Read by Anne Hutchings
Over the last few centuries, London has inspired architects to imagine how they would reshape the city to their own distinct styles. After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren proposed a new street layout for London, with streets dividing building blocks into rectangles around St Paul’s Cathedral but branching out from central points in the areas east and west of this. This plan was never carried out and the majority of the old irregular street layouts were maintained. Since then architects, either as individuals or groups, have presented their visions of how they would alter the skyline, buildings and roads of London. Many of these designs were never built and now all that remains of these abandoned plans are the drawings the architects produced.
Some of these designs can be found in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute, alongside collections of photographs showing buildings and monuments across the globe. The collection’s three boxes on the architectural drawings of 20th-century British architects reveal three planned design projects for buildings and streets which were never fulfilled which show great variation in their visions of a reshaped city with differing architectural inspirations from classical and romantic to more futuristic.
This monumental tower was intended to be built on the roof of the Selfridges store on Oxford Street and was designed by architect Philip Tilden in 1918. His other completed designs often included restorations and extensions of politicians’ houses although none of those quite matched the scale and ambition of this project. Not much is known about why Selfridge had commissioned this design or the exact reasons for why it was never built but it shows a vision of great grandeur and is reminiscent in some ways to the tombs for rulers and kings from the Classical period such as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus which is believed to have had a similar large podium with colonnaded areas and sculpted figures but the proposed tower appears to be larger in scale than even these monumental tombs.
The proposed tower would have fitted stylistically with the pre-existing Selfridges building which features more Ionic columns along the shop front, conforming to the concepts of “Beaux-Arts” architecture which was particularly popular in the 19th century. This was achieved by including classical and neoclassical decoration while using more modern features such as steel frame interior.
The expense of such a construction may have contributed to it never being built but its existence would have also radically changed the skyline of London at the time. The drawing makes the tower appear to be around 4 to 5 times taller than the main building. Since Selfridges is already five storeys high, the tower would have equalled or potentially surpassed the 111m high St Paul’s Cathedral which would have been the tallest building in London in 1918 and had been since 1710. Even today, it would have probably ranked among the hundred tallest buildings in London.
20 years later, the Glass Age Town Planning Committee proposed their own vision of a changed London. This time, these architects were not limited to a single building but instead proposed plans for rebuilding the entirety of both Bond Street and the Strand. Luckily for the Courtauld, Maxwell Fry seems to have allowed Somerset House to remain intact in the upper right corner of his drawing. Alongside a reimagined Bond Street by Howard Robertson, these designs formed part of the February 1939 issue of Architectural Review. The two images in the Conway Library would have been among designs for several other parts of the country including Princes Street in Edinburgh and parts of Liverpool, all depicting buildings using glass as their main exterior material.
The large scale destruction of older buildings required for these plans to happen and a lack of any form of planning permission are both factors which prevented these designs from becoming a reality. But the purpose of the committee itself was initially mainly to be part of an advertising campaign by Pilkington Brothers Ltd., a glass production company, to both promote their product as a building material and also present concepts of how buildings in the 21st century could look with further developments in technology and modern architectural styling. These designs could subsequently be as radical and unrealistic as the architects wanted because they were so unlikely to ever be built. Yet it still presents an interesting insight into how architects in the 1930s may have thought architecture could develop and how they imagined a future London could look.
The view of the Strand now is different to how the Glass Age Committee would have seen it but it may not have changed as much as they would have expected. The formation of tower blocks has never occurred in this area although the redevelopment of Charing Cross station later in the 20th century increased the amount of glass in its design. The skyline of London is also now dominated by glass skyscrapers, most prominently the Shard. In some ways, the Glass Age committee’s ambitions for greater use of glass in building came true, although not necessarily in the ways they had imagined or proposed in these drawings.
Less than a decade after the designs which aimed to promote modernist architecture and technology to 1930s Britain, the Royal Academy Planning Committee took a very different approach to how they would redesign London.
This picturesque drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral was published as part of a book, London Replanned, by the Royal Academy in 1942 in response to 1940 and 1941 bombings of London causing large scale damage. Unlike the clear and precise images of Bond Street and the Strand produced by the Glass Age Town Planning Committee, this pencil drawing is much more delicate with atmospheric clouds, a focus on more traditional architecture and featuring several small steamboats in the foreground. This image could depict a Victorian or Edwardian period London, a contrast to the emphasis on modernity proposed by other architects only a few years before and has much greater stylistic links to drawings and paintings by 18th and 19th century Romantic artists.
Although it is the only image from the Royal Academy’s book stored in the Conway Library, it would have been part of a building project even more extensive than that of the Pilkington commission. Among their plans for most of central London were a new road layout around St Paul’s, wide roads around Piccadilly Circus and a redevelopment of Hyde Park.
These drawings in the architectural drawing collection of the Conway Library give a snapshot into how different architects and groups thought London could be redesigned and how these views changed throughout the first half of the 20th century in response to the emergence of modernist architecture or the damage to London in the Second World War presenting the possibility of a significant redevelopment. The drawings of Bond Street, the Strand and St Paul’s also form parts of wider projects to redesign large proportions of London which were never fulfilled and little evidence remains of their ideas other than in these types of drawings. When considered together, these designs present interesting contrasts between a structure with links to classical features alongside more contemporary building materials, plans which imagined how the future London would look and a redesign of London combining traditional buildings with large expansions of roads and parks. If any of these plans had been carried out, they would have significantly reshaped the layout and design of London as it is today.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern
- Parnell S (2014) In praise of advertising. Architectural Review.
- Pilkington Brothers Ltd. (1939) Architectural Review.
- Royal Academy (1942) London Replanned. Royal Academy of Arts: London.