The City in the City: Architecture and Change in London’s Financial District by Amy Thomas - review by William Whyte

William Whyte

Where Wren Meets Richard Rogers

The City in the City: Architecture and Change in London’s Financial District

By

MIT Press 350pp £29
 

It is 1715 and Nicholas Hawksmoor is complaining again. ‘When London was Burnt in 1666, out of that fatall accidentall mischief one might have expected some good,’ the eminent architect observes. Yet instead of a ‘convenient regular well built Citty’, the greed of the inhabitants had secured only ‘a Chaos of Dirty Rotten Sheds … with winding Crooked passages (scarce practicable)’.

Hawksmoor’s objections were part of a long-standing tradition. Nearly half a century before, a poet had criticised the wealthy men and women of London for their desire to outbuild each other:

Go to Cheapside, and see who dares deny,
The City doth not love Conformity,
Here all ambitious thoughts are laid a side,
They build their houses with an Equall pride. 

This conspicuous construction, the verse concluded, had despoiled the city, as the rich eschewed good taste and uniformity in favour of vulgar display. 

The City of London has, in truth, almost always disappointed the architectural cognoscenti. For some, like Hawksmoor, penny-pinching is the problem. For others, like our poet, an excess of money is the real issue. But for both, London’s heart has always been underwhelming, lacking the style or scale or savoir-faire

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