The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The long view of London

London’s ever evolving skyline serves as effective measure to understand the social and economic mechanisms of the city. Simon Hicks charts the transformations that have taken place in London over the past 400 years against the physical backdrop of the city and considers what the emerging skyline can tell us about London today.

Simon Hicks

Simon Hicks

Cities: London

Topics: Land, Housing, City politics, Urban economics, Property and real estate, Architecture and urban design, Global cities

In 1616, Claes Visscher illustrated a wide angled panorama of London as viewed from the South Bank of the Thames. In Visscher’s wake, Wenceslas Holler later drafted another insight into 17th century London, constructing his own panorama 30 years later in 1647. Holler’s illustration, so named the Long View of London from Bankside, spanned from Pimlico to the docks beyond the old London Bridge. From an urbanist’s perspective, these drawings offer a unique glimpse into the economic and social mechanisms that defined medieval London. In both Visscher’s and Holler’s Long Views, a great congestion of tall ships queue to unload at Lyon Key, Billings Gate, and Tower Wharf. The keen eyed might also identify a small handful of architectural landmarks from medieval England including the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe, or the City Guildhall. For the urbanist however, it is challenging to avert one’s eye from the most striking features of these long views – those of London’s skyline. The old St Pauls, then St Pauwls, commands the attention of the eye atop its pew on Ludgate Hill. A congregation of predominantly Gothic churches surround St Pauls, gravitating towards its centre of mass in the City of London. As an indication of the religious powers exerted in the streets and in the skyline, it is said that there once sat over 100 churches within 17th City of London – that is until the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed or damaged a significant chunk of London’s building stock.

But the Great Fire did hardly diminish the dominance of religious institutions upon London’s skyline. Rather, it offered the potential for a St Pauls of greater gravitas to be built by Christopher Wren atop the fire damaged remains of its predecessor. The fact that St. Pauls’ presence is still protected today by a plethora of planning regulations stands as testament to its significance as a historical symbol. A third Long View panorama by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in 1749 sheds more light on this story of religious power, offering a skyline view where the smaller congregational churches reached higher into the horizon through constructing steeples atop their towers. These churches would be the dominant presence on London’s skyline for a number of centuries, yet as the forces of trade and the emphasis of cultural values began to shift, so too did the city’s skyline.

A brave new skyline

The age of industry brought about the manifestation of a new architecture in London’s panorama. As global trade became ever more integrated into modern society, we see great wharfs, docks, warehouses, cranes, power stations, and other ancillary architectures of commerce beginning to coat the banks of the Thames. Train stations and ports became the new gateways to the city both serving as termini for human movements and the products of trade. This architecture of exchange ushered new neogothic extrusions into the skyline of London through grand statements of trade such as St Pancras – the gateway to London by land – or Tower Bridge for maritime passage. 

The effects of war were to reinvent the landscapes of London’s skyline once again, in part due to the bomb damage that flattened whole neighbourhoods, but more so in the politics of a rebuilding post-war Britain. A combination of population growth, technological advances, and radically reimagined social values stood to engender their own sky bound manifestations in the form of social housing schemes. This functional architecture, built for all citizens with egalitarian intention, was enabled by a cross-party political consensus reflecting the modernist and welfarist values of the era. Not all the post-war housing projects in London pierced the sky, but many that did still remain significant objects of ideology today. The Barbican, or Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick towers, for example, have arguably become international symbols of London in outlets of  modern media and film.

Take a look at me now

The deregulation of the city in the 1980s was chased by a deregulation of restrictions on tall buildings, accordingly laying the foundations for the most recent alterations to London’s panorama. A prevailing philosophy for financing community services in the built environment through tax levies and developer contributions through Section 106 requirements offered the opportunity for powerful corporate organisations to build much bigger and higher than before. Centre Point tower at Tottenham Court Road, for example, was granted planning permission on the condition that the developers fund a road junction at its base. The role iconic architectural skyscrapers has in attracting global investment has similarly become a staple ingredient in the modern planning mentalities, having played in a strong role in green-lighting famous symbols of contemporary London such as the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) or the Shard.  Though the high and high-tech architectural interventions in London were once a contentious issue, an imperative for building new towers was cemented by the first Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who recognised the inimitable role that architecture can provide in marketing a vision of London that makes people want to visit, work and ultimately live within its boundaries.  Indeed, one poster for London’s winning bid for the 2012 Olympics featured a gymnast vaulting upon the apex of the Gherkin in a bid to depict London as a city of competence, juxtaposing technological expertise against human endeavour. As the forces of globalisation roll onwards, our experience of the city increasingly begins not within its boundaries, but through the images of its skyline we find in media, on the internet, or in travel and real estate brochures.

A sign of the times

Looking again to the past, each phase of change in the skyline of London tells a story about the emphasis of society at the time. Drawing many parallels with the present corporate city, the church towers of medieval London might be interpreted as a symbol of the presiding wealth and dominance of a singular religious institution. However, a key departure can be observed in consideration of the social and communitarian function that these old institutions harboured. Even St Paul’s – though clearly an icon of power, wealth, and more recently, cultural prosperity – is still principally an architecture for the community. 

Similarly, the post-war years were characterised in utilising height to provide and represent an egalitarian social value system. Though in many cases these towers were poorly realised, they were clearly representative of a societal value system that served for the betterment of all. In our present paradigm, however, the link between buildings and individual benefits has been obscured. Londoner’s are told that they are the recipients of the benefits of building high, yet the trickle-down externalities remain much less tangible.

The High Life

Consider furthermore that a new age of tall buildings is emerging in London that stands to be even more contentious than building high for businesses. In a recent report by the NLA and GL Hearn, it is indicated that among the 72 towers which have been submitted for planning approval in the last 12 months, 63 (88%) are residential. These new towers are geographically focused in areas of London with a high concentration of post-war social housing - Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Greenwich, and Southwark. However, unlike the post-war housing projects of the past, the new towers of London are unabashedly built to house the most affluent members of society – domestic and foreign. Furthermore, they so often require the destruction, or ‘densification’ of the symbols of a past era that aspired to a communitarian and egalitarian society. As the London housing crisis escalates to a point where we now once again see riots on the streets of Brixton, it is clear residential deficit has become the new architectural order of our day. Yet as the gateways into London take on an increasingly international dimension, London’s towers of the future risk overlooking our domestic problems in favour of facilitating new international commercial activity. We now must question who is the image of London intended to be consumed by – is it the average working Londoner, or as luxury residential development marketing makes evident, is London’s skyline reserved only for those that can afford to live high?

A Longer View

We must in our future musings look beyond the long view of London as measured from Tower Bridge to Pimlico, but rather, look to the longer view, across time.  We must appreciate that our skylines represent the values of our age, and ultimately, offer a vignette of our attitudes towards society at moments in time. The aesthetics of our city are but an outcome of present societal values and aspirations, and though architectural considerations such as facades, massing and clustering are important, we must look beyond such concerns in an effort to step back from the canvas and see the bigger picture. It is our responsibility to ask who serves to benefit from any tall building or symbol of London, and question if they serve to reflect the necessities and aspirations of everyday Londoners. 

Simon Hicks is a researcher at the London School of Economics Law Department. Simon’s research focuses on city governance and accessibility arrangements, the design process and its application in public services, and how emergent technologies effect the ways cities are used. Simon has written for the Academy of Urbanism and holds a fellowship at the Royal Society of Arts.