The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The City of London: Architectural Tradition and Innovation in the Square Mile

ed. Nicholas Kenyon (Thames & Hudson, 352pp, £40)

Reviewed by Edmund Bird

This is an important new book on the architectural heritage of the Square Mile. Edited by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, its authors include our recent chairman Alan Powers and former director Kenneth Powell, as well as the Survey of London historian Aileen Reid and Michael Hall, former architectural editor of Country Life.  It features some 200 buildings, lavishly illustrated with exterior and interior photographs, archive views, lithographs, paintings, engravings, maps and floor plans. It charts the City’s 2000 year history from Roman times by dividing the City into eight districts and examining their historical development, character and key buildings. The enormous destruction of so much of the City’s architectural heritage since the 1940s receives less attention than many readers might like, but some of the great planning battles such as No 1 Poultry and Paternoster Square are covered, and a few triumphs of conservation such as Liverpool Street Station are described in detail.

Twentieth century buildings are very well represented. A representative sample of the City’s inter-war classical splendours includes Lutyens’s Reuters, Britannic House and Midland Banks; Baker’s Bank of England; Burnet’s Unilever House; and Cooper’s former PLA HQ and National Westminster Bank. Art Deco is represented by Ibex House and the Daily Express building. The post-war years are appraised in detail,  with well-known landmarks such as Richardson’s Bracken House and the late 1950s New Change (Victor Heal) which faced St Paul’s and was far better than its extraordinarily ugly replacement. Also featured are examples of that much underrated building type, the 1950s/early 1960s neo-Georgian livery hall, such as the Wax Chandlers’ Hall (Seely & Paget, 1958); and of extremely-stripped-classical police stations by Vine & Vine (Bishopsgate, 1938).  Less well covered, partly because they are becoming ever rarer, are 1950s and 60s office buildings, whether curtain wall (eg the recently demolished Bucklersbury House) or post-war Classical (Victor Heal’s No 1 Lothbury, thankfully refurbished recently for the Bank of China). But post-modern and Classical revival office buildings of the 1980s and 90s are included. Many are very little known, such as Sidell Gibson’s most successful Woolgate Exchange on Basinghall Street (1997-2002). Churches figure prominently, including Arthur Bailey’s charming Dutch Church on Austin Friars (1954), and Seventies enthusiasts will be pleased to see notable examples of that decade such as the Salters’ Hall (Spence, 1976) and Credit Lyonnais (Whinney, Son & Austin Hall, 1977).  The Barbican and the Golden Lane Estate are both well analysed, as is McMorran & Whitby’s Wood Street Police Station (though their Old Bailey Extension deserves a far more detailed appraisal – it is astonishing that this monumental building is still unlisted). SOM’s triumphal American post-modern offices along Bishopsgate also deserve more prominence, although the authors don’t shy away from buildings that most would agree are very hard to love, such as the ‘Batman Gothic’ Minster Court (GMW, 1991).  Very recent architecture forms a key part of the book, such as Foster’s Gherkin (2004), Foggo’s suave 60 Victoria Street (2000) and Parry’s 5 Aldermanbury Square (2007), though it would have been nice to see an entry for SHCA’s very elegant Deutsche Bank (1999) on London Wall.  All in all, this is a superbly produced book, strong on critical analysis, which should find a place in every architecture enthusiast’s bookcase.

Published October 2012