St Bride's: News

Wren Lecture Review

A review of the Annual Wren Lecture 2015: "Accident or Artifice? Designing a capital from Wren to Abercrombie" - given by Simon Thurley.

simon_thurley.jpgNapoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 might be supposed to have had little impact on London. But the celebrations of the bicentennial of the Duke of Wellington's great victory provide an opportunity to reconsider that view.

Giving the fourth Wren lecture at St Bride's Simon Thurley, the architectural historian and former chief executive of English Heritage, suggested that London "triggered the whole movement to urban magnificence with the works undertaken after Waterloo." Between 1812 and 1841 Regent's Park, Regents's Street, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park Corner were all laid out.

However the ideas behind these improvements stretched back into the previous century, and could not be attributed to a burst of patriotism after Waterloo, according to Mr Thurley. Instead the development of Regent Street was triggered by the desire of the government to realise more cash out of the Crown Estate.

Earlier in his lecture, Mr Thurley outlined the so-called "missed opportunity" to redevelop London after the Great Fire of 1666, following the plans drawn up by Sir Christopher Wren. History was to repeat itself after the blitz of the Second World War. He also noted that both Vienna and Paris developed into the imperial capitals we know today only after 1850 and at the instigation of the state, which also provided finance. So why was London - the largest city in the world and the centre of an empire expanding rapidly on the back of the omnipotent Royal Navy - so different?

Mr Thurley gave four main reasons. First, the lack of an overall city government. London grew around the commercial city and its links to Westminster, but the City Corporation declined to extend its power outside the Square Mile and its commercial purpose.

Second, London's position in national government was weak. Among the many fascinating facts to emerge from the lecture was that before the Great Reform Act of 1832 the City had only four MPs and Southwark and Westminster two each, and even after 1832 London (which had one-eighth of the country's population) had only 20 MPs out of the total 658.

Third, the majority of MPs representing the provincial cities were hostile to any spending on London. And fourth,  there was continued pressure from commercial interests within the city - which had of course led to the medieval street plan being retained in the Square Mile after the Great Fire.

"London was, and is, par excellence a city that expresses private and individual values, ambitions and achievements rather than public or communal ones," asserted Mr Thurley.

One exception was the Metropolitan Board of Works, which financed the much needed sewage system and Thames Embankment through a duty on coal and wine in the 1860s. The London County Council's development of Kingsway and Aldwych (not completed until the 1930s) was financed mostly by the purchase of more land than was needed, which was then developed and sold at a profit.

Further wrangles over financing were sparked by the development of the Mall and Admiralty Arch. "Yes, this was Imperial London, but the government had sure not wanted to pay for it," said Mr Thurley. 

The diversity of London was emphasised - the Gentlemen's Clubs in the West End, the banks and commercial buildings of the City, and the massive, privately funded impact of the railways - "it was all these privately conceived and funded works more than any state sponsored initiative that gave London its character," he said. He described the outcome as "a picturesque city," very different to the effects of the great boulevards of Europe which impress through scale, monotony and repetition.

So back to Wren. His big achievement was the skyline, with the theatricality of St Paul's Cathedral dome surrounded by the spikes of steeples, including our St Bride's. That was planned - an aesthetic programme to enhance London's picturesqueness, said Mr Thurley. "In a very English way" the apparent accident of London is, in fact, artifice, he concluded.

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