The principal characteristic of the city of London has been it of not having town planning. Or, at least, her of not having “tracing”, geometrically or compositivo. This idea turned into a real unvariant, almost an obsession, and came up to the end from that, after the frightening “Great Fire” of 1666, which destroyed the city practically completely, the Parliament did not approve the new tracing proposed by the architect Christopher Wren, chosen by the king between other two possibilities, that of Evelyn and that of Hooke. The owners did not want to surrender to the inconveniences that a reparcelación supposed, and were defending the ancient tracing in order that everyone could construct to his discretion on the same areas.
This way, the things, the City (entity called itself to the city that properly was London, and not Westminster, which was the place of the king, other many diverse places that today form the “Great London”) was rebuilt on almost the same medieval plane that had. There houses of stone were done, instead of in wood, to conspire the possibility of another fire, and there there were constructed again the very numerous churches, which Wren projected, as well as St’s great cathedral. Paul, I project also his, since it is known well, and whose formal fortune and great size manage to be imposed to the environment and to characterize the place.
Not to reform the medieval plane was, simply, a silly thing. Initially it was not mattering very much, for the type of hamlet, though already Wren’s churches were accusing enough the consequences of the irregularities of the plane. Nevertheless, with the slender and attractive arrows of his towers, the temples were managing to impose a certain urban order, at least from the visual aspect, as we verify in some pictures and engravings of the XVIIIth and XIXth century. Buildings as the Bank of England, of John Soane, show well the enormous local irregularity conquered by means of the skill of the designers.
But in the Victorian epoch and, especially, in the first third of the 20th century, the City was submitted to a practically absolute process of transformation, in which only the churches and the cathedral stayed as testimonies of the past. He had been a logician that he was taking advantage to give him to the important financial sector a new tracing, but both the tradition and the laziness, and a sense so practical as wrong (since it is true that to construct on already existing age more immediate and easier), were imposed completely. The plane of the city was still practically equal and they renewed and grew the buildings in volume. The skill of the eclectic and classical designers was tested, and worked out winning, on having had to accept the tortuous, irregular and curved alignments, and even it can be said that all these things increased the pintoresquismo and the visual interest of the architectures, mainly classic, that took part in the operation. A classic pintoresquismo, of difficult meetings, sharp and obtuse angles, quiebros and curvatures, seemed to increase the interest of the urban “symphony” interpreted by the buildings of the big signatures.
The created “landscape” is, actually, improper enough, which it does not want to say that it should be exempt from interest. Maybe the most valuable thing be buildings as those of Lutyens, though there are no many, or any contributions of modern architecture, as that of Owen Williams. Another end is that of the pretentious and disastrous operation of Herbert Baker, the friend of Lutyens and his colleague in New Delhi, with the extension of the Banco of England and the consequent destruction of Soane’s work. This silly thing can use as emblem of the great operation, since puden be also the situation in which they stayed Wren’s churches, of which you upset meet already the arrows, and that are hidden now between the mass of the stony financial giants.
But at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the XXIst, in the City another speculative operation has been undertaken and, naturally, without the planned old man changed. Already they are not times, actually, there nor are many possibilities. Now in the City there have been respected almost all the old classical appliances of the last operation, but they have fixed them up to find substitutions and to construct architecture modern?, generally of steel and crystal. The conservation of the old alignments combined with the excessive volumes and with a commercial infamous architecture has created this way one of the ugliest places of the world, at a height of the highly immoral content that it encloses.
The old classical buildings were defending themselves better. To begin they were of stone, and ideas of architecture were preserving both of certain efficiency and of a notable and architectural candour. It is not that they were better, but his resources were more effective. The buildings modern? Of now they are detestable (opnotius) and it is difficult to decide if they are worse that still, with more mischievousness that naiveté, they try something similar to the environmental Italian preexistences, or those who, ado, are thrown to exhibit ridiculous and abstract formal adventures.
The certain thing is that the City has turned into a hell, architectonically speaking. It’s to place absolutly obnoxious. And I tend to believe that the principal fault corresponds to those owners of the 17th century who refused to reform the plane of the city in favor of his more immediate economic interests. I believe that Rasmussen is wrong from way to way when it praises this conservation in his acquaintance free “London, the unique city”.
And the bad thing is that all this gives the reason to the Prince Carlos and to his reactionary campaigns in favor of an architecture classic?, that already neither exists cannot even exist, and that ends up by having like ideal Disney World’s historicist villages. Charles II, the king of the restoration and of the fire of 1666, had too much nearby that to Carlos I, for being opposed to the Parliament, had cut the head. Because of it it did not dare to insist, probably, on the reform of the City. To the current Prince Charles they are not going to cut the head, because at least it is going to come to the throne. To God thank you (in name of the Britishers).
Antonio González-Capitel Martínez · Doctor architect · professor in ETSAM
Madrid · february 2011
Es arquitecto y catedrático de Proyectos de la Escuela de Arquitectura de Madrid, fue director de la revista Arquitectura (COAM) de 1981-86 y de 2001-09. Historiador, ensayista y crítico, ha publicado numerosos artículos en revistas españolas y extranjeras sobre arquitectura española e internacional. Entre sus libros destacan diferentes monografías sobre arquitectos.