| William Guild | Mars 2020 |


London’s Architectural Identity


Style and the City

Style is a dangerous topic to address in Architecture. Style will signify a trend, and buildings should not be considered mere fashion. Yet, style is everywhere. From every window to every cornice, the frontages of our streets tell us something of our society’s appreciation for a specific kind of aesthetic. The historic cities of Europe are often referred to by their style: the Haussmann style of Paris, the Imperial style of Vienna or the Scottish Baronial style of Edinburgh. Between the 17th and 19th Century, large urban projects sought to turn these chaotic, gloomy towns into grand cities, rivalling each other in their splendour. All perhaps, except for London.


London did not experience the same intensive surgery as its European counterparts. Instead, the city was subjected to several minor facelifts including the construction of Regent’s Street and the Holborn Viaduct. Fatefully, the Great Fire of 1666 provided the perfect opportunity to redesign atop a tabula rasa. Instead, landowners decided to rebuild on the exact same plots where their homes and businesses had stood before the disaster. Ambitious masterplans, such as Sir Christopher Wren’s vision for a modern city, were largely ignored. In the space of a few decades, London’s sinuous streets and alleyways became once again lined with an eclectic jumble of terraced houses and palaces. Unlike the continent, England was not ruled over by an absolute monarch. As Napoleon famously said, it is ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. Although it did not help him in his conquest, his remark may in fact hold the key to London’s schizophrenic identity.


Most of the inner city was controlled by individual merchants and landlords, which made it impossible to direct large scale transformations. The reigning monarch had little say in the matter, preferring to avoid conflict with his most profitable subjects. Even the construction of Regent Street proved excessively complex. Looking north towards All Souls Church, the road curves round to the left before continuing its trajectory to the park. The original intention had been to create a linear axis all the way from Waterloo Place to Regent Park but due to the higher land values in Mayfair, the road had to divert into Soho to minimise the project’s staggering cost. By contrast, Haussmann had far more freedom to evict residents from their overcrowded quarters in Paris, thanks to the support of Napoleon III. Critically, the diverging histories of these two cities has impacted the philosophy of today’s planners. In the City of London, glass skyscrapers stand uncompromisingly next to Wren’s neo-classical churches, whereas in Paris, architects continue to apply the same homogenous treatment initiated by Haussmann.


A walk through Ilford

Recently I have got to know the town of Ilford in Essex. Once little more than a high street surrounded by orchards and market gardens, it was eventually absorbed into London’s metropolitan area. Today, it is a busy centre within the borough of Redbridge where the future opening of the Elizabeth Line is already being felt. Twenty storey high rises have sprouted all around the station faster than bamboo. Vacant lots – previously the symptom of a dwindling local economy – are now busy construction sites advertising luxury residences and upmarket shopping. Amidst the chaos appears a fragment of Ilford’s rural past. The fourteenth century chapel of the old hospital nestles between an almshouse and an abandoned police station, blackened by years of traffic pollution. The view from the street is an impossible collage of histories, where church steeples now seem to fall away against the background of its towering glass neighbours. Reading some of the reviews online, I find that locals are relatively unfazed by the dramatic changes I am witnessing. One person excitedly wrote that Ilford was turning into a mini Dubai. To him at least, the prospect of a glitzy facelift was well received.


Undeterred, I venture further along the High Road, astonished by the variety of languages on the garish shop signs. A Bulgarian supermarket stands next to an Indian curry house followed by a Nigerian hair dresser, each one advertising themselves to their home audience. Glancing up at the facades, partially hidden by the store fronts, I recognise the more local vernacular of brick and stucco. Yet no one building is the same. There is a late Victorian terrace with distinctively ornate window frames alongside its more serious Edwardian cousin and finally a recent addition clad in fashionable buff brick stock and anodised aluminium reveals. The paradox of this place is that despite the myriad of identities, it retains a comforting level of coherence. Perhaps it is because as people we like to be stimulated by a steadily changing environment. If we were to walk a hundred meters down a road lined with identical frontages, how much of it would you remember?


On we go. I walk another five minutes and suddenly I feel myself transported far away to the Asian sub-continent. There, standing beside a dreary Post-War office building, is a shining Sikh temple (or Gurdwara). I pause for a minute to take in this finding, activating my camera in the process to document this unlikely site. I talk to a man on his way out. He proudly explains to me that the red sandstone covering the façade was imported block by block from Rajasthan.  He also points to an inconspicuous building a couple of doors away stating that the Sikh community had recently purchased the County Court to turn it into a religious school. As I approach, I begin to wonder if the building’s new use is truly appropriate of its original civic identity. Perhaps, we are guided by a nostalgic sense of what style means and what it should represent. In this way, we fail to acknowledge the possibilities for other interpretations of space.

London’s identity tells us a lot about ourselves. Chaotic yet creative, imperfect yet exciting, it is the product of our collective personalities and ambitions, an urban coral reef.


William Guild
MSc Architecture
TU Delft