In the Editor's Confidence

In the Editor's Confidence

November 15 1941
In the Editor's Confidence

In the Editor's Confidence

November 15 1941

Glorious Phoenix

How will rebuilt London look after the war? Architecture, traffic and slums offer mighty problems


NOT was UNTIL the detonation the very of early dynamite days of this heard year in London, to announce a major operation hy Royal Engineers along the technique of fighting a forest fire. But the dire sound, as the achievements of centuries perished, awakened little actual horror. One mutely recognized that just as the trees grow again, so will London—and, as in the case of the forest, probably of a different species.

It is no exaggeration to say that no other war problem, outside of the battlefront itself, has aroused such universal interest as the rebuilding of London. Hardly had the dust of the first raids settled, and the first ashes cooled, than world-wide sympathy and concern began to take the form of “schemes.” By the time the damage began to be really noticeable to the man going home in his suburban train, lifting his eye from the sports column, these suggestions had become a torrent.

The Londoner, naturally, is intensely flattered and gratified at the world’s concern that when eventually he rebuilds his city he should rebuild it along improved lines. But he is a little stunned and bewildered at the multiplicity of advice, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the extreme Left to the uttermost Right. Other British towns have suffered, relatively, just as much, or more;

but only the mayors and aldermen of Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol or a dozen other quite celebrated cities seem interested in their postwar reconstruction. So why these gorgeous visions?

The answer is of course, firstly, that London occupies such a unique place in the affections of the English-speaking races that nobody—except those with some pet ism to sell—really wants it any different. All anyone wants—although everyone has his own favorite atrocity which, if preselective bombing were feasible, he would like to see

obliterated—is that certain things be improved. The narrow streets, for example, and congested traffic.

Secondly, because the whole problem is of such magnitudematerial, financial, artistic, intellectual that it rather staggers the mind a little where to begin.

Lastly, and involved in that word “intellectual,” the world rather looks to London for a lead. Even if we could kid ourselves successfully that, given a free hand and enough money, we could redesign what 2,000 years have produced—the world’s greatest city and the world’s most unified and selfcentred mode of life how many of us when the designs were finally finished, and we stood back and looked complacently at them, would have the moral courage to say “Yes” or “No”?

If these speculations excite the tongues of all the world, how much more are they the concern of the Londoner? For after all, it is he who has to live in London and to find most of the money for repairing it. And the significant words are “live in it.” In the acres of controversy that I have read, I regret to note how infrequently the word “home” actually occurs. The talk is all of Wren churches and ferroconcrete, of architectural expressionism and the vortices of traffic; but seldom of people—except the rather sanctimonious hope that more complete slum clearance will be a kind of “good out of evil.” Eight million people live in Greater London. Some of them want it changed: a great many don’t really care; but they all agree on one thing—that a bombed ,and devastated home, which however humble was yet until recently to someone a sacred shrine, is a far sadder sight than any other kind of casualty—and unfortunately, is far commoner.

' And here I will venture a purely personal impression, having stumped over many parts of battered London, that a poor home thus gutted and disembowelled, and ravaged by wind and weather, is no sadder than a rich one. If anything, in fact, the most affecting ruins are out in the cheap suburban villas—the kind of two-by-four place, you know, that had some poor little guy sweating over a mortgage, with a lot of cheap, glittering furniture on installments, and perhaps a cheap little car in a portable backyard garage.

And when, amidst the rubble and muddy clay left by the Demolition Squad, there come peeping up the daffodils and crocuses the poor little guy planted last fall, it kinda gets you . . .

Yes, the Londoner who hoists a sixpenny Union Jack over scenes like these is surely entitled to regard the restoration of his beloved city as his own peculiar reward. And he wants that reward quickly — not only because the tremendous building program involved is one safeguard against a slump, but also because he wants to see it in his own time. He wants his London back again, as he used to know it, with its shops and its pubs and its unique self-interested life.

An Underground City?

THE PANDEMONIUM of kindly advice that has descended upon the Londoner has, as a matter of fact, almost omitted some very practical aspects of the subject. Such, for example, as how many Londoners there will be to rebuild London for? That is, of course, a very unanswerable question; but with the great dispersal of industry to less vulnerable—and generally, more pleasant—localities, there are bound to be some who decide not to come back.

And there is that other point. Should the new London be overground, or under? If we take the worst possible view that this is not to be the Last War, and recognizing that even ferroconcrete—it stands up best to bombing—is easily destructible as bombs grow even more terrible, surely what is wanted are great permanent and very deep subterranean refuges? Not only would London then have the deep foundations for those, perhaps, much higher buildings; there would also develop, both during and between wars, a new kind of subterranean life.

Again, there is that very human and tremendous problem of every city, getting workers to and from their daily bread. A wounded city cannot, like a man with a broken leg, rest up in bed. Exceedingly few Londoners now live within walking distance of their jobs; and they use public-service vehicles— buses, trams, trolley buses, subways, main-line railways, steamers—to a peacetime average of twelve million passengers a day, for distances varying from the one mile to the slums to the fifty-five to Brighton. The prewar 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekday peak load, the London Passenger Transport Board tells me, was about 2,500,000. This great twicedaily pulsation, too, has gone right through the war, handled with continuous heroism, occasional genius and that rather grim humor that is London’s heaven-sent consolation.

And do not forget, either, that London is a living organism that has survived all its detractors. Cobbett called it “that great wen”: but it is still here, a hundred years after him, and it was there eighteen hundred years before he was born. The first St. Paul’s—the present being the third—was erected on that historic site when the years of the Christian era could be expressed in three figures, instead of four; and by 1180 A.D., according to the secretary of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, London had a population of about 40,000. Toronto had only 45,000 at the Census of 1861.

So if the Londoner is a sentimentalist, you must forgive him. He is apt to think in terms of the

things that he cherishes, and that are integrated in his national tradition—-of Dickens, Dr. Johnson, Sam Pepys, Big Ben, and such like: to say nothing of those other glories such as the Arsenal Football Club, the Old Bull and Bush, Cleopatra’s Needle, Praise-God Barebones, and, alas, the Church of the Oranges and Lemons.

The following, for instance, is a letter to The Times during June, 1941, signed by the Provost of Eton College.

“I read with some alarm rumours of the Corporation buying up the land of the City with a view to far-reaching reconstruction.

I hope there is no thought of rebuilding the City in the style of Paris or New York, fine as those cities undoubtedly are. The peculiar charm and beauty of the City essentially depend on its labyrinthine character, with its network of narrow and obscure streets and courts. To substitute for these wide boulevards or avenues would be a vandalism worse than bombing. I suppose the vulgar voice of convenience must sometimes be heard; but in the main, let us have our City back, with its characteristic and delicious intricacy of ways, just as it was.”

But the extremes of radicalism are, if anything, worse than those of sentimentalism; for we cannot feel toward them the affection of knowledge. Architecture itself has been defined as “that cockpit of cultures,” and as for the traffic shark—well, I feel sometimes that he cannot really see any hope for any city, or indeed any nation, in which traffic conditions have not been reduced to the sweet simplicity of a toboggan run. And thus we see brought forward again such monstrosities as the double-decker road, and even the abandonment of the Thames! Poor old Thames, with its “liquid history” and its twenty-one bridges from Hampton Court to the Tower! The trouble is, it wiggles too much. True, those wiggles form one of the most famous curves in geography; but one of the extremists would construct a ship canal, as straight as a die, from Rotherhithe to Battersea, and use the existing river bed for a traffic boulevard.”

And we have with us, too, a considerable number of those who imagine a dream city something like an H. G. Wells’ “Utopia,” with everybody wearing flowing robes and sandals.

Tourists Like Ruins

IT IS from this welter of controversy that a coherent plan must be worked out and put into operation as soon as practicable. The problem has already produced a large official personnel, with Lord Reith, once dictator of the BBC., and now Minister of Works and Buildings, as G.O.C. There is also the Right Honorable Arthur Greenwood, leading Labor M.P., who, as Minister without Portfolio, has been given a free-lancing job over the entire field of material and idealistic reconstruction. Committees composed of Royal Academicians, architects, bishops, and so on are each preparing plans to represent sectional interests. And it is presumed also that the London County Council will probably have the last say in almost everything —unless the boroughs do. Until you actually live in London—live long enough, that is, to get on the taxpaying list—you never really know what local government is. London is nominally governed by the London County Council, but actually it is run by twenty-nine boroughs, each with its mayor and council. Two of them are “cities”—the City of London, that magic square mile, and Westminster. But this is the “County” only. “Greater London,” which sprawls itself over six other counties, and which, while it might mean almost anything, is conventionally interpreted as the area controlled by the Metropolitan Police, has an additional three county boroughs, eleven municipal boroughs, sixty urban district councils and nine rural district councils. One hundred and twelve administrative units are a rough proposition even for Federal Union !

Perhaps the easiest solution would be to cut the losses, tidy up the damage, and leave the sites vacant. Sometimes, of course, the result would be like a mouthful of broken teeth; but more often

the gaps would at least reveal some of the beauties that are so effectively hidden. London, says the architect critic, completely spoils its really good buildings by permitting warehouses and office blocks to be built around them. They cite as examples St. Paul’s Cathedral or the lovely old Guildhall, which latter was up no better than a back street. Every day for the past eleven years, on my way to work, I have looked across at the classic lines of the National Gallery and wondered what iconoclasm permitted the erection of a large (albeit swanky) furniture store at the west end of the same island site. Now that that emporium has been blitzed so effectively that the Demolition Squad has taken it down, there is universal agreement that the National Gallery looks a great deal better without it.

We who live in wartime London have become so inured to the sandbags, the machine-gun nests, the ugly surface shelters, that when they are removed it will seem like making a new acquaintance. We shall almost miss the pillboxes, the barbed wire and the tank traps. We shall gasp with excitement when the blast shutters and the beaverboard “peep holes” are replaced by bright windows and soft lights, when the poster boards are full of color again and the neons twinkle and flash, when the clocks start again instead of being stuck at the moment the bomb fell. The street-car rails torn up for munitions will perhaps never go back, but most probably, for sentimental reasons, the iron railings will, in the famous West End squares.

There is another school of thought that holds ihat some of the ruins should be left as they are, in order to show posterity. The shiploads of tourists will certainly want to see something for their money. What better advertisement for Free Speech, ior example, could there be than the ruins of the House of Commons?

By the same token, the Wren church controversy has been a great gift to the sentimentalist. It has probed deeply—very deeply indeed—into that acute question of all human relationships, who and what are really irreplaceable. As one architect observes, if all the masterpieces in the National Gallery were destroyed, should we engage a group of living artists to repaint them? We cannot, unfortunately, restore the Middle Temple Hall, where Shakespeare himself acted in the first performance of “Twelfth Night.” Should we leave it in ruins—or run up a modern office block?

The chief thing to be said for Wren’s churches is the antiquity of their sites; for many of them incorporated the ruins of 1666. That is why the extreme sentimentalist would restore them in situ. On the other hand, very few historical buildings are now used as their designers intended, and probably Wren himself, says H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, ‘‘would laugh if he returned to this world and caught us piously rebuilding his hastily designed churches in forms that for a hundred years had been found by us to be increasingly inconvenient.” Sham antiquity,,says this authority—he is a former

President of the Royal Institute of British Architects—-is a crime.

Rebuild—or just restore?—or redesign? That is the hub of the question.

The angles of approach are three—Slums, Architecture and I raffic: and of them, Traffic is probably the most important. For now that an unrivalled opportunity exists for rectifying the mistakes of the past, we must recognize that the Gasoline Age is making just as many mistakes as its predecessors —such as aiding and abetting “ribbon” development along the great arterial roads.

Slums And Alleys

T^HIS INHERITANCE of mistakes is often too -*■ Sreat, f°r it represents invested capital. And thus the sins of the jerry-builder are truly visited upon the third and fourth generation.

The things the Victorians did, negatively,

were almost as bad. ty-ç

They introduced restrictions to keep all railway terminals a long way from the heart of things and from each other, and failed to see the obvi•’ ous opportunity for an „ H

encircling track connecting all the terminals and freight yards with each other and the docks. The lack of this crowds modern London with trucks and taxis hauling between the stations.

London is actually the greatest industrial city of Britain; it has more people employed in making things than any other city of the country. That the factories became the heart of slum warrens is probably the mistake of early and mid-Victorian economics. But actually London has already tackled slum clearance very boldly during the past two or three decades—more boldly, I venture, than any city in North or South America. But it has still many square miles of them, some so ugly that one can almost be grateful to the Nazi bomb which wipes them out. Nor are they all in the East End; Continued on page 41 some of the worst are immediately to the south of the river, facing the lordly Embankment from Westminster to Blackfriars, a jungle of depressing mud flats and rotting warehouses.

Glorious Phoenix

Continued from page 7

Starts on page 5

The nineteenth century, architecturally, was an era of congestion; the twentieth, as evidenced already by slum clearance, new suburban housing estates, and sunlit factories, will be one of spaciousness. But architecture always was a battlefield of cultures, and we may uneasily anticipate that when the dive bombers and the land mines of the rival schools reach London, the inhabitants will have to take to the dugouts again.

The fight is primarily between the engineer architect and the artist. What the architect principally criticizes in London is its lack of co-ordination. It contains, he says, every kind of architecture, from Saxon to Postdepression. As one critic has said: “There is no orderly growth,

no inner core. A medieval port and its surrounding villages have been run together, built over, rudely scribbled in, as commerce or fashion (but more often the first) has dictated.”

Take the Strand, for instance— that famous but rather shabby thoroughfare that has been the burden of so many exile songs. It is an outstanding mixture not only of every kind of architecture, from Wren to the Duke of Windsor, but also of London’s antiquated and bewildering laws on height restriction. It contains about 130 separate buildings, including the great frontages of the Law Courts (Victorian imitation Gothic) and Bush House (pseudo Rockefeller Centre) — and

thirty-nine of the 130 are under five stories in height!

To date the Strand has been so little battered as to make co-ordination and symmetry rather an expensive process, and there may be another obstacle. Sir Christopher Wren was called in by Charles II to plan a new London in 1666—the existing one having suffered more destruction, proportionately, than the Naziâ will seemingly be able to wreck, even if unchecked, for fifty years more. Wren proposed straight, wide streets of three magnitudes, with the widest at ninety feet, great piazzas from which they were to radiate, and a river embankment. But part of this plan called for the property owners to pool their properties. This, in spite of compensation, they firmly declined to do, and insisted upon building upon their old sites. Hence central London is still full of narrow lanes and courtyards, most of them with dear old Dick Whittington names like Bishopsgate Without. Even its main streets are so serpentine as to make the City of Quebec almost ruler-edge by comparison.

Fleet Street, newspaper row, is a classic example. Theoretically, it ought to accord a magnificent view of St. Paul’s, which is in a straight line with it, while between them is the dip where the old creek once ran. But Fleet Street has such a wiggle that from most of it you cannot see St. Paul’s at all, unless you have eyes, like Sam Weller’s, that can see through a flight of stairs and a deal door. And Fleet Street has simply a maze of passages wrhich are inhabited postal addresses but so narrow that Continued on page 43 Continued from page fl nothing vehicular, except bicycles, can enter. The far-famed “Cheshire Cheese” is in one such passage. Shoe Lane, home of The Daily Express, admits one-way traffic only, and when one of those huge trucks arrives with gigantic rolls of newsprint, it fits as snugly as a cork.

Thomas Tait, who in Lord Reith’s line-up of talent wears the ominous title of Director of Standardization (he built the Glasgow Exhibition of 1938) insists that the narrow streets and canyon-like lanes must go. To finance their widening, he says, build higher; the higher rental income from higher buildings will pay for the expropriation of the land. He theorizes that the London clay will stand buildings up to twenty-five or thirty stories.

Your typical Londoner has a very deep-rooted and unreasoning dislike of skyscrapers; and he knows that now he has certain technical backing. The traffic expert who has studied abroad knows that skyscrapers increase street congestion and multiply traffic problems. So thus we come to the fact that traffic will probably have a greater influence upon architecture than vice versa—however much that may gall the architect.

There are certain other facts, largely social ones, that must be recognized before we make too many mistakes by plunging headlong into this colossal task. The most important, as I have already indicated, is that London’s future size is unpredictable. Apart from the possibility that thousands of evacuees may not return to the large cities if they have found a comfortable niche elsewhere, there is the problem of the falling birth rate. Many statistical compilations have been made—the most famous being that of Dr. Grace Leybourne—to prove that by the census of 1941 the population of Britain would reach its highest historical peak, and thenceforward begin to decline.

Well, there was no census taken in 1941, so no one will ever really know. But if this event has indeed happened, the effects would be felt first in the suburbs; for what creates suburbs is pressure from within, and what contracts them is the growing cost of, and time lost in, transporta-

tion. So that the suburban villa, that million-multiplied evidence that an Englishman’s house is his castle, perhaps is doomed. Certain definite voices say that it is, and that flats are saner in every way. For one thing, they do tend to stop the town from spreading into the country. The effect of this, in turn, upon traffic is that most of the new roads seem to be wanted in order to get people out quicker to the suburbs. Still other voices declare that sooner or later every really-large city will break down, for industry, health and travel reasons, into a system of satellite towns whose inhabitants will seldom visit the centre.

The Future of Traffic

TRAFFIC problems of large cities resolve into two kinds—inner and outer. The chief inner one is that of the bottleneck—the favorite abomination and pest of the speed merchant. Using its historic routes first trodden by the Romans, inner London has hardly anything else but bottlenecks. It has always, of course, shown considerable and even picturesque ingenuity in compromising with them, without doing anything drastic about the memories that cluster over them. Such as in the famous Trafalgar Square roundabout, with its one-way traffic that goes round and round like a pin wheel, and that never, during working or pleasure hours, stops for a single moment. Three vehicles per second, swung in from seven entry streets and spun out, clockwise, at six exit streets—that was the peacetime count; and even in blitz time, when bomb craters slowed down the buses and taxis to a crawl, the darn thing never stopped !

And then there are those other hallowed bottlenecks—Bank, Hyde Park Corner, Oxford Circus, Elephant and Castle—magic names to the nostalgic, but a pain in the neck to the impatient. Practically every main-line railway station has its own pet bottleneck, beloved especially by the taxi drivers; of them all, that outside Victoria Station probably wins the blue ribbon, although Euston no doubt is in the highly commended class when it comes to deathtraps for pedestrians. Oxford Street, in the traffic-light division, has no rival in the world. In its mile and a quarter length from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch, it has no less than eighteen sets; and even in wartime the genial official fiction persists that they are all synchronized so that if you hit the series at precisely the right moment you can go slam through without a stop !

Zoned traffic, which is what will probably eventuate, means that no vehicular traffic would be permitted to enter a restricted street except that it had immediate business there with an inhabitant. Otherwise, it would have to detour. If buses, for example, were prohibited in Oxford Street, seventy-five per cent of the traffic congestion there would probably disappear. Alternative through roads would be found, or created, a block or two parallel.

But what kind of a rumpus would Mrs. Housewife kick up when she found that instead of the bus stopping right outside Selfridge’s, as of yore, she would have to walk a block from a parallel road?

Zoned traffic—relief roads—is the burden of the famous Bressey Report, made in 1938 by Sir Charles Bressey, Chief Engineer of the Ministry of Transport, but effectively pigeonholed very shortly afterward. It makes rather tough reading, the Bressey Report, but you might like to try it, as a glowing example of tempering realism with mercy, but not with much. Sir Charles saw these relief roads as providing speedways within a block or two of celebrated and probably, as it then seemed, unalterable bottlenecks. He wanted, for instance, to put a tunnel under sacred Hyde Park, which prevents any north-to-south crossing, except under very restricted non-commercial conditions, for over a mile.

He saw more and more arterial roads skimming away through the virgin fields. And because all arterial roads eventually lead to London and attract the speculative suburban builder, who runs up new rows of “ribbon” villas that sooner or later attract new bus routes, and thus defeat the original purpose, Bressey saw a new kind of road, which he called “orbital.” It would form loops, twenty or thirty miles long and almost as wide, so that through traffic not destined for London itself could by-pass even the suburbs.

Well, I have endeavored to set down some of the thousand angles of this enormous problem of rebuilding London, the like and magnitude of which have never existed since the world began. Whatever London does about it will be epochal, and as I have ventured to suggest, will have its philosophic, even spiritual, as well as its material side. Those who love the alluring, grimy place love it for what it is; will they do the same if it is different?