 and completed quickly. At the crossing of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, the even taller Centre Point (1963-67) at thirty-five stories dominated, and it devastated that rather louche but friendly intersection. The same architect, Richard Seifert, built the slightly smaller (100 against 122 metres) point block for National Westminster Bank, the first high-rise in the City. To build high or not to build high has remained a focus of much discussion about the future of London.

The '70s and '80s were the time during which the City and its westward reaches filled with a mass of rather undistinguished commercial office developments stimulated by the end of exchange controls in 1979. Only the great insurance combine, Lloyd's, innovated by commissioning a new headquarters from the (then young and not yet ennobled) Richard Rogers, whose buildings of the time, however institutional, were festooned with ducts and lifts and external conveniences. The Lloyd's Building looked startlingly brilliant at the time. City building during that ventennio was almost universally dismal.

Meanwhile, by 1980, much of the commercial, eastward building - the warehouses and dry-docks - had emptied as maritime trade was technically transformed and the Empire on which much of it depended fell away. The docklands area had long-ago declined from poverty into criminality. Being cheap and close to the City it began to attract speculators. The government of Mrs Thatcher then stepped in, investing heavily in infrastructure (a light railway, new roads, ample mains services) while at the same time freeing the area once called the Isle of Dogs of planning restrictions (as Mr Deng would in Pudong, across the river from Shanghai, or in Guangzhou near Hong-Kong). As so often happens with over-ambitious developments (a pleonasm - over-ambition is a developer's stock-in-trade), Canary Wharf was finished in 1991 just in time for the critical oversupply of office space which resulted from the building-boom that followed the City's relaxing of planning regulation. The developer went bankrupt, but regrouped and by 1999 had bought back the whole area which now has two new high-rises as well as a number of lower point blocks and infill buildings.

The spectacle trumps Westminster

In 1986 the Thatcher administration abolished the left-wing Greater London Council which succeeded the London County Council (1888). The headquarters of both was County Hall, an opulent Edwardian Baroque palace appropriately sited across the river from the Houses of Parliament. Ralph Knott won the competition for it in 1908; building started in 1912, and after the wartime break was finished about 1930 - and added to later. The whole complex now stood empty. It was therefore privatized and let out - much of it as a hotel, various offices, and an art-gallery to house the largest and most clamorous examples of New English Art. By the end of 1999, an enormous (135 metres in diameter) steel Ferris wheel like a giant bicycle, was moored into appropriately elephantine mass-concrete foundations sunk in the bed of the Thames. This piece of fairground apparatus, licensed for four years in 2000, has already been there for much longer - nor is there any indication that it will be removed. At least not until the tourist money dries up. By dwarfing the institutions of government around it, it confirms London's allegiance to the Society of Spectacle.

Notwithstanding the autonomy of its 33 boroughs, London needs centralized government. The Greater London Authority was reconstituted in 1999 under a directly elected mayor in recognition of this fact. In collaboration with the boroughs the authority is the guardian of the Green belt - an area of park and agricultural land surrounding London (and now many other British cities). Launched by the London County Council during the 1930s as a barrier against sprawl, it was internationally regarded as London's gift to urban planning. Its encroachment by low-density speculative housing provoked the formulation of new planning policies by the allies of the once much-derided gauchiste former chairman of the old Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone, who was elected the first mayor in the new dispensation, and given - up-river from the promenade, beside Tower Bridge - an ovoid glass "city hall" designed by Lord (Norman) Foster, already popularly designated "the testicle" - a much reduced successor in both scale and size to the majestic (but privatized) County Hall.

Much further downriver, opposite the Dockland development, a large piece of "brown" (i.e. disused industrial) land had been requisitioned by the Conservative administration for a "millennium dome" to act as the centrepiece of the celebrations of the year 2000, and as the motor for regenerating the area south of the river east of Greenwich where much of the soil was toxic, since it had been the site of gas and coke plants since the nineteenth century. After some hesitation, the project was taken up by the incoming New Labour government. The Millennium Dome was designed by the now noble Lord Rogers and recalled the "Dome of Discovery" of half a century earlier (in profile, at any rate) though bigger and structurally more refined. Cables anchored in the ground ran over the ring of outward-leaning latticed struts and the metallic cupola was suspended from them. Unfortunately, the infrastructure was not quite ready for the celebrations, the first exhibition was heavily undersubscribed - and six years on, no convincing use for the dome has yet been discovered or devised.

The penthouse cult

While the single-family house has long been the Englishman's ideal dwelling, the young and rich now seem to prefer to live high. The average height of residential towers in Britain has grown from 24 to 27 stories since 2004 (and 127 of them are ready or under construction all over the country). Of course, only the top stories are desirable, so that residential towers reverse the old Parisian-Roman section: the higher the more glamorous - and expensive. Meanwhile the Mayor and his advisers make well-publicized noises about the need for new high-rise buildings in London. Lord Rogers (who advises the Mayor) has been reported as estimating that 15 to 20 new skyscrapers are needed to enliven London's "boring" skyline. Two have been finished so far: the Docklands tower and the more recent Swiss-Re tower designed by Lord Foster's office - somewhat lower, at 180 metres. It occupies the site of the Baltic Exchange - a victim of earlier IRA terror bombs - and was commissioned by that insurance group to house its own offices and provide rentable space as well as the now obligatory club accommodation at the top. Its phallic (cucumber? cigar-like?) shape earned it the nickname "erotic gherkin"; the owners accepted the "gherkin", though they have dropped the "erotic" in promotional literature. Foster's and Rogers' offices, both of which were what used to be called "cutting-edge high-tech", also became early converts to energy conservation and other "green" issues. Swiss-Re has an elaborate "natural" ventilation skin and "natural" heating arrangements.

The same is true of the tallest of the point blocks - at 303 metres, roughly three times the Eiffel Tower - so far approved (the deputy prime minister overturned the negative verdict of the local government inspector). It is designed by Renzo Piano, arguably one of the most intelligent architects currently practising. In the shape of a very slender pyramid, it also has a nickname, '"The Shard". A mixed development, it has offices on the lower floors, housing in the upper ones, and the usual restaurant-bar-club-viewing platform at the top. It straddles London Bridge, an over-used suburban station where the railway crosses over the Northern Line underground, and will therefore require considerable public investment in transport links to be really attractive. No one seems to have noticed, moreover, that the nickname is not altogether felicitous. A glass shard is not so much something you notice when it is held up for admiration, but one you heed - usually painfully - when you cut yourself.

Dubai-on-Thames?

There is yet another problem which is not often mentioned in this connection: London has over a million square metres of office space vacant at present, and rents have fallen. No one is sure of course - but a 1991-style decline may yet be in the offing. All this has been given a sideways shift by the Olympic committee's decision to set the 2012 Games in London. The stadia and housing are to be in the Lea valley, a belt of industrial derelict land and reservoirs created by the Lea river (which flows into the Thames just downstream from the Isle of Dogs). Its development was foreseen in those development plans of 1943/4 and 1951, mentioned earlier, though until the choice of the Olympic committee was announced, action was sluggish. This torpor has now been shaken and a series of competitions will shape the buildings connected with the Games as well as of the housing only indirectly related to them. The first competition result was announced in 2005, that for an Olympic Aquatic Centre - a series of pools and other installations connected with water sports to be built to a design by Zaha Hadid.

This change will inevitably deform the real-estate market, as will the long-awaited development of the vast area of "brown" sites and marshes which stretch beyond the Thames Barrier - the flood protection dam built by the Greater London Council in 1974-1982. The Thames Gateway waits only for the promised investment in public transport to energize the incipient but sporadic building activity going on either side of the river.

Tall buildings present the architect with a permanent problem - not just in London - namely their impact on the ground on which they stand and on the streets or open space around them. In a recent interview Renzo Piano hoped that the space round his proposed "Shard" would become a piazza (Italian, good) not a plaza (Spanish - and American - bad). The general idea is obvious enough: in a piazza, people sit at café tables to drink their coffees, in a plaza they rush across it, sipping it from paper cups through straws in their plastic lids. The Latin-type café has been a welcome London innovation over the last two or three decades, probably as a by-product of global warming as well as of the increasingly cosmopolitan shift of the city's population, but it may not survive its promised Manhattanization.

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