David Michon recently asked me to write a piece for the new issue of The Journal of the London Society. I'm posting a version of it below.
David has just taken over as 'honorary editor' of the Journal, and has produced a wonderful new issue. The London Society itself has been around since 1912, but despite being fairly influential in the first half of the twentieth century, it had begun to fade into near-obscurity since, almost disappearing altogether. However, Peter Murray, David and others recently banded together to breathe life back into the Society, with the Journal one of the first outcomes.
It's a very entertaining and well-balanced first issue, and beautifully put-together. It opens with a supremely well-judged and informed piece on London and mapping, by Mr Adam Greenfield, and closes out with me, Hugo Macdonald, Leo Hollis, and David himself.
In between, highlights include an interview with Margaret Newman, Executive Director of the Municipal Art Society of New York, a great reflection on London and sound, by John Bingham-Hall, and a suggestion of 'a new suburban vernacular' for London, by Ben Derbyshire, accompanied by some rather lovely illustrations; plus, an interview with Sophie Camburn of Arup, regarding their work in Tottenham 'after the riots', and much more. Some fine photo-essays break up the text, and Jonathan McKay's art direction is pretty much pitch-perfect.
All in all, although this is issue #466 of the journal, it's a great new thing. Congrats to David and team.
I was asked to address the relationship between the masterplan and London, between the planner's ego, and this city's pattern of development. Given that, I initially wrote the piece around an architect apparently without ego, the great Charles Holden, reflecting on his barely-realised plan for Bloomsbury, and the University of London (Senate House, about which I've written before, is the only real outcome of what was a much larger scheme.) In the edit, the Holden section faded somewhat, to be replaced by a concern over the wave of tall towers about to hit London instead, most of which look to have considerably less grace than Senate House, and rather more impact, given their easy verticality.
Below, I'm posting the longer original edit, with the Senate House middle-eight intact. Do pick up the Journal, though, as it's typeset with a little more care, and actually edited.
The idea of London and the idea of planning have an awkward, contradictory relationship to each other, at once inspired and haphazard, progressive and reactive, visionary and ignored. From Christopher Wren’s redesign of London after the Great Fire to Richard Rogers’ 1986 London As It Could Be, plans have often influenced without actually being enacted, as if the city itself is too impatient for what it might perceive as well-meaning but misguided interventions in an otherwise organic process of growth. It has things to do, people to see. The architect Richard Weller characterises the suburbs of Australian cities as “the city cars built when we weren’t looking”. London is like the city London built when we weren’t looking. The ego of the planner—attempting to dictate the city’s evolution via the drawing board—is generally no match for the ego of London itself.
While many other great cities reveal legacies shaped by the directed interventions of great men (and they generally are men, with the primary exception perhaps of Jane Jacobs and New York) London has rarely buckled under the ego of a single creator. While no city can actually be directly controlled by a plan—even Brasilia is outgrowing its tightly defined origins—there is no doubt that Paris was significantly shaped by Baron Hausmann, Manhattan by Robert Moses, and Chicago by Daniel Burnham. London has resisted, and is interestingly more akin, in this respect, to large Eastern cities– a Tokyo, Shanghai or Istanbul.
While Robert Hooke’s influential surveying after the Great Fire, or Sir Matthew Hale’s Rebuilding of London Act in 1667, which contained the first significant building regulations in the city, can claim a great influence on the city, it is through variable parcels of organic development that London grows, sometimes guided by an infrastructure project such as Bazalgette’s sewers or today’s Crossrail, but generally under its own steam, powered by the propulsive drive of global commerce for centuries, expanding in all directions; up and down, as well as north, south, east and west.
Horizontal more than vertical
This slightly abusive relationship between plan and London even exists at the scale of the district. Charles Holden’s plan for the University of London headquarters is a case in point.
When Holden won the competition—chosen after the committee went on a tour of England and Wales and held dinners with four different architects; an interesting alternative to today’s procurement culture—he was already one of capital’s principal architects, having already completed designs for some 40 underground stations (such as the exemplary Arnos Grove) as well as the London Passenger Transport Board HQ at 55 Broadway, Victoria.
Yet his design for the University of London, for a modern megastructure amidst the genteel Bloomsbury squares, was a different order of project entirely. Holden drew a vast spine across Bloomsbury, a massive body of Portland stone hoovering up all the numerous institutes and schools of the federated University of London, and depositing them across 17 internal courtyards. At either end was to be a skyscraper-high tower, one of which would be the tallest building in London.
Perhaps only half of it was built, if that, due to lack of funds, though the built outcome does include one of those towers in the form of Senate House, now generally considered a magnificent presence in Bloomsbury. A towering, imposing slab serif of a block, it has its own rich mythologies. It was rumoured to be Hitler’s preferred location for a London HQ once Operation Sealion had run its successful course—not true, but effectively true, it’s been repeated so often. It was more likely to have been the inspiration for George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, given it was the location of the Ministry of Information during WWII, where Orwell's wife Eileen worked for the censorship department. It now provides the set for Batman films, whenever an institutional element of Gotham City is required, while continuing to be the home of the University of London.
For the University committee, William Beveridge had pronounced that “the design should recall to us the clear-cut relevance of science, the light-heartedness and the solemnity of youth, the enchanted garden of the arts”.
One could imagine the stereotypical megastructure-sized ego of the master architect unleashed on such a brief, yet although Senate House was sometimes seen in such terms—Evelyn Waugh described it as a “vast bulk … insulting the autumnal sky”—ego was not something one could lay at Holden’s door. A retiring, dignified, somewhat shy man by all accounts, this was also a man who rejected a knighthood twice—in the days when that really, really meant something—on the basis that architecture was a team game, a collaborative process.
Holden’s plan was followed by another by Sir Leslie Martin, formerly architect to the LCC, which fared little better. Today, the traces of Holden and Martin can be discerned, with the bold flourishes of the former at least indelibly marked by the elegant heft of Senate House. A later version of the university megastructure, courtesy of Sir Denys Lasdun, lands to the north in 1976, as home to the Institute of Education. This particularly fine brutalist sculpture has been known to elicit paeans to its staircases alone—by me, at least—and though seen by some as obliterating Boomsbury’s essential character of squares, it in fact attempts to evoke and advance them.
Ultimately, these few hectares of prime Bloomsbury real estate perfectly describe the interplay between planning and organic growth, between the ego of the architect and that of London itself. Great plans have been drawn up, yet comparatively little made it into brick and stone. Lasdun’s Institute in some sense bookends Senate House, yet the earlier Georgian squares of Bloomsbury—authors unknown—continue to describe the place as much as either.
The city deals with all these attempts to shape it: deflecting some, absorbing the energy of others, conceding a little direction every now and then to a powerful force like a railway, limiting the impact of plans to that of individual buildings, while ultimately growing rapidly and haphazardly in largely unpredictable fashion.
The legacy of these great plans for London is that we understand that the city’s ego is bigger than the architect’s—though it’s a worthy battle. We acknowledge that there is a folly to the idea of planning London but that we must do it nonetheless.
Vertical more than horizontal
Now more than ever, in fact, given the array of tall buildings sprouting either side of the Thames, like weeds between flags of Portland stone and banks of London clay. Here the ego of the developer, rather than the masterplanner, is at play – and enjoying a moment of apparent domination. Most of the proposed new towers possess less design quality than the iconic tall buildings already built, such as Senate House or Centre Point, or even the sweep from Middle Ages to present day, from Wren to Renzo, St Pauls to the Shard, via Lloyds, 30 St Mary Axe and 122 Leadenhall. In contrast, the proposed towers will make significantly less contribution to London’s urban realm.
Yet the scale of these elevations means their impact is urban, far greater than their physical footprint, and so they require a new focal plane of planners, vertical rather than horizontal. While a building’s impact was limited in an earlier age by its horizontal aspect—again, Holden’s planned megastructure for the University of London could not actually dominate Bloomsbury—these tall buildings will significantly impact and overload the fabric and infrastructure around them. This is not just about skyline; it is about urban systems.
Planning’s fundamental role in creating coherent, inspiring visions of the future city, is still vital. Yet it also provides a shaping function, through development controls, and now a heavier hand may be required, given the sheer number of these vertical incursions. While planning cannot directly control all the moving parts of a mercantile city like London’s, it can still ensure that the outcome is greater than their sum. Plans actually end up acting more as acupunctures than truly radical surgery, yet this is no bad thing. Similarly, high-quality tall buildings can add enormous value to the city, in every way, but these vertical needles require careful placement, a finer understanding of pressure points, flows and channels.
Ian Nairn, perhaps the finest critic of London architecture of his generation, perfectly captured a more refined notion of a greater legacy, based on the interplay between design and organic growth, between planning and progress. In Nairn’s London, he describes the avenues of trees in Bushey Park, surrounding Hampton Court, suggesting how cities such as London actually unfold over time.
"Man proposes, and a noble enough proposal. Nature takes over, but heeds man’s direction. All you see now are the glorious trees: but they would not have been so glorious without the initial design. As a symbol of Hampton Court, and of the whole of England, you could do worse: the tree allowed to grow freely, but to man’s pattern."
It is in this interplay between the nature of the city and “man’s pattern” that the true possibility of planning as a collaborative process exists, recognising a city’s inherent nature, and architectural interventions. We should prune a few of those proposed tall buildings, shaping these new “avenues of trees”.
Planning here has two roles, giving a sense of ‘long future’, a vision of coherent progress for the city (whether the plans can be fully realised or not), and shaping its ‘near future’, through managing its development and construction. While the city may partially resist such impositions, both are key components of designing within the gloriously complex reality of great cities such as London.
London’s unparalleled depth and richness is a result of this stew of interactions; we must pay attention to the ingredients now more than ever.
First published in The Journal of London Society, issue 466, Autumn/Winter 2014