In London it’s easy to get enraged about an urban planning decision that appears to casually wipe away the city’s past and allow for the construction of some modern monstrosity. Just ask Prince Charles, who recently helped put a stop to the redevelopment by architect Lord Rogers of the former Chelsea Barracks (Charles wrote to the local council, huffing and puffing about what he considered to be a Brutalist beast being built in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea).
But a new English Heritage book, Lost London 1870-1945, by Philip Davies, leaves you thinking that perhaps today’s planners are in fact far more enlightened than their predecessors. What look like epic projects to us are often small beer in comparison to the changes the Victorians and Edwardians made to the city without a moment of hesitation, let alone years of consultation and community impact reports.
Containing 500 pictures from the former London County Council archive, the plates show the city’s vanished palaces, Victorian shopping streets and Bohemian squares. It’s an extraordinary book that stops you at every page. But thank goodness lots of these places don’t exist any more – they look bleak, impoverished and without hope. And while the book’s foreword by English Heritage patron HRH The Duke of Gloucester is almost tearful, the author is more balanced in his assessments. A “bleak harsh world can be seen in these photographs”, says Davies, adding, “Many of the gaunt faces seen staring at the camera in these photographs in the slums of Whitechapel, Limehouse or Bankside lived just such a pitiful existence as sweated labour or industrial fodder.”
Some of the most dramatic pictures, however, are of how London was carved up to make way for grand new boulevards such as the Strand and Kingsway – projects that started at the close of the Victorian era but took years to complete. And these roads were put in to ease traffic (try selling any pro-traffic scheme in London today). Davies says that it was “the most extensive clearance project undertaken in London since the Great Fire.”
These schemes required the destruction of some of the city’s most loved streets. But nothing could stand in the way of progress. The Victorians and Edwardians had about as much compassion for the small-scale and the past as the worst 1960s motorway-loving urbanist. Yet today, we have adopted and adapted those London thoroughfares and if anyone came along and tried to change them, there would be an outcry.
Perhaps the best thing about looking back this far is that it gives you confidence that some cities – London being one of them – have a metabolism that can cope quite well with change. London can absorb the new (as long as it is well designed and built with passion).
That’s good news at this strange, eye-of-the-storm, moment for the city. Across London there are patches of land cleared of old dwellings and offices that lie empty. Stripped bare at the height of the property boom, some sites are now left waiting for the arrival of cranes and bricklayers because their owners (often banks) are trying to extricate themselves from messy deals. Meanwhile, developers who were about to put up high-priced bijoux pads worry that the market could yet turn sour again and are holding fire. So from the site of the old Middlesex Hospital in central London’s Fitzrovia to a tiny corner plot that once housed a repair yard in Bloomsbury, you are left wondering about what’s been lost and what will appear. And after reading this book, you think it could be something worthwhile and surprising.