Homely Virtues

David Cannadine

  • London: The Unique City by Steen Eiler Rasmussen
    MIT, 468 pp, £7.30, May 1982, ISBN 0 262 68027 0
  • Town Planning in London: The 18th and 19th Centuries by Donald Olsen
    Yale, 245 pp, £25.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 300 02914 4
  • The English Terraced House by Stefan Muthesius
    Yale, 278 pp, £12.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 300 02871 7
  • London as it might have been by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde
    Murray, 223 pp, £12.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3857 2

It is almost impossible to say anything completely correct about London; and it is equally difficult to say anything entirely erroneous. Whatever is written about a town so vast and varied, whether by city residents, provincial visitors or foreign observers, is likely to be at least and at best partially valid, which may explain why the literature on London is so lush. By the late 18th century, it was the largest city in the world, unique not only in the number of its inhabitants, but also in the range of its functions. Pace Dr Johnson, there was not in London all that life could afford: but it provided more opportunities for living and buying than all provincial English towns combined. Unfailingly attractive, and inexorably centripetal, London dominated England to an extent not rivalled by any other capital in any other country, drawing to itself the crown, parliament, government, the law, commerce, finance, fashion and culture, thereby concentrating in one swollen metropolis all those diverse urban functions which, in the United States, were divided up between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and in France were shared by Paris, Versailles, Lyons, Marseilles and Bordeaux. So, as Henry James explained, ‘one has not the alternative of speaking of London as a whole, for the simple reason that there is no whole of it ... Rather, it is a collection of many wholes, and of which of them is one to speak?’

Which, indeed? One matter which preoccupied many mid-18th and mid-19th-century observers was the extreme contrast between the wealth which was generated and garnered in London, and the poverty-stricken nature of its appearance. ‘The capital of the richest nation in the world’ was also ‘the least beautiful city in the world’. Unrivalled in ‘opulence, splendour and luxury’, it was nevertheless ‘inconvenient, inelegant, and without the least pretensions to magnificence or grandeur’. Affluence and effluence dwelt side by side; its streets were more likely to be paved with gold than with slabs; and its buildings were non-monuments to non-monumentality. The comparison between Trafalgar Square and the Place de la Concorde, Buckingham Palace and the Louvre, the Mall and the Champs-Elysées, Regent’s Street and the Rue de Rivoli, merely underlined the fact that the British were amateurs in the grand manner. The city whose ‘towers, domes, theatres and temples’ Wordsworth celebrated in the rare moment of urban empathy, was more candidly described in The Prelude as a ‘monstrous ant-hill’, ‘gloomy’ and ‘unsightly’. Like the making and losing of the British Empire, London was both burnt and built in a fit of absence of mind. The strands of its fabric (like the fabric of its Strand) were distinctly unimpressive.

The first 20th-century writer to confront this conundrum historically was Steen Eiler Rasmussen, a Danish architect, town-planner and Anglophile, whose book, London: The Unique City, was published in 1934, and is now deservedly, if tardily reprinted. As a lifelong observer of the great metropolis, he came to share Henry James’s view that it could only be written about satisfactorily from a partial and particular perspective. ‘A description,’ he noted, ‘of a town of ten millions is utter nonsense, unless one considers the subject from a special angle, and can thus reduce to a chosen few the endless number of facts.’ Accordingly, he devoted his book to explaining what it was that made London the uniquely delightful city he believed it to be, by investigating ‘that part’ of its history ‘which can help us to understand the city of the present day’. And the novelty and importance of his findings are well borne out by these other three books which, although written several decades later and from a variety of standpoints, are all in great measure following the trail which he blazed. Whether by describing what was built, or by resurrecting what was not, they are concerned, like him, with London’s conspicuous lack of monumentality.

For Rasmussen, London was unique because, unlike the ‘concentrated’ cities of the Continent, it was spatially ‘scattered’, and thus characterised by unrestricted growth and organic development, by private enterprise and private property, by leasehold estates and one-family houses. In turn, this was explained by the conflict between Westminster (the bastion of the Crown) and the City (the stronghold of commerce), which, uniquely among European capitals, was emphatically resolved in London in favour of the latter. As a result, London was dominated by private wealth, individual freedom, political independence, commercial values and domestic virtues, rather than by absolutist power, tyrannical rulers, state interference, centralised bureaucracy and despotic grandeur. The defeat of Wren’s grandiose plan for reconstruction in 1666 symbolised the triumph of the citizen over the sovereign and was, for Rasmussen, a ‘good thing’. For him, the abiding English virtues were (in alphabetical order) balance, decency, fair play, refinement, reserve, reticence, simplicity, tolerance and understatement, all of which were exactly and fittingly reflected in the homely squares, the welcoming parks and the tidy Underground of London. At a time when the English seemed increasingly attracted by such alien and Continental notions as high-rise housing, Rasmussen sought to awaken them to the merits of their own capital, and to urge them to stay loyal to their national characteristics. ‘He who learns to know the English way,’ he concluded, ‘cannot but admire it.’

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[*] Records of London’s streets and buildings are catalogued in Bernard Adams’s London Illustrated 1604-1851: A Survey and Index of Topographical Books and their Plates (Library Association, 586 pp., £68, 19 May, 0 85365 734 3).