Review

Guide to the Architecture of London

London

12 January 2018

We think of cities as singular entities. Yet even in their planned incarnations, they are rarely, if ever, created by a single person. Instead they are pluralities that share a common name and vicinity. There is one London but many Londons therein. Our conception of the capital tends to be spatial but time also plays a vital role. In textual terms, London is a palimpsest on which many successive generations have left imprints. We see these layers in different ways – street names for one – but the most immediate is architecture.

Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward’s Guide to the Architecture of London has stood as an authoritative account of our current version of the city since the publication of its first edition in 1983. With the recent release of its app equivalent, the guide promises to be even more able to keep pace with the everchanging cityscape; something which often overtakes literature. The app wisely builds on the strengths of the book. As practicing architects, Jones and Woodward are not overtly ideological. They avoid restrictive and polarising binaries and have a refreshingly catholic taste – provided the architecture works. They might judge the bulk of 1960s redevelopments as disastrous, but they recognise good intentions. They also acknowledge successes and lament when they fail to create a lasting legacy. Erno Goldfinger’s Regents Park Road flats are singled out as fine example of Brutalism, while even the much-demonised (and fetishised) Trellick Tower commands grudging respect. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is marked as a catastrophe, but the National Theatre is deemed a roaring success. They also avoid snobbishness, waxing lyrical on the commercial temple of Selfridges and absolving Charing Cross Station. Unnecessary loss and imposition seem their enemies rather than particular “isms”. This discerning openness makes them trustworthy and invaluable guides.

This is not to say that the pair are apolitical. They recognise the limitations of utopian architectural modernism, but also the missed opportunities of that era. Very often, they argue, the intentions were sound but good ideas were “worked to death in other hands”. At times, Jones and Woodward seem to move around the political spectrum with a convincing fluidity. The failure of Paternoster Square is, according to them, emblematic of the current malaise in which “a very large chunk of the city has been privatised, pedestrianised and policed.” Crucially, they point out that failings often come through wilful negligence; highlighting the “almost complete physical neglect” of Brunswick Park Junior School and “conspicuous neglect” of the impressive Boundary Street Estate. The pair avoid the tendency of many left-wing critics to automatically lambast towers of glass, and right-wing critics towers of concrete. One example is their support for Alfred Waterhouse’s striking Victorian buildings in the face of “the ‘in keeping with’ lobby, which has justified much timid and mediocre building”. They claim public and social housing was and remains a fine idea, but that great examples such as Alexandra Road Estate were ineptly followed up. It takes a broad and deep knowledge of history to understand this.

The transformation from a relatively cumbersome book to a more convenient app means that the guide is much easier to access on the move through the actual city. The map layout encourages local exploration, while the filters enable users to explore different eras of architecture from Roman times to the present-day. Arguably, however, the truly revelatory aspects of the guide are still to be found in the accompanying text. This involves a degree of time travel. The authors show that “Waterhouse’s vibrant, blazing-red terracotta gothic palace for Prudential [was] the result of the architects’ desire for materials which would resist London’s polluted atmosphere and could be seen through it”. At other times, it gestures towards the political: “It is ironic that the conservative [paper] should have provided itself with such modernistic delight,” they write of the Daily Telegraph building. Often, they point out the curious in the familiar: the proto-art nouveau of the Bishopsgate Institute, the hint of Rennie Mackintosh in Mary Ward Settlement, the “quasi-Egyptian” side to Owen Williams’s M1 bridges. Dulled by routine, I had lost the ability to see how unusual the Royal Albert Hall and Broadcasting House are, or just how striking a terminating vista the former Theosophical Society building is. The duo provide such lucid moments all through the text and all around the map.

This is not to say they are a soft touch. Their damnations are all the more scathing because they are subtle. While rejecting the typical jeremiads against the skyline, they do acknowledge that London rarely gets the skyscrapers which it deserves. Mostly this comes in the form of glaring omissions from the guide, but occasionally in passing acerbic remarks. The Shard towers over all, “representing […] nothing but itself”. Trafalgar Square is “far from satisfactory”. Often there’s a somewhat deadpan quality to phrases: “a relatively rare sane example of housing for sale”, an “uneasy mixture”, a “strange and obsessive building”. When a direct attack does come, it is often warranted. The Ionic, Veneto and Gothic pastiche villas of Regents Park are passed overwith the sardonic comment, “It is not surprising that the nouveau-riche and poorly proportioned style of these villas should reflect the preferences of our future monarch”. It seems one person’s classicism is another’s carbuncle. This subjectivity runs through the guide and gives lie to the absurd claim that “beauty is objective”: a claim all too often made by reactionaries with ulterior motives. There is beauty and utility to be found in every area and every era – as the app proves. At times, these buildings chime with their surroundings, while at other times they surprise (as Union Chapel does bursting out of Compton Terrace). This idiosyncratic approach can bring disagreements; contrary to the editors, I don’t find Telecom Tower to be “poorly proportioned”, or agree that the Isokon Flats are “not a very distinguished work”. I don’t find Congress House particularly lovable, or accept the Roundhouse was diminished by carrying the ripple effect out onto the streets. That, however, is the nature of cities. Peckham Library is charming to some, juvenile to others. Senate House is gloriously grand and at the same time coldly austere. Likewise, David Adjaye’s Dirty House. There are many eyes and many voices in the city, and long may that last.

Aesthetics count, but there are other considerations. Frequently, in operating the app, as with the book, there will be reflexive jolts of indignation. Pointing out the “monumental back-of-stadium effect” to the admirable but flawed Brunswick Centre does, perhaps, make you think twice about the usefulness of ambitious buildings. The “confusing circulation” of the Barbican and “its severance from the rest of the City” raises legitimate questions about otherwise intriguing spaces too. Sometimes, the assertions appear initially counter-intuitive, for example the suggestion that the pyramid on One Canada Square should have been 20 storeys higher. Yet there is substance to these suggestions and wisdom to be found in their wider observations that old buildings can be radical and new “daring” architecture conservative (“despite its modernity, this is a nostalgic building” is a notable line). The dazzling colours of Piano’s Central St Giles are, for Jones and Woodward, an “unpleasant purposeless void […] the colours […] chosen perhaps as ‘dazzle-camouflage’, to draw attention away”. Even the editors’ endorsements can occasionally bite. 30 Finsbury Square is praised as “a remarkable achievement [that inserts] a metaphor of geological strata into the London street, which creates a problem in identifying the front door”. They call Lloyd’s a “heroic and magnificently fallible building”, while seeing through the MI6 HQ’s double bluff, pointing out the comic-book dystopia is actually a “model of quiet good taste”.

The breadth of curiosity in Guide to the Architecture of London is welcome in a walking app and encourages the unearthing of the overlooked. The authors include various treasures in London Zoo, the ornaments of Victoria Embankment, the landscape architecture of Northala Fields, the ivy-shrouded Citadel, the pagoda at Kew Gardens, the pumping stations at Stewart Street and in Stoke Newington, and the Black Friar pub,Neasden Hindu temple and the “rusty laptop” bandstand in Crystal Palace Park.

The user of the app is also taken off the beaten-track to find buildings as varied as the Daimler garage and the alleys around Dr Johnson’s Gough Square. The most startling finds are those that appear to be the least London, from the sublime colours of Debenham House to the delightful and slightly-surrealist Michelin House, to the Arts and Crafts pseudo-basilica of All Saints, Ennismore Gardens. The more exotic buildings resound, but they are all tempered with some degree of London grit, including the Egyptian revival art deco of the Carreras Factory and the Constructivism of the College of Engineering and Science. The School of Slavonic and East European Studies would “not be out of place in Zagreb”. Whitehall Court is “relentlessly French” while the corner of 28 Dorset Square recalls Mussolini’s EUR. In some cases, buildings simply cannot escape the ghosts of their inspiration, such as Erich Mendelsohn in Sloane Square, Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the Athenaeum, Aldo van Eyck in South Hill Park, and Le Corbusier in Kensington. If there is one criticism of the helpful filters, it might be the absence of specific architectural styles alongside architects, centuries and building types.

One reason cities are interesting is because concentrations of people give rise to concentrations of history. Jones and Woodward’s touch here is informative but perhaps too fleeting. We learn Hyde Park was one of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, the Flask Inn was the meeting place of the Kit-Kat Club, how the Vale of Health housed Leigh Hunt and D.H. Lawrence, and Hitler was rumoured to have intended Whiteley’s Department Store as a base after invasion. These references are sadly more tantalising than fulfilling. William Burges’s Tower House alone seems worthy of accompanying essays and interior photographs. While it’s unfair to judge Jones and Woodward by aspects they left out, delving a little deeper into the historical contexts of the buildings via those who lived there would expand the experience. Peter Ackroyd’s London (2000) would make an excellent accompanying app if somebody were to make one.

And so the question arises, what will the app be used for? Certainly, it’s essential for architecture lovers, whether local or visiting. Yet it goes beyond built structures into realms of history, folklore and even just meaningful connection with the metropolis. The guide adopts a prose approach, but it could just as well serve as the basis for something more poetic. If, in the face of the creeping privatisation of public space and a concurrent housing crisis, London is to remain a flourishing city and not just a series of citadels, a sense of meaningful belonging needs to be fostered. People need a place to live and connect to. An approach such as psychogeography seems tired, monkish and overstated now (the guide is refreshingly sober compared to some of the more esoteric fare available out there) but there nonetheless remains something admirable in breaking away from the compulsions of routine, work and commerce, and being drawn around the city in the spirit of exploration by other factors. The app hints at this, pointing to Lombard Street signs, gold insects adorning the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Jacob Epstein sculptures, which may appeal to those users interested in discovering relics or related ephemera such as ghost signs and Thomassons.

A crucial part of psychogeography – or “attentive walking” as we might as well call it – is the awareness of what once was. The authors of the guide are well aware of the changes the city has faced from the Great Fire to the Blitz to dysfunctional planning. There are laments for lost buildings like Bunning’s Coal Exchange, the Caledonian Market, Holloway Prison and Euston Arch, as well as the disruption of surviving architecture by changes around it (Hyde Park Corner for one). Wren may have stated once that architecture aims for eternity, but eternity often has very different plans. Again, it is unfair to criticise the editors for absences they’d never intended to cover, but again the yearning remains for more (a sign of how enticing the guide is). Walking the routes, it would have been fascinating to find out, via an extra filter, about lost buildings such as the Beargarden, the Crystal Palace, Skylon, the half-built Watkin’s Tower, Mondial House, Wyld’s Great Globe and rookeries such as Jacob’s Island. This of course has strong nostalgic appeal, but it might also help reinforce our understanding of how the city got to where it is today and at what benefit and cost. A critical appreciation of Number 1 Poultry, for one, is bolstered by the knowledge of the building it rightly or wrongly replaced. Another filter might be that of, in the authors’ words, the “regrettably unbuilt” – from Holden’s glass-encased Art Deco Tower Bridge, to the Primrose hill mausoleum pyramid, to the Imperial Tower reaching high above the Houses of Parliament.

It’s inevitable, as with any selective guide, that there will be some notable exclusions. Minor missing delights spring to mind, such as the Church of Notre Dame de France with its Jean Cocteau murals, the Turkish Bath at Bishopsgate Churchyard, the Sailor Society Mission in Limehouse, Westminster Tube Station, and numerous other features from cemeteries to tunnels to underground vents. There is a delight in finding your own corners. Jones and Woodward have, as discussed in a recent interview in The Guardian with Owen Hatherley, resisted the temptation of expanding the app through crowd-sourcing. In a sense, they’re right to do so. Drowning in a flood of information, we have never been more in need of enlightened guides. Yet you cannot but get the sense, as much as this is an exceptional epilogue to Jones and Woodward’s series of books, that it’s also a beginning. With 3D software and emerging augmented-reality technology, it will soon be possible to walk around cities that have been annotated and deepened with immersive data, as well as the virtual ghosts of lost and unbuilt buildings. What is a map after all? Not an end but an invitation.