City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Building of London

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What a small book from 1946 might tell us about London in 2018

Will Wiles posted a photo of this 1946 Puffin Picture Book, The Building of London, on Instagram recently, and I quickly turned to the internet to find a copy for myself.

It’s a lovely book, written by a Margaret and Alexander Potter. A simple, slightly flimsy paper confection, you can imagine it being reproduced in vast numbers, bundles being dropped in schools up and down the country. Printed on the inside cover: “Puffins in paper covers are one shilling; in boards, two shillings. All later titles are now bound in boards; but stocks of some earlier titles exist in both forms.” A shilling was 12 pence. Who knows how many hands this copy has been through before mine? It has “Mrs Sparks” written in the top left corner of the inside page; perhaps a teacher, although it looks like a child’s handwriting. Looking at the state of my copy, either Mrs. Sparks was not a particularly careful woman, or this copy has had many not-so-particularly-careful owners in the last 70-odd years.

But it’s still perfectly readable, and each page, which I’ve photographed below, is worth poring over. The Puffin Picture Books series looked wonderful. The Potters produced a book both readable and thoughtful, simplifying a complex topic only as much as it needed to be and no more, and glancing at the other titles on the inside cover, the whole series would’ve provided great primers for young minds. (Though The Magic of Coal sounds like one of those super-ironic Ladybird book reinventions of recent years, and interestingly, amidst all the other more predictable sepia-hued Empire-regarding titles like A Book of Trains, Famous Ships, The Story of Furniture or Animals of Australia, are three books on China – yet nowhere else.)

As is the usual London narrative, The Building of London covers the development of the city, then the largest in the world, from the Romans onwards. It notes that there was no doubt some London before Roman, but “we have not dug up many remains to tell us anything about it,” and as is also usual, it describes how the Romans “knew what they were about” when it came to urban development. (Indeed, as previously discussed, the Roman urban model could be extraordinarily effective, even sustainable.)

It then rattles through a couple of thousand years of history, pausing for the Normans (“great builders”), noting how the gilds (sic) and their mercantile sensibilities would set the pattern for virtually all of London’s governance since, the emergence of what would become empire via its trade routes, then plague and fire and rebuilding (“though (Wren’s) original plan was not used entirely”) and the development of building regulations (“They hit on the idea of a standard house”), before parks and squares and railways and industry and finally cars.

Intriguingly, the last four pages are as key now as they were then, describing the modern expansion and new building types of the immediate pre-war buildings (Highpoint, where I’m writing these words, included), and then the desperate need to carefully yet ambitiously re-plan and re-build after a war so recent as to not be a memory yet.

It’s both inspiring that their messages were so clearly conveyed to youngsters at that point, and distressing that they are still entirely valid now. The final pages focus on a need for a coherent, holistic governance, for new construction methods based on prefabrication, and for a planning focused on health, quality housing for everyone, and the environment.

The final page, drawn in the singular and engaging style that permeates the book, shows three planners standing over a plan of London, sprinkling trees all over the map, blowing sunshine from above, and reaching into a bag of ‘Fine houses for all’, with a couple of canisters of ‘Fresh air for London’ to draw upon. And as Wiles pointed out, a bulldozer can be seen crushing classical columns and an architrave with ‘PROFIT’ chiselled on it.

All those issues then remain issues now. The planners are surrounded by shelves whose volumes reveal their influences – Abercrombie, Sitte, Le Corbusier, Vitruvius, Mumford, and various reports – and drawers indicating priorities: “playgrounds, good things for housewives, schools, bathrooms, hospitals and clinics for all, flowers, gardens, trees, parks, children, girls, boys etc.” The “housewives” excepted, one could do worse than make those priorities for a London plan now, seeing as those guilds tend to take care of the city’s economics anyway.

Abram Games’s 1942 posters; collected at the V&A

Incidentally, the counterpointed tableau on these pages is reminiscent of Abram Games’s famous 1942 posters, one of which featured Berthold Lubetkin’s, or Tecton’s, Finsbury Health Centre arising from the rubble of the Blitz. This is a poster that Churchill banned, perhaps immediately demonstrating how difficult it was going to be to rebuild Britain, given the establishment’s, and much of the country’s, predilection for looking backwards rather than forwards.

Tecton drawing for Finsbury Health Centre

The 1938 Finsbury Health Centre has been described as arguably modern architecture’s most important single achievement in England in the first half of the 20th century”, and perfectly encapsulates the spirit of those last pages of The Building of London. Two Lubetkin quotes may be key here: “The curving façade and outstretched arms (of the centre) were intended to introduce a smile into what in fact is a machine,” and “Nothing is too good for ordinary people.” You may also see echoes of Tecton’s drawings for the health centre in the Potter’s style.

The final paragraph in The Building of London contains the lines:

Shall we have the courage and patience to plan a better London which will be more convenient and healthy than the old London and more beautiful? That question will have to be answered in the next few years. You will see the answer.

Poignant, perhaps; in that so many of those issues – affordable quality housing, clean air and green spaces, forward-looking mobility and building technologies – are still issues now. So yes, we saw our answer, sadly.

Noting that the 1851 100,000 m2 Crystal Palace building was prefabricated!

At the same time, we now have the knowledge and means to address these issues as never before; certainly, as compared to 1946, in ways that were not at all obvious then, or could not yet exist, or ended up as missteps. The passage in the book on mobility is driving headlong into the car-oriented planning that London and similar cities still suffer from. One could even critique that final image as conveying a then-typical understanding of planning as three smart planners in a room looking down on a map, god-like, despite their good intentions. (At least one of the three is a woman, though.)

Recalling JG Ballard’s observation that post-war Britain was so “derelict, depressed, (and) half-ruined” that it was almost as if we’d lost the damn war, a London in ruins would’ve provided all the motive force required to build London along the lines this book suggests. Yet we didn’t, quite, despite the first, often inspirational waves of publicly-led housing. (They did make the National Health Service though, so…)

Now our crises are slower, our problems more wicked, our systems more complex. Yet we also have other ways of thinking and doing now, just as attuned to achieving these results. So I find these last paragraphs poignant, yes, but also inspiring.

There’s still so much to learn from small, simple artefacts like this, framed as The Building of London is now, in a perspective that the Potters could not have. We know how difficult it is to coherently plan a city with London’s relentless, restless forward motion, but now more than ever, let’s try to live up to the ambitions expressed on those last pages.

Below, all the pages from The Building of London, by Margaret and Alexander Potter, Puffin Picture Books (1946.) Click for close-ups.

The Building of London, Margaret & Alexander Potter (1946)


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