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.’

Half a century on, this safe and cosy picture seems less convincing. Much of the city of which Rasmussen wrote so affectionately has been levelled by the bomb and the bulldozer. Problems of race, crime and violence make London today seem both more sombre and less unique than it did in the Thirties. It is no longer ‘a pleasure to go down into the stations of the Underground’. Rasmussen’s self-confessed Whiggism now seems more distorting than illuminating. Selectivity may be necessary in writing about London, but what conviction can a general argument about the city carry which is made by ignoring slums, suburbs and poverty, as well as churches, markets and great buildings, and also the docks, the railways and the government? And, in this revised edition, his attempt to prove that Milton Keynes is a direct descendant of Bloomsbury seems about as plausible as trying to show that Michael Foot speaks with the authentic voice of the Levellers. More fundamentally, the central argument of this book, that London’s homely architecture is the product and expression of Londoners’ homely virtues, is chronologically unsound. Most of the buildings whose praises Rasmussen sings were completed by 1800: but most of the characteristics whose merits he acclaims were, on his own admission, products of the Arnoldian public school, which did not come into its prime for another half-century or so.

Any book that is fifty years old is likely to seem wrong-headed in some ways, and Rasmussen’s is no exception. But his interest in the relationship between political structure, social attitudes and architectural form, and his more specific concerns with leasehold estates and one-family houses, have been profoundly influential. One eloquent and stylish illustration of this is Donald Olsen’s book (another gratifying reprint), which begins where Rasmussen left off, by trying to assess the role of the great urban, aristocratic leasehold estates in the making of London’s fabric. Combining the power to plan with the inclination to do so, more interested in long-term appreciation than short-term profit, and preferring coherent planning to piecemeal development, these great estates exercised formidable power over the building, preservation and remaking of the urban environment, thereby influencing profoundly the social, economic and architectural character of certain parts of London. The way in which they did so is illustrated with reference to two such ventures: the Bedford estate, whose involvement in urban development ran from Inigo Jones’s highly innovative Covent Garden Piazza in the 1630s, via the creation of Bloomsbury’s Georgian delights, to the development of Figs Mead, a model lower-class suburb, in the 1830s; and the Foundling Hospital estate, to the east of Bloomsbury, developed from the 1780s to the 1820s, which reached its social and architectural summit in Brunswick Square, so beloved of Isabella Knightley.

By giving equal weight to the limitations on such landowners’ powers, and by stressing that for them town-planning was very much the art of the possible, Olsen shows that the influence of the great urban estates on the making of London’s fabric was rather less than Rasmussen may have thought. Covent Garden, for instance, was conceived and begun as the Belgravia of its time. But the upper classes did not stay long; the lower classes followed them; and the establishment of the market there was merely a recognition that this trend could not be reversed. Likewise, in Bloomsbury, the high hopes initially entertained were proved vain. The upper classes preferred Mayfair; it took half a century to build and let the houses in Gordon Square; the siting of Euston Station close by did untold damage as heavy traffic invaded the hitherto sequestered streets; and ‘creeping decline’ proved irresistible, as houses were converted into tenements or just left vacant and decaying. Despite the very real power which urban landlords such as the Bedfords possessed, they could not force builders to build, tenants to come or occupants to stay. Contemporary radical polemicists may have depicted such great ground landlords as ‘Mogul monarchs’ and ‘Persian satraps’: but in many ways they were as frustrated and restricted in their building schemes as were the monarchs themselves.

As Olsen explains in an admirably detached introduction to this second edition, this was a highly subversive message to preach in the 1960s, when the book was first published. At a time when the white-hot technological revolution was in full (if retrospectively feeble) blast, and when British, French and Americans were replanning and rebuilding their cities with the limitless funds and buoyant optimism of big-spending liberal governments, Olsen’s argument was one to which official ears were largely deaf. For if his history of the well-run and powerful Bedford estate had any contemporary lesson, it was this: however carefully thought out and vigorously executed any town-planning scheme might be, there were very real limits to what it might realistically accomplish. Today, however, the market is once more in the ascendant; government is in retreat; council houses are for sale; and planning is undermined from within and discredited from without. And, ironically, this makes Olsen’s second conclusion as subversive now as his first was a generation ago: planning may not achieve miracles, but it can, in the right circumstances and at the right time, achieve something. His great landowners may have been forced into ‘strategic retreats’: but there were also ‘partial victories’ and ‘minor triumphs’. Much of Bloomsbury, which Rasmussen evoked so beguilingly in Chapter Nine of The Unique City, is no more. But anyone walking round Bedford Square today, ‘the most complete and best preserved of all Georgian squares in London’, will instantly recognise the force of Olsen’s argument.

The fact that this description derives from Muthesius’s book indicates his indebtedness to Olsen and, in turn, to Rasmussen. Again, he is interested in private, not public wealth, leasehold estates and control, and in the British preference for one-family houses rather than multi-storey living. And, although Muthesius rightly warns that architectural history has concentrated too much on London, he devotes much of his book to the great metropolis, arguing that fashion in housing, like taste in clothes, diffused downwards and outwards from there. So his starting place is familiar: Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, ‘the model for all later developments of terraces, squares and regularity in general’. Unlike Olsen’s, however, his book is a tract for the times, rather than against them. In the Thirties, Rasmussen urged the English not to be beguiled by flats. But for a generation after the Second World War, his warnings went unheeded: terraced houses were demolished as insults, eyesores, abominations, while tower blocks were constructed as progress, improvements, the future. The belated discovery that flats are often merely slums in the sky, combined with the revived appeal of smaller, warmer, safer houses in our bleaker, straitened world, means that the terrace is once again sought after as a past that does work, while flats are avoided as a future that does not. A decade ago, Muthesius’s well-disposed, elegantly-written and exquisitely-illustrated evocation of the terrace would have been inconceivable: now it will find itself adorning the bookshelves or coffee-tables of many a gentrified dwelling.

As a pioneer in this subject, Muthesius rightly sets his own terms of reference. The terraced house originated in upper-class London, reaching its apogee in those early 19th-century extravaganzas in Belgravia, Regent’s Park and Carlton House Terrace. It was also adopted by the highly emulative middle classes, who produced their own provincial versions in spas like Bath, Clifton, Cheltenham and Leamington, and in resorts like Brighton, Folkestone, Eastbourne and St Leonards. By the mid-19th century, aristocratic demand had tailed off, and the middle classes had abandoned the terrace for suburban villadom. But for the working classes, the terraced house remained the principal form of residential accommodation until the end of the 19th century. Within this loosely woven narrative structure, Muthesius explores the ways in which landownership, development and the increased organisation of the building trade influenced the form and appearance of the terraced house; he investigates its stylistic evolution, from late 18th-century Classicism to mid-Victorian Gothic revival to Fin-de-Siècle eclecticism; and he describes the great array of building materials: stone in the South-West, stucco on the South Coast, and brick almost everywhere – silver-grey in Reading, purple in Luton and white in Cambridge.

As these diverse and varied examples imply, the difficulty with the subject is that there is no such thing as the ideal type of terraced house, which makes it almost impossible to relate social change to architectural evolution in a convincing or comprehensive manner. There was so much local variation – from one-storey miners’ cottages in Sunderland to back-to-backs in Leeds to terraced flats in Tyne-side – that it is hard to generalise even about working-class homes. And while it may be true that a 20-room town house in Belgravia and a four-room dwelling in the Black Country were merely variations on the same basic theme, the buildings, locales, amenities and occupants had no more in common, for serious analytical purposes, than Upstairs Downstairs has with Coronation Street. The extensive discussion of bathrooms, kitchens, water-closets, gas-cookers and the like is very interesting: but it is not at all clear what it has to do with the majority of terraced houses, which, even in the early 20th century, were still lacking in many of these basic amenities. Why, otherwise, was so much slum clearance necessary after the Second World War?

As Muthesius rightly notes, many extravagant schemes for terraces collapsed, as builders went bankrupt or supply exceeded demand. ‘We shall never learn,’ he notes, ‘of all those grandiose projects which remained entirely on paper.’ One such was for a terrace at Norwood in the 1850s, which is included in Baker and Hyde’s attractive anthology of London’s freaks, follies and fantasies from the 17th century to the present day. Of the many discarded designs and rejected plans, everyone will have their favourite. For grandeur, there is Wren’s abortive ‘Great Model’ for St Paul’s; Telford’s magnificent 600-foot single-span London Bridge; Waterhouse’s ‘skyscraper’ design for the Law Courts on the Embankment; and Seddon and Lamb’s 550-foot Gothic tower at Westminster commemorating Imperial worthies. For megalomania, there is Inigo Jones’s Whitehall Place for Charles I (a combination of the Escorial and the Baths of Caracalla); John Martin’s three-storey Thames-side quay (which looks like something out of Cleopatra); and a scheme for standing the Crystal Palace on its end as a 1,000-foot-high memorial to Albert (the ‘Towering Inferno’ before its time). For foolishness, there is a monument to Nelson in the form of an 89-foot-high trident (described by one contemporary as ‘a gigantic toasting fork’); an Eiffel Tower at Wembley (one version of which was to provide accommodation for a colony of ‘aerial vegetarians’); and a Tower Bridge encased in glass (so as to keep out the rain). And for long-running farce, there are the many abortive attempts to replan Piccadilly Circus.

Like Muthesius’s Terraced House, this book is very much a product of our times. As the authors admit, in words reminiscent of Olsen’s, there has been a ‘lull’ in grand government schemes of city planning and improvement, so it seems an appropriate time to consider whether these unrealised dreams represent capital gains or losses. Clearly, if these palaces, squares, bridges, thoroughfares, memorials and churches had been constructed, London would be much more monumental than it actually is. The fact that it has not celebrated genius, grandeur and greatness to the extent that Paris, Rome and Vienna have is not owing to a lack of ideas or effort. Nevertheless, on the ground, if not on the drawing board, the terraced house has usually triumphed over the triumphal arch. In part, this is because of climate. Open squares and arcaded buildings need the sunshine of the Mediterranean rather than the grey, soggy skies of London to be set off to best advantage: umbrellas and monuments do not go well together. Moreover, many of the proposers of such schemes were frauds or fanatics, crooks or crackpots, inflexibly infatuated with their own unrealistic projects, men like Colonel Trench, the hero (or rather joker) of the book, whose schemes for a royal residence in Hyde Park, for a pyramid in Trafalgar Square the height of St Paul’s, and for a Thames-side elevated railway, earn him the prize of folly-maker-in-chief.

But, as Muthesius, Olsen and Rasmussen have all implied, there is more to it than that. Quite simply, the English have never been very good at monumental architecture. One only has to look at the pompus, preposterous ponderosity of Sir John Soane’s numerous and unrealised designs for a Triumphal Bridge, a Royal Palace, a Temple of Victory, and a National Entry into the capital, most of which look like working drawings for the set of Ben Hur, to see the force of this. As Rasmussen himself put it half a century ago, ‘in almost all periods, English monumental architecture has been ordinary and conventional in character.’ And it has been thus because the opportunity for it has always been limited. Londoners may not exemplify all of those characteristics listed in Rasmussen’s A-to-Z guide to their virtues, but they are sufficiently cautious, conservative and sentimental to resent and oppose much large-scale tampering with their city’s fabric. As Barker and Hyde put it, ‘London is an architectural mess, but London likes it that way.’ So, perhaps, Rasmussen was right all along: certainly this survey of what was not built corroborates his explanation of what was. We are back where we began, with the triumph of individual initiative over goverment intervention.

But are we? Is this really how it is and how it was? The timing of the publication and reissue of these four books suggests, on the contrary, that the values which they describe and celebrate are not the only ones which have influenced the making of urban London. They may have prevailed in the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, and they may be in the ascendant again now. Hence, in part, the revival of Rasmussen and Olsen and the appearance of Muthesius and Barker and Hyde. But this has not always been so, as the earlier reception accorded to Rasmussen and Olsen makes clear. When the one wrote initially in the Thirties, it was in ineffectual protest against the impending trend towards high-rise monumentality; and when the other wrote in the Sixties, it was in an equally unsuccessful attempt to question the dominant belief in the power of government to re-plan our cities. From the 1940s to the 1970s, in building as in everything else, laissez-faire was out, and government intervention was in. And, in terms of the making of London’s fabric, this meant a period of state assertiveness directly comparable to such earlier episodes as Charles I and Inigo Jones in the 1630s, Charles II and Wren in the 1660s, George IV and John Nash in the 1810s and 1820s, Lord Esher and Aston Webb in the 1890s and 1900s.[*] Viewed in this light, the paternity suit concerning Milton Keynes should be resolved in favour, not of Bloomsbury, but of Wren.

Whatever Rasmussen may say, there has always been, throughout London’s building history, a constant tension between state intervention (whether royal or democratic) and private initiative (whether aristocratic or individual). Sometimes the pendulum has swung from the one to the other; sometimes they have both flourished simultaneously. In other words, the conflict between state absolutism and individual initiative, which Rasmussen thought was so emphatically and consistently resolved in favour of the latter, was actually much more indecisive in its outcome. Sometimes the state won; sometimes the private sector. But the victories were rarely complete enough to justify writing the history of London’s buildings on the assumption that either one had prevailed for most of the time. And just as private initiative experienced those ‘strategic retreats’ and ‘partial victories’ which Donald Olsen outlined, so, too, did state-sponsored schemes. Both achieved something; neither achieved everything. Many schemes for terraces failed, just as some schemes for monuments did succeed. The Bedfords got a modified, partially successful Bloomsbury, and George IV got as modified, partially successful Regent’s Street. The approach pioneered by Rasmussen, and embodied to a lesser or greater extent in all these books, has had the effect of presenting one interpretation of London’s past as if it were the only interpretation, giving undue stress to private initiative while all but ignoring government activity. What is really needed now is a study of London’s fabric which does not embrace either of these views to the exclusion of the other.

[*] 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).