Issue Number: 111
Books An account of the growth of London, as seen through twelve of its most significant buildings, presents a vibrant view of the city’s past, writes Edmund Fawcett.
In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin was true to his title. The great nineteenth-century critic and social thinker treated stones as the building blocks of a city and the elements of an architectural manifesto. In The Stones of London Leo Hollis is true to his title in a different way. In this entertaining social and architectural story of London from Roman times to the present day, the ‘stones’ include not only bricks, steel, glass and wood, but other necessary elements that gave the city its changing shape and character: money, needs and power. As he gets nearer to the present day, Hollis has quiet views of what a modern urban environment ought to be. But he holds no torch for any one architectural style and has not written a tract. He takes the lenient view that, in the sweep of history, London usually manages to correct the damage it does to itself.
Hollis starts with a strange stone, on display behind a grille on Cannon Street, which according to myth, London’s legendary founder, Brutus, brought from Rome in a boat, but which Roman settlers probably used as a centre point for their milestones. Next comes Westminster Abbey, which the English monarchy has for seven centuries used for royal coronations, weddings and funerals to suggest an invented continuity. There follows the Royal Exchange, the sixteenth-century commercial lobby where London began to grow rich. The Queen’s House at Greenwich, designed and completed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s, brings us to civil war, naval expansion and empire. Hollis’s section on Hawksmoor’s masterpiece – Christ Church, Spitalfields – completed in the 1720s, introduces one of London’s lasting strengths: foreigners who come to stay. The district was initially home to French Protestant refugees. Their place of worship became a Methodist chapel, Jewish synagogue and Muslim mosque.
Home House, designed by Robert Adam, on Portman Square, is Hollis’s peg for the property booms and busts of the eighteenth century. The story of John Nash, who laid out Regent Street (above), will touch every architect’s heart: he was later accused of bad management and cost overruns in the building of Buckingham Palace.
The spirit of Ruskin, champion of the Gothic, hovers over the chapter on the new Houses of Parliament that were rebuilt, after a fire, to neo-Gothic designs by Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin in the 1840s. At a time of radical protest, the symbolism was conservative, the building emphasising continuity with the English past.
Joseph Bazalgette is the hero of London’s struggle against sewage and cholera. His plans to bank the Thames and build modern sewers met with lethargy until the Great Stink of 1858, when the river was so clotted with human and industrial waste that many people left the city.
By 1900, office work had overtaken factory work as banking and commerce dominated London’s economy. Some 1.4 million Londoners lived in new developments and houses that we now dub ‘stockbroker Tudor’. Owen Williams’s Empire Stadium, Wembley, is the focus for a fascinating account of how the suburbs grew.
The Blitz of 1940-41 takes us to the rebuilding of the East End and to the modernist ‘streets in the sky’ of the Smithsons and Denys Lasdun. The Big Bang of 1986, which deregulated the City, and the financial boom of the 1990s and 2000s, changed London’s skyline again. These last two chapters move from social housing of the 1950s-70s, when close on 400 residential tower blocks changed London’s skyline, to power building of the City’s golden years, when buildings such as Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe – the Gherkin – altered it in other ways. Hollis notes, but not judgmentally, that both changes remain controversial. Ruefully, he adds that trumpeted plans for affordable housing have been shorn back almost to nothing.
London’s past, in Hollis’s hands, is never frozen there. He tells us not only what these great buildings were for and what they meant when they first went up, but the job they do and what they mean for us now. Though the detail is sometimes distracting, Hollis keeps several themes alive. One is the vitality of foreign influence throughout London’s long history. He quotes Daniel Defoe, ‘A true born Englishman’s a contradiction/In speech an irony, in fact a fiction’. The Royal Exchange was built with foreign stone to foreign design. Adam studied in France. Pugin’s father was French, Bazalgette’s forebears were Huguenot refugees. American money launched the Underground.
A second theme we could call English phlegm. It seems, as Hollis tells it, that nothing big in the building of a great metropolis happened unless it was prodded into action by disaster. It took fire, epidemics, war, or bombs to bring the plans of dreamers – Wren, Nash, Bazalgette, the modernists – to fruition.
A third theme is that London has always been a place of tension, inequality and protest. It is visibly so today. The owners of West End shops are surely glad that London’s streets are no longer made of cobblestones that can be torn up by protestors and thrown through the windows.
The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings by Leo Hollis (£25, Weidenfeld & Nicholson)