Andrew Saint

Andrew Saint is the general editor of the Survey of London; his most recent book is Architect and Engineer.

In the perpetual struggle between security and liberty, the city stands in the front line. From time immemorial people have found freedom in cities, yet urban coexistence can’t go on without countless checks and regulations. Lately these have been getting out of hand. All over the transport system disembodied voices boom out their futile admonitions; cameras track our every turning as...

A sodden afternoon in Sydenham. A trickle of sober pensioners converges on Jews Walk, overhung with wet branches. They turn into a deep, unkempt front garden, dip their umbrellas diffidently at the gate, divide into huddles, converse in undertones and wait. There is the air of an impending religious service. A hallowing, almost an expiation, is about to take place: the unveiling of a blue...

Diary: Foscolo’s Grave

Andrew Saint, 20 September 2007

Voguish these days for weddings, Chiswick’s Thames-side parish church has seen its share of august burials. So its large graveyard, a stone’s throw from the howl of the Great West Road, is just the place for a thoughtful stroll. Painters are prominent: Hogarth, De Loutherbourg and Whistler all have striking monuments. Less noticed is a granite table tomb cast into insignificance...

Just beyond Croydon – I will not share its exact whereabouts – there is a lane I take whenever I drive to visit my father in his retirement. For six precious minutes, it unfolds up and down hill through unspoilt Surrey countryside. There are just three houses along its length, one a farm. I seldom meet another car, but often see pheasants and once encountered a badger. On the way...

Diary: Goodbye to the Routemaster

Andrew Saint, 26 January 2006

It’s the noise I miss the most. The Kennington Road is a barren speedtrack. Buses can get up a good lick there, if passengers at request stops don’t flag them down. Even if your head was in the newspaper, you could tell a 159 was coming from the gurgling roar of the Routemaster’s engine, stick out a hand just in time and hear the machine change register, grind to a halt and...

I had to refrain: Pre-Raphaelite Houses

Andrew Saint, 1 December 2005

It was Ruskin who flung down the challenge in the last of his ‘seven lamps’. The style of architecture a nation picks to build in does not matter, he says. It can be Classic, Romanesque, Gothic, anything you like, so long as it fits the climate and the temper of the people. But once a style has been chosen, it must be stuck to. So the last of the lamps is the ‘lamp of...

How Blake would blench at the ends to which the English left has turned his poem. The vagueness of his vision of Jerusalem helps to make it the handiest of slogans. Officially appropriated as the New Labour anthem to replace the robust ‘Red Flag, here we have it dusted down again by Tristram Hunt to front a passionate, kaleidoscopic but wilful defence of the Victorian city.

Just two of the fabled world exhibitions of the 19th century are still remembered. They are the two with the best claim to have reshaped the culture of their times. London 1851 was a paean to industry and progress sheltered within a structure to match; its theme has been invoked in world’s fairs ever since. The other contender is Chicago 1893. After more than a century, the gleaming...

In Le Havre: The rebuilding of France

Andrew Saint, 6 February 2003

Though Le Havre lies close to the Normandy beaches, it hardly features in histories of D-Day and its aftermath. Blocked at Caen, the Allied armies broke through to the south, wheeled left and raced for Paris. By the end of August 1944 the capital had been secured and the Seine crossed at last. With hindsight it seems that Le Havre had lost any strategic significance it might have had, but it...

First, sort out your Scotts. George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), hereafter Sir Gilbert, designed the Albert Memorial, the Foreign Office and the tumultuous cliff of a hotel that shields St Pancras Station. A spiteful ditty, summing up the Victorian business of church restoration, also accounted him first among ‘the earnest band that spoiled half the churches in the land’. Giles...

Do the authors of this volume of the Cambridge Urban History know how gloomy a book they have written? Pessimism suffuses these pages from start almost to finish. ‘Why have so many of Britain’s great cities fared so badly in the 20th century?’ Peter Clark, the general editor of the series, asks in his preface. Turn the page, and Martin Daunton’s introduction descends...

‘All this talk brings the ears so far forward that they make blinkers for the eyes’: thus Edwin Lutyens on architectural discourse. In Lutyens’s day it was still possible, just, to believe that the good architects got on with designing and building while only the second-raters taught and wrote. Books were chiefly for reference – for illustrations, rules and...

Diary: The Jubilee Line Extension

Andrew Saint, 20 January 2000

In a late story by J.B. Priestley, ‘Underground’, an adulterer bent on escape to voluptuous Brazil boards the Northern Line. At Hampstead everyone else exits; but at the next station, a Golders Green of the imagination, dead souls crowd in and the train trundles him away to the underworld. In A Word Child, surely the best of Iris Murdoch’s non-magical novels, a civil servant racked with remorse cruises for solace round and round the Circle Line, stopping only for refreshment at the platform bars of Sloane Square and Liverpool Street – both, alas, now no more.’‘

A hundred years ago, when London ruled half the world and the snarl-up in front of the Bank of England passed for ‘the hub of the Empire’, only dedicated puffers and slummers plus a smattering of tourists had much good to say about Britain’s capital. Literary folk like James and Conrad slipped into the illusionary language of the dark sublime. London was dismal, blackened, sick, cruel and unplanned, concurred the charitable and the analytic; the sooner the authorities could draw the working population and their smokestacks out to the countryside and lance Cobbett’s ‘wen’, the better.‘

‘Cities that are beautiful, safe and equitable are within our grasp.’ So says Richard Rogers at the end of this reworking of his Reith Lectures of 1995, and we must do our best to believe him. Suppose, however, that the lecturer had pronounced instead on another of the basic building-blocks of society – the family, for instance. We might admit that he was right to exhort us, but we should know at once that he was a moralist and a preacher. And our unregenerate selves would remember that families reflect the good, the bad and the inconsistent in human nature. Must it not be the same with cities, where most of the race now dwells?’‘

Talking to the Radiator

Andrew Saint, 2 October 1997

Did the fact that he came from Switzerland’s drabbest town have something to do with it? La Chaux-de-Fonds has little excuse. Lifted high in a bowl of the Jura, it is fringed by mountains and pines, in which Emeritus Professor Allen Brooks, musing from the tranquillity of retirement, revels at leisure. ‘Allow time to climb the road,’ he admonishes readers eager to tick off the Villa Fallet, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret’s first house, on the out-skirts of the community. ‘Walk, don’t drive, and if you have a generous hour this route will gradually lead you back into town; in the meantime you will learn more about Jeanneret than you would in twice the time spent on his buildings or this book.’

From The Blog
1 March 2010

The US embassy brouhaha can be looked at in two ways: as a spat between two countries and their differing architectural cultures, or as part of a time-honoured process whereby London’s north bank shifts its problems and its detritus over the river onto the poor, long-suffering south bank. The cultural issues are not perhaps so absorbing. Following a thirty-year period from 1945 when American architecture led the world, its reputation has since declined. Almost all American buildings are better built than ours, but too many have become bland, safe and stodgy. The dull, all-American competition shortlist made it near certain that London would get something lacking in freshness or charm.

It is difficult to work out who gets the credit for a building – so many people are involved, from owners, contractors and governments to bricklayers and roofers – but it is...

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