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Book Review – London: Architecture, Building and Social Change by Paul L. Knox (Merrell Publishers)


London: Architecture, Building and Social Change by Paul L. Knox (Merrell Publishers)

London’s diversity is truly remarkable, not just in its population but also its urban landscape with buildings of different centuries and architectural styles often occupying the same district. It is this unique distinctiveness of London that provides the focus of this book, London: Architecture, Building and Social Change. However to fully understand London’s development, the author contends  you must consider its economic, social and architectural history.

Fundamental to any understanding of London’s development is its rather unique history, as the author points out  ‘London did not grow from a single commercial, ecclesiastical or administrative centre’ but rather ‘ has grown piecemeal from an archipelago of villages and town centres to become a conglomerate metropolis of interdependent districts with twin cores.” Over time every district within this metropolis developed its own distinctive cityscape and instantly recognisable landmarks.

To illustrate this point, the twin cores of London, the City of London and Westminster developed over time to take on particular functions, The City of London was a commercial centre from Roman times whereas it was not until the 11th Century that Westminster became the centre of royal justice and administration.

The author considers in London’s development, a series of events had a major effects on the course of that development. First of all was Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, which took land away from the church which was transferred into private hands, therefore establishing the Great Estates. The Great Fire of 1666 swept away much of medieval London and bought about considerable building works. The coming of the Railways in the 1830s and 1840s bought a disruptive technology which tore up some London suburbs and bought access to large areas of the suburbs. Just as disruptive was the Blitz and bombings of the 1940s which decimated certain areas that often took decades to recover from.

If major events changed the face of London, so did individuals and the author suggest that a particular cast of characters were mainly responsible for widespread change. Amongst this cast were landowners, developers, architects, engineers, reformers, philanthropists and mayors.

To illustrate this interplay between events, people and architectural styles in real life, the author selects twenty-seven districts to discover their own distinctive character and pedigree. In the context of London’s general development, the book then considers the district’s specific developments that highlights the continuities and change within the specific areas.

A number of the districts show little change especially those built by the great landowners of London, areas such as Belgravia, Mayfair, Chelsea, Kensington and Knightsbridge were built for the elites and due to their status managed to avoid much of the destructiveness of the railways and industrialisation. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Camden and  Paddington whose initial rural status was decimated by the canals and railways.

If money and influence were mainly situated in the West London, there is little doubt that for much of the nineteen century, the negative effects of industrialisation such as  poverty, crime, disease and unemployment were concentrated in East London. The sections on Whitechapel, Hoxton, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green pay testament to the role that reformers and philanthropists played in these areas to create a safer and healthier environment.

In many ways the south bank of the Thames has been the poorer relation to the north and the sections on Borough, Southwark, Bankside and Lambeth illustrate that they were for centuries populated by industry and working class residential areas. However, the South Bank and Bankside’s more recent riverfront transformation as a location of entertainments is actually a return to the area’s function in medieval times onwards.

It is perhaps the areas between the extremes of wealth and poverty that show the greatest diversity, districts like Bloomsbury, Notting Hill, Bayswater and Clerkenwell have veered between various degrees of respectability and often attracted the artists, writers and academics who have documented the changing times. The same could said of Soho and Covent Garden, which became locations of respectable and not so respectable entertainments.

This is a remarkably readable and interesting book for anyone interested in the changing urban landscape of one of the world’s most enigmatic cities. It manages to be authoritative without being overly academic, the profile of the development of 27 distinctive districts, illustrated with over 500 original photographs provides a number of insights into the past, present and possible future developments of London. One of the major insights is related to the ongoing gentrification of London areas and the creation of London as a Global city.

This book is an essential reference book for anyone interested in London, written by a leading expert on urbanization. It offers a comprehensive overview of many of the major buildings and landmarks of the city  and provides the context to understand their importance in London’s general development.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended 

If you would like more information or buy a copy of the book , visit the Merrell website here.

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