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London is a very special city, not only in its own country, but in the world. Since the reign of King Henry II in the 12th century, London has enjoyed a preeminence over the other cities of its country that no other capital has enjoyednot even Paris, which gained its dominance over everything French only after the French Revolution, a mere 200 years ago.
London began to take over from Winchester as the capital of England in the 12th century when King Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet rulers of England, favored it with his patronage. By 1700 it had become the largest city in Europe, containing about one-tenth of the population of England and exercising a control over England's life that is genuinely unique. Even today, when English people remark that they are going into town, you know that means London, not Liverpool, nor Manchester, nor Bristol, no matter how important those other cities may be. "Town and country" is a phrase dear to the English tradition which suggests a special relationship of that town, London, to the rest of the land.
London is not as old as many other European cities; it seems to have been created by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. Most major European cities have an older physical past than that. It seems to have faded out with the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain. The Saxons built another town upriver from it, basically what we call Westminster today. London was revitalized by the Vikings who saw its great potential as a port. When King Alfred took London in 886 A.D., he really consummated his victory over what soon would become England partly because of the wealth of the cosmopolitan, international London merchants that he could now command.
It is important to recognize that London is divided into units that very few modern cities continue to remember about themselves. There is the City of London proper, which is the Roman city plus a little medieval development off to the west, and then there is a crown of boroughs, each of them an independent municipality in its own right. The earliest was 8th-century Westminster. That corona has continued to expand up to the present day, now constituting one of the most remarkable urban sprawls in the world.
London's distinctive cityscape consists of several key features. First of all, the ideal London town house is really a rural house boasting an extra story or two. The people of this island realm have held on to the notion that the perfect house is really a country residence, even when in town. How different from the behavior of the French, Italian, German, and other continentals who have for long centuries built multi-level residences in the middle of their cities! London has projected this notion of country-style urban houses across the Atlantic to English-speaking countries in the Americas and elsewhere: hence the stubborn myth of the ideal city as a huge village in which each family can have its own cottage surrounded by its own grass. This is a highly inefficient mode of urban life-design, but deeply beloved nonetheless by millions of people. A look at the map of England shows the consequences of this mode of city-building. London sprawls over the surface of this relatively small country to a degree that few if any other world capitals do. Even Tokyo and Beijing do not command that kind of dominant space on the surfaces of their countries.
Another interesting feature of the London cityscape is that it is built on flat alluvial land with only minor ridges here and therea geography immensely convenient to the spread of a major city. It also gives rise to one important urban-rural conflict, a theme now of worldwide significance. As London has spread, sprawling over its region, it has occupied some of the very best farmland in the British Isles. That may be one reason why London has preserved the rural look that has seemed of the highest value to developers of London real estate for many hundreds of years. This style is highly inefficient, but it guarantees an attractively human scale. The few skyscrapers in London today seem artificial, plunked down there from some alien culture. They really don't fit in.
One sad feature of the surface appearance of the London cityscape today is that it was a major casualty of World War II. Here and there you get a sense of how attractive and coherent that city was until 1939. Paris, which did not get bombed, has been able to maintain its beautiful late-19th-century look. Block after block and street after street, London was even more reminiscent of the 18th and early 19th century. Unfortunately, the country was in desperate financial straights after 1945; reconstruction had to proceed with minimal resources, producing minimal esthetic charm in the rebuilt city. Prince Charles is only one of the nation's leaders who has addressed himself to minimizing this decline, calling for new buildings which will evoke the charm of that earlier London.
Table of Contents
Introduction by Lord James Crathorne
Commentary on Landscape by Jeremy duQuesnay Adams
Historic Landscape...Photographs and Responses
The Landscape-Makers (Human Landscape)...Photographs and Responses
London Town (The Citiscape)...Photographs and Responses