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27 Feb 2018

Peter Murray on London: The city that just gets on with it

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The London we see today is a result of its adaptability through the centuries

I gave a talk recently to the London Appreciation Society (LAS), an august organisation of which I am ashamed to say I was unaware prior to the invitation to speak. Nevertheless I am very impressed that such a body exists; I am excited to discover organisations which spend their time enthusing over the greatest city in the world. This hyperbole I first heard from Simon Thurley when he was head of English Heritage and is much used by London mayors. I am happy to repeat it. 

There are older cities, bigger cities and more dramatic cities. New Yorkers like to call themselves “the greatest city of earth” – and walking down Sixth Avenue, you might agree with them. But then New York is less than 500 years old. London goes back two millennia and has continually managed to reinvent itself. Over the centuries, plaques and pestilence have tried to bring it to its knees but each time phoenix-like it has arisen again. “Resurgam”, as Sir Christopher Wren inscribed on the walls of St Paul’s Cathedral.

What allows London to keep reinventing itself?” This was the rhetorical question I asked the members of the LAS. Key to its survival is its Anglo-Saxon pragmatism – it is a city that responds to circumstance and to commercial demands. It is a city that is able to change. I am a great fan of Peter Ackroyd and his book London: The Biography, which sees the city as a person, with its own character and foibles – highlighting its echoic nature, where the past impacts on every decision. 

It is this historic pragmatism which differentiates us, say, from many European cities which love masterplans and carry them out. It is a pragmatism which drove the merchants of the City of London after the Great Fire to build on their existing sites rather than wait for Sir Christopher Wren’s vision of a renaissance city to be planned and built. It is a pragmatism founded in our common law system and reflected in a planning system based on discussion and agreement – in contrast to the dirigiste policies of, say, the French system. 

London was never planned as a great metropolis; it spread out from the City following the exodus after the Great Fire, and surrounding landowners developed their agricultural land, creating planned enclaves with their own particular character. In outer areas towns and villages spread until they formed a single metropolis. 

In 1918 the London Society (not to be confused with the LAS) drew up the first London Plan. The society had organised cadres of architects who were not fighting in the first world war to survey the County of London and to suggest how the city should develop. It included the first proposal for a Green Belt and a plan for the North and South Circular. This is interesting in the context of pragmatism because at the time the lack of city planning and the scale of housing development meant the road system was not being properly considered, and it took a bunch of out-of-work architects and a voluntary society to bring some order to the city’s infrastructure.

Today we still find the fixed notions of long-term masterplanning problematic. The King’s Cross development, an exemplar of modern regeneration, was designed to be adaptable to changing market requirements during the period of its construction. As a result it reflects the variety and lack of rigid forms that exemplify much of the planning of London’s new areas. That flexibility works in zones controlled by one hand; multi-owned areas, like the Isle of Dogs, need a more formal method.

As the mayor seeks to deliver “good growth”, as set out in his draft London Plan, he needs to find the right balance of formal planning that creates great places and London’s historic pragmatism that forms so much of its essential character.  

p murrayIllustration by Chiara Morra

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