Robert Tavernor Urban planning began when people could map the city. What happened with Julius II’s Rome in the 15th century was that for the first time they understood exactly where things were in the city. I think what the LSE has been doing in the last five years since the foundation of the Cities Programme is to begin that process of accurately recording densities, movement patterns etc. It’s a proper academic recording of what is there, and not just physical but social and economic. Once you have accurate pictures of how things are and were, then you have a platform to talk about the city accurately. Otherwise it’s just a lot of woolly debate.
Most of the 20th century has been based on the grand vision, which has been ill-informed – charismatic individuals saying, “This is how it should be”, from Le Corbusier onwards. But what we now understand from the late 20th century is that it is complexity that makes cities worthwhile. The challenge for us is to identify what should be recorded accurately across the disciplines. Students here learn how to look at the city both objectively and subjectively, so one can then start talking about the city of the future.
It’s so important to have a historical perspective on the city and how it has developed. And that historical sweep is quite rightly over hundreds of years. Bishopsgate, for example, is the old Roman road; it deviates only slightly from the Roman road to York, which went down to the Roman harbour.
Wren, after the fire , wanted to impose a more baroque plan around the secular and spiritual centres of the city – St Pauls and the Royal Exchange – and making those the foci of a radial plan. But the pragmatics of London were that they wanted to get it up and operating as quickly as possible, so people just built on the old footprint of the city.
If you understand that, you understand how fluid the urbanism of London has always been. In early 20th century views looking down Fleet Street to St Pauls there is a railway viaduct – Ludgate Hill – that used to cut across, so what you see in the photos are railway trains spewing out steam, the gasworks down the road, big printers and dye makers. There’s a John O’Connor painting [The Victoria Embankment and St Paul’s from Somerset House River Terrace, 1874] in which he shows an image of steam all round St Pauls, big gasometers to one side and so on. The image is that of a late industrial city, and that’s what was being celebrated.
London is absolutely fascinating, the way it has changed. The problem since the Sixties has been that because people see things changing so rapidly, and things are recorded more precisely than they used to be, there is a feeling of loss and a feeling of wanting to hang on to things. But that’s not how living cities work.
London can be a kind of laboratory for the study of the future city. It has such diversity in it culturally and physically. And because it’s a world city that has maintained very high standards there is a willingness to invest in ideas and experiment with the form of the city, much more than in Rome or Paris. I can’t think of anywhere more exciting, to be honest, in terms of a place for a forum asking important questions about the future city.
I think it is an extreme moment in London urbanistically. There is a willlingness to engage with the highest level of debate. The fact that Zaha Hadid to Rem Koolhaas to Jean Nouvel and FOA are being given major projects in London is a very exciting moment. I mean, that wouldn’t have happened five years ago.
And it’s happened largely because of people like Richard Rogers in particular, who has been phenomenal in terms of consistently arguing for a certain type of dense urban development. If one goes back the Foster Rogers Stirling exhibition at the Royal Academy , where Rogers showed his vision for the river, people were incredibly shocked at the time. But in a way a lot of what he was arguing for then is beginning to happen.
In the end one has to be brave, that’s what marks out the great cities from the less great cities. For heaven’s sake, what happened in Paris with Haussman in the 19th century was the wholesale devastation of medieval Paris to create the boulevards. Now they’re very happy with what they arrived at, and if we were to have a similar wholesale redevelopment you might say you can’t do that because it upsets too many things. But because the city has so much variety and diversity you can afford to experiment, because you know that other bits of it will survive if it goes wrong.
It’s interesting that someone was saying recently that views of the Gherkin should be preserved – this was from a heritage lobby. That’s something to do with changing perceptions. First of all we don’t want tall buildings, then it gets built for political and other reasons, then people find it has a power – this awful word “iconic” – which is useful in terms of projecting the image of the city, then people want to preserve it.
The image of London will undoubtedly change because of what’s happening in the City of London. Even if only a fraction of these planned projects go ahead, the relationship between that cluster and St Pauls will change the picture postcard images of London into the future.