london town

Plague followed by fire in 1666, and the blitzkrieg of the 1940’s, were two occasions for urban reconstruction in the great English-British capital. Yet, Londoners stood fast. Some blame the merchant class in the 17th century for being too preoccupied with getting back to business to allow Sir Christopher Wren to reshape their city. Others proffer that the private interest of the landed gentry has always trumped the will to create a great public realm.

There is something that is not quite right with the story about the merchants acting in haste following the Great Fire. Wren was the King’s architect. Just 17 years earlier the king’s father had been beheaded at Whitehall. If one were casting about for a source of anti-royalist fervour, as well as sufficient capital to outfit an army, then one would be tempted to look downstream from Westminster to the City.

There is no one to blame in the mid 20thcentury, since not a mention was made of any such undertaking. Pity, without major reconstruction a great city is left a jumble of streets, and— save for the Mall— almost bare of street trees.

London cabbies (taxi drivers) are required to pass an exam called “The Knowledge”. It tests their ability to navigate the city in its entirety. The average time it takes to acquire “The Knowledge” is three years, well beyond any traveller’s time horizon. Way finding in the British capital is a function of neither high art, nor organic planning. The North-of-the-Rio-Grande-American traveller on the Grand Tour is fated to arrive at the place where—finally— English is spoken, only to confront an obstacle as impenetrable as a foreign language: the plat of this great city is a huge, jumbled mess. To make matters worse, the underground (the tube or subway) is superb, encouraging visitors to dive deep below, surface infrequently, and deal too little with all the great stuff there is to be seen out in the open.

From the stand point of its historical development, London is really a tale of two cities. The dichotomy forms around the ‘the City’ and ‘Westminster’. The first is the historic square mile and independent domain of the Lord Mayor. This is the part that burned to the ground in 1666. It is the Roman city, and London Bridge its single point of crossing over the Thames. The second is the seat of the Monarchy and the Church of England, the place that has everything to lose if the first were to gain political ascendancy. The point where the road from Westminster meets the road from the City is renown: Charring Cross. The intersection between the landed gentry and merchants of the City is more opaque. The hinge point in English politics seems to be Land Title. Entire towns are built on private property. If the merchant class survived for centuries on trading and manufacturing with English wool, then the sheep that supplied the raw material were herded and fed on land owned by the aristocracy.

Another sort of London fog sets in when one tries to account for this place as the seat of the last great western empire. The trappings are found crowding around St. James Park. Clockwise form Buckingham Palace there is The Mall, Admiralty Arch, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Wellington Barracks and Downing Street. South east of the park, heading into Westminster Bridge (1751) are: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

Strangely, none of it fits together. What there is of London that makes it a marvellously livable place got started 125 miles west of London in the city of Bath, also founded by the Romans. Furthermore, we will discover that the real origin of English urbanism was in Paris, with the father-in-law of the ill-fated King Charles I.

As it unravels we shall follow English urbanism as it moves across four epochs:

  • Wren’s Baroque Plan (1667)
  • The residential squares of Bloomsbury (1661-1800)
  • Regents Street (1815-30); and
  • The outbreak of cholera and typhoid at the astonishingly late date of 1899 near Golden Square.

As a coda, we will return to the city of Bath to summarize a new urbanism that first took root there between 1724-1769, and was dealt a crushing blow with the assumption of the throne by a teenage Queen in 1839.