The Riddle of London Town

The Riddle of London Town

There's something about towers, and their direct impact on skyline, which both excites and intrigues me. To date I've attempted to capture the character of many cities by reinterpreting their skyline, but the prospect of drawing London has always intimidated me. A city of big business, with a rich history and a much debated future. To try and relay all of this in one drawing was a daunting task. 

A few thoughts..

The skyline of London has recently been the subject of much debate. A recent report by New London Architecture revealed that 230 towers were set to be built in the capital over the next few years. This resulted in outcry from various high profile figures from the worlds of architecture and planning, and a call for a London Skyline Commission. But Skyscrapers don’t exist in isolation, they have a direct impact on amenity at ground level, on sunlight, density, and much more besides; they cannot exist without a footprint.     

The planning of the London has long been subject to criticism, debate, and numerous plans to completely revise it. To date, none of these wholesale masterplans has really taken flight. Yet, at various points in its rich, and sometimes tumultuous, history, London has had the opportunity to completely rethink itself. The Great Fire in 1666 wiped out the city centre, bar a few churches, in 4 days and provided the city the perfect opportunity to replan its medieval streets with a far greater discipline.  Sir Christopher Wren's vision probably the most famous of which. Hastily compiled, Wren himself was reluctant to extol its virtues and it wasn't to be. London’s unique freehold system of land ownership meant that development had to be incremental, and a city wide sweeping plan simply wasn't appropriate. But there are aspects of the Georgian city which are well regarded; in particular the grand sweep of Regent Street laid out by John Nash, and the many and varied Georgian squares. 

The second opportunity London was presented with to reinvent itself was after the Second World War. Again, much of the city centre was wiped out, giving its planners an opportunity to rethink. This prompted a commission by London County Council to investigate ways in which the city could be rid of its 5 perceived ‘flaws’; traffic congestion, depressed housing, inadequacy and maldistribution of open spaces, jumble of houses and industries, and the sprawl of surrounding country towns. The final plan, by Patrick Abercrombie, sought to improve the out of date street system which caused havoc with traffic. He also focused on reinforcing existing communities and harked back to the idea of London as a series of villages. His plan grouped factories and commerce into zones; grouping residential areas separately.  

Several more radical proposals for the city have also been put forward; for example the Loudon plan [1829], allegedly the most visionary landscape plan ever produced for a British city, and the MARS plan [1933-42] which was a distinctly Socialist utopian view. In recent years, Richard Rogers has been the most prolific voice in the discourse on the development of London. In 1986 he put forward a proposal entitled London As it Could Be, and later Towards a Strong Urban Renassiance, in 2005. The first was dismissed as “impractical by those in power”. Rogers’ Urban Renaissance would seem to be the only one to address the issue of height directly, prescribing that Towers ought to be "well-designed and in the right place". But is that too difficult to ensure, given the pressures and demand for more and more space in the overcrowded city? 

Today, although priorities for addressing the city’s problems haven’t necessarily changed since the end of WW2 [traffic is still a major problem], they have become more complex. Sustainability, density, population growth, crime, and visual impact all have an important part to play. But how does the Tower contribute, either positively or negatively? Skyscrapers are being built in the city centre to solve a perceived problem of density, and there is already an emerging wall of towers on the south bank of the Thames. Towers jostle for space, each one itching to be an 'icon'. Some standing tall and proud, others a little more embarrassed by their recent behaviour [the ‘walkie scorchie’]. 

It’s all a bit of a riddle.



Agas, Ralph; C. 1560. London in the time of the Tudors

Hollar, Wenceslaus; 1666. A True and Exact Prospect of the Famous Citty of London from S. Marie-Overs Steeple in Southwark in its Flourishing Condition before the fire

Ogilby, John; 1677. A Large and Accurate Map of the City of London

Wren, Sir Christopher; 1724. A Plan of the City of London, after the great fire in the year of our lord 1666, with the modell of the new city

Noorthouck, John; 1772. A Plan of the City and Liberties of London; showing the Extent of the Dreadful Conflagration in the year 1666

Abercrombie, Patrick; 1943. County of London Plan

Loudon, John Claudius; 1829. Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles

MARS; 1933-1942. Plans for London

New London Architecture; April 2014. London's Growing up! 

Chris Fenn, C, Powell J, and Mead N; 2014-03-29. How is London's skyline going to change? An interactive guide [The Guardian]

Wainwright, Oliver; 2014-04-28. Horror storeys: the 10 worst London skyscrapers [The Guardian]

Wainwright, Oliver; 2014-05-05. Stunners in the sky: London's top 10 towers [The Guardian]

Anna Gibb