One of London’s greatest strengths, and in some ways, its greatest curse, has been the lack of a dominating Overlord with the power to tear down entire chunks of the city and rebuild it in their preferred style.
London is, largely, a hodgepodge of narrow twisting streets, odd buildings from a vast array of ages and a multiplicity of architectural styles.
Not for us the Absolute Monarch getting grand boulevards to government buildings, nor the Soviet dictators doing the same in the dubious name of the people.
However, we’ve had a few close shaves, and whenever a block of land large enough have come available, large master plans are proposed.
The Great Fire of London produced many such plans, and despite later hype, none of them were ever actually considered. The other great fire to engulf London was caused by German bombers, and unlike the years after the Great Fire, enough of London lay ruined for long enough for grand schemes to be proposed, that nearly happened.
The near misses are now the topic of an exhibition inside Wellington Arch by Hyde Park corner.
A mixture of books and drawings showing off the plans, the highlight for most are the large computer renders of what the areas might have looked like.
You’ve probably seen this insane idea to cover much of Soho with a roof in the news recently. Actually, it isn’t that crazy an idea — as it is basically just a Westfield Shopping Centre, in Soho. Less viable would have been the then-popular obsession with the motor car, and the vast car park spaces it would have needed.
In fact, had it been built, those car parks would probably have been turned into shops — just as Canary Wharf is doing at the moment.
The less said about expectations that the helicopter would be a popular form of transport the better.
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It’s elsewhere though that the real force of the 1960s architecture would have probably been felt though. After all, the Soho scheme — just a crazy idea by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe — would have been largely hidden behind classical façades.
But how about most of Covent Garden becoming the new South Bank in design at least, with most of the area’s historic buildings replaced with concrete ziggurats and amphitheatres. Or Picadilly Circus basically ending up like an outpost of Birmingham?
Much of Whitehall would have failed to the same fate, with a vast concrete archway trying to replicate Holbein’s predecessor and most of the offices swept away in an array of brutalism structures.
In fact, quite a bit of it did take place away from prying eyes, as the interiors of Whitehall buildings were covered in plasterboard and polystyrene to cover up the gaudy Victorian excesses. It was restoration in the 1980s that finally uncovered the remarkable decoration again. How close we came to losing it forever.
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I am not instinctively against concrete brutalism, in fact I quite like it, in its place. However, all too often concrete was used inappropriately, and in early years too little was understood about maintenance issues. So buildings took to staining and dirt all too quickly, and cleaning was all too rare.
Today we can build concrete buildings that last, have low maintenance costs and look stunning — but the legacy of the 1960s still lingers on in the public imagination.
In fact, I hope we get more concrete — as an antidote to the current obsession with glass and steel.
Most of the grand schemes proposed in the 1960s failed for lack of money in the post-war economy, or a lack of political will — and most of them would have failed functionally as we today are far better at understanding human needs in buildings.
Buildings were seen as imposing order and control on society, whereas today we realise that is simply not possible. The Isokon building is perfect example of the attempt to deliver both a concrete modernist building, and an idealised living environment. Putting two radical ideas into one place meant invariably if one failed, then the other was doomed as well.
The concrete has been restored recently, but the communal living long since abandoned.
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It is the grandeur of the schemes though that would have also either doomed or saved them — as they were often too big, too “all at the same time”, and where any street in London is a random collection of buildings, these revamped areas would have had one architectural style, one scheme, one layout, one purpose.
Any one building can grow old and tired, and be pulled down, but what happens when an entire estate suffers the fate? Could we today really be looking at a shabby concrete Whitehall and be itching to tear down the whole thing? Only to fall into the same trap of replacing it all at the same time, and having to start again in 50 years time.
It is in that light, that I slightly worry about the grand estates being built today, or planned — as Old Oak Common, Nine Elms and Stratford.
Docklands probably just about avoided the problem by simply taking 30 years to get where it is today, so there is some diversity of architectural styles evident.
Whatever the future of London is, at least we are hopefully learning from the near misses of the past.
The exhibition – Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed is open until the end of January inside the Wellington Arch. Entry is £4, or free to English Heritage members.
And you get to “fly” over London using UCL’s Pigeon Sim.