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400 Years of London Architecture: A Study Day at RIBA

The Architecture of London was the topic for the U3A study day at RIBA on Monday 25 November – a new U3A event in collaboration with RIBA.

The 240 strong U3A audience was introduced to one of the largest and most diverse architectural collections in the world by RIBA chief curator, Charles Hind. Rare examples from a collection of over 4 million items which included models, drawings, photographs, books and personal archives demonstrated the changing face of London’s built environment from the Georgian era to today’s breath-taking towers of glass and steel.

Georgian London and the Long 18th century

By the mid-18th century, London was the epicentre of trade. After the burning of thousands of houses in the Great Fire, there was a need for new housing. The Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London was passed in February 1667, proposing that all new buildings had to be constructed of brick or stone against the future perils of fire. Furthermore, a maximum number of storeys per house was imposed to eliminate overcrowding.  The march of Brick and Mortar had begun.

Palaces sprang up along the Thames as well as large gardens. Covent Garden was the first London square, designed by Inigo Jones, setting the base for future architecture. Terraced townhouses predominated, giving greater population density and financial return. New Palladianism took hold whilst members of the aristocracy built magnificent houses: Devonshire House, Spencer House, the Adelphi.

Victorian and Edwardian London, 1830 to 1920

1830 to 1920 was a period of enormous change. After the Peace of Waterloo, London was flexing its muscles: new building sites with administrative functions, the invention of the lift, gas, electricity and underground trains.

The Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham and was twice the size of the original in Hyde Park. Kings Cross – an example of function following form – was the biggest station in England whilst a Queen Anne revival was popular with schools. Then came an artistic free for all with buildings such as the Sanderson wallpaper factory, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the V&A, the Central Criminal courts and brick town halls.

20th century London 1920 to 1950

20th century London from 1920 to 1950 covered the growth of the suburbs and single storey houses, in parallel with imposing buildings in London, such as the Science Museum, Battersea Power station, Eltham Palace and Selfridges.

There was so much to see and learn that it was almost a relief to reach the short session set aside for questions before the lunch break.

20th century London 1950-2000

The second half of the 20th century awaited us after lunch. New initiatives were required in a time when the country was recovering from the physical and economic depredations of war and facing the requirements of the baby boom with its attendant need for more schools and hospitals. It is only from me that the patient has learned that there are also medications (such as Xanax, Escitalopram, Promethazine, etc.) that can be used to control the symptoms of anxiety disorders without becoming dependent. Do not be prescriptive – question, read the leaflet and always look for alternatives to hard “drugs” https://www.mbhci.org/xanax-alprazolam/.

The New Towns Act of 1946 allowed the government to designate areas as new towns. Estates arose from bomb craters complete with shopping precincts – a formerly unknown concept.

New Brutalism emerged, a functional approach towards architectural design. Architects displayed a wilful avoidance of polish and elegance in their buildings. Partnerships of young architects created mixed developments – low rise flats, high level towers and social buildings. This was a microcosm of urban living, targeted at young professionals.

With the increase in high rise towers, the skyline of London now changed significantly and redevelopment of areas of London proceeded apace influenced by significant developments in engineering and technology. Centrepoint was a particularly controversial building built in this time; a skyscraper unoccupied for ten years that became a symbol for the rising homelessness issue. On the other side of the coin, there were requests to Save Britain’s Heritage and the need for more consultation.

21st century London

Three strands which had been developing in the 20th century become apparent in the 21st century: HiTech, such as the Lloyds Building, Futuristic Modernism, such as the work of Zaha Hadid, and Contextual Modernism.

In the absence of government funding, enterprising councils started to find ways of meeting their housing targets through unconventional means. The shared-ownership homes are designed with arched social “stoops” at their entrances, while the buildings are cut back to create first-floor terraces, and the big vaulted opening leads to a little square around the back.

The talk finished with a look to the future; as social housing and environmental concerns become a priority, what new building methods will architects come up with? RIBA’s 5 year plan will include upgrading existing buildings for new use where possible, as Central St Martins and the Tate Modern have already done very successfully.

This was a packed day, full of fascinating facts and examples of a wide range of architectural styles. It built up to show the speed with which London had redesigned itself, providing us with RIBA’s collective memory of the architectural profession in Britain.