Two hundred years ago, London became the first city to surpass Rome in size and population, the first modern city to reach a million inhabitants and the world’s first global city. By 1900 it was the imperial capital of a third of the globe, the first megacity. Since then, megacities have been springing up across the world, from São Paulo to Shanghai.
Yet somehow, London has managed to maintain its status as one of the two capitals of capital (along with New York, the first city – in 1925 – to overtake it in population) and as a place where people want to be. It is a tourist city, a business city, a city of shopping and a city of eye-wateringly expensive real estate – still the default luxury choice for wealthy overseas investors.
This year the Olympics are shining a light on the city’s extraordinary ability to reinvent itself, to build new layers and interweave them with the complex, consistently compelling layers of a 2,000-year-old centre.
The first layer of London was laid down by the Romans when they founded the city on the Thames in ad43. The river was wide enough for ships to dock but shallow enough to make it easy to bridge. It gave a supply of fish and its flooding banks made the farmland around it fertile.
The Romans established the area that is now the City of London – the square mile that is London’s financial centre. Parts of the wall they built around it still survive and the shape of the City – its sacred sites, the position of London Bridge – has remained remarkably consistent.
Roman London survived for about four centuries and, when they left, new settlements were established by the Anglo-Saxons around what is now Covent Garden and Aldwych, forming the beginnings of a new city that would become Westminster, the status of which was cemented when William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and built Westminster Abbey and what would become the Palace of Westminster. This established the city’s pattern of twin centres; the City and Westminster, commerce and power respectively. To those two was added a third, Southwark, on the south side of the river, a place of docks and trade. As Protestantism and puritanism descended on London during the 16th century, Southwark became a place of theatres and brothels, servicing the seamier side of city life.
Through the Medieval and Tudor periods London grew to become a wealthy city of timber-framed houses and palaces along the river. Its thriving markets were the nexus of a growing web of global trade and, eventually, empire. The heart of this wooden city was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the rebuilding of the city in the wake of the fire established the physical fabric of the city we see today. Timber was replaced by brick made from London clay and, influenced by Amsterdam – which by the 17th century had become London’s principal competitor – the city expanded in rows of flat-fronted, fireproof brick terraces and squares.
The City in this era was still a crowded place of markets and slums, workshops and factories, the Thames a flowing sewer. Wealthier citizens set themselves up in the expanding west of the city, away from the smoke and stench carried on prevailing winds. Mayfair, St James’s, Soho and Bloomsbury were established as wealthy new estates, their houses grouped around private garden squares. These squares were exclusive; at first they were guarded, gated developments. Hanover, Grosvenor, Golden, Fitzroy, Bedford and Berkeley Squares have changed radically since then, but they remain London’s main contribution to town planning.
These new areas were linked by huge green spaces, former royal hunting grounds that maintained the idea of these new streets and squares as quasi-country houses. Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens form a grassy tapestry which still makes the centre of the city one of the greenest (and least dense) anywhere.
As the city expanded it crept up hills and along rivers subsuming former villages such as Hampstead and Chelsea, once places where Londoners might have kept a country retreat. Yet these areas maintained a degree of separation so that the character of London’s constituent parts still changes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
There were few moments of radical change in the city’s fabric. Whereas in other capitals, such as Rome, Paris or Berlin, absolute monarchs or popes drove wide avenues through city centres or created new piazzas in their own names, in London the patchwork of private property made such initiatives almost impossible. The major exception was the plan by architect/developer John Nash to create a West End spine, a grand processional route from Regents Park to the river. It didn’t quite work out as he planned, but the route from the Regency villas of Regent’s Park, past the newly expanded BBC Broadcasting House, curving around Regent Street into Piccadilly Circus, through St James’s and on to the Mall remains the grandest walk in London, ending up in the imperial plaza, Trafalgar Square.
The view from here takes in the Houses of Parliament (1840-1870), a gothic extravaganza intended to establish a new British architecture differentiated from the classical style. Its construction coincided with the city’s explosion in population as the industrial, commercial and mercantile centre of the world. The railways wove themselves around the streets and facilitated a huge expansion in the suburbs, but the city remained a low-level, dense and complex web of teeming streets and alleys. During the 20th century the empire disappeared and the city suffered, in 1940, a prolonged and fierce bombing which virtually destroyed the old City.
In the modern age, London has once again reinvented itself. Since the financial deregulation, the Big Bang of 1986, the City of London re-established itself as one of the twin hubs of the international money markets and its high-rise architecture became a vertical expression of that wealth. The City has become a museum of architecture, its monuments each given a quirky nickname to personalise them – in contrast to the anonymity of buildings in Manhattan’s grid. There was the Gherkin (Foster & Partners) and now there is the Shard (by Italy’s Renzo Piano), at 310m western Europe’s tallest skyscraper, a new marker showing the spread of capital across the river to a reviving Southwark. It is possible to argue that, as a flat city punctuated by the spires and towers of the 50 or so churches built by Sir Christopher Wren (who also built grand-domed St Paul’s Cathedral) after the Great Fire, London has always been a city of spikes.
Now the smoke and factories have gone, the City is also spreading eastwards. The once industrial quarters of Shoreditch and Hoxton have become centres of leisure, of nightclubs, bars, restaurants and galleries, taking over the role once dominated by Soho. Farther east still is the Olympic Park. The forthcoming games have let loose a torrent of new architecture: the Iraqi-born London architect Zaha Hadid’s wonderful Aquatics Centre and Hopkins Architects’ sleek velodrome are the highlights along with the city’s biggest new park for over a century.
London’s piecemeal development, its growth unfettered by city walls, its surprising greenness, its openness to international trade and its extraordinary and historic concentration of wealth and privilege (alongside persistent deprivation) have created a unique city. It may lack the beauty of Venice, the coherence of Paris or the drama of New York but it has been the most adaptable and arguably the most successful and popular city in the world for centuries, and that success is embodied not just in its physical fabric but in its ability to absorb adaptation. It has rarely allowed beauty to hold it back, and the view from Waterloo Bridge at twilight remains one of the most impressive and dynamic of urban panoramas. London is a city that changes almost day to day so that it is always the same yet always offers something new.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Historic places to stay
43 Cloth Fair, Smithfield
The former home of the poet John Betjeman is available to rent through the Landmark Trust, the charity which preserves historic buildings, writes Matt Ponsford. The two-storey Georgian apartment overlooks the 12th-century churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great, and is next door to the oldest house in London. Betjeman lived in the house for 20 years from 1954, and allegedly entertained his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish there. Sleeps two; seven nights from £972; www.landmarktrust.org.uk.
St Pancras Chambers
Betjeman wrote of St Pancras station that it was “too beautiful and too romantic to survive” but it has, and behind the recently renovated Grade I-listed Gothic frontage there is now a hotel and several luxury apartments, one of which is available to rent by holiday-makers. The building was designed in 1865 by Sir George Gilbert Scott to celebrate the golden age of rail travel. The apartment retains many of the original features and the furnishings are a blend of vintage and contemporary.Sleeps four; from £186 per night; www.onefinestay.com.
Fish Court, Hampton Court Palace
Henry VIII’s grand palace on the banks of the Thames is a must for many visitors to London, but few realise it is possible to stay there. Above the great Tudor kitchen, which once provided twice-daily meals for the royal family and the monarch’s 1,000-strong court, is an apartment where Henry VIII’s pie-makers lived and toiled. Those now staying there can enjoy the gardens and courtyards in the morning and evening when closed to other visitors, and free entrance to the palace’s public rooms during the day. Sleeps six; seven nights from £1,156; www.landmarktrust.org.uk.