Saturday, December 19, 2015

London: a tribute to a great city

To a lot of people London is just like any other big city: loud, busy, overcrowded, and overpriced, while to others it's all wealth, bling, and supercars. While much of that is true, it's an assessment that has never resonated with me. To me it has always been so much more than that.

From the moment I arrived on the train from Gatwick Airport, as the train crossed the bridge before pulling into Blackfriars Station on a beautiful September afternoon, I was awestruck. I'd never seen such buildings before, and such mesmerizing soft light which is so complementary to the city's best Victorian architecture. That first glance over eight years ago was the start of a love affair which didn't diminish over the three years I studied and lived in that great city, and it lasts to this day.

Notting Hill, Kensington, Belgravia, Chelsea: these are not just names of movies or posh areas. To me they conjure images of the greatest urban residential neighborhoods in the world, neighborhoods of a quality which have never been built since and which are still full of lessons for how we should be living and building today. They're full of charm and variety, offer a selection of different building types, and are full of parks, canals, or near to the river. There’s something for everyone. No wonder they command premium prices.

Oddly enough, for the most part they're not built on the 500 year old foundations of medieval villages. Rather, like modern day large-scale subdivisions, they were largely developed on former farmland by a single landowner and put up very quickly. It was not unusual for builders to erect dozens of new houses per year with sometimes thousands of workers on site. This is heartening information, because it shows clearly that large-scale development done quickly can yield fantastic results. It's a commitment to basic tenets of design that matters most. Like I've said many times on this blog, these basics have been abandoned in the past century, but really they're incredibly easy to reintroduce because they're based on common sense.

All of them boil down to one single holy truth: build around people. When you do that, everything else falls into place. You get a mix of densities based on how far most people are willing to walk, whether that be for shopping, dining, or to public transport. You get more beautiful buildings because they have to be detailed to look good to those walking at 5 mph rather than zooming by in a car at 40. You get the occasional meandering path in between blocks, and little parks tucked away in corners. You give people an alternative to corporate jobs by fostering a need for small business and as a result have a robust local economy. The benefits are endless, because when you do things the right way, everything just clicks into place. Things are just natural without alot of effort. Living in London made this abundantly clear to me. Because the city was built for pedestrians, moving around by foot is still the most efficient way of getting around and therefore everything still works as it should.

I’d wanted to be an architect for years, and I’d visited nice places around Europe before, but it wasn’t until I went to London that I really fell in love with buildings, and understood fully that the composition of buildings along a street matters a whole lot more than the individual trophy building. And to me, the compositions in London are as good as it gets. Modern architects could learn a lot about creating beauty by following the simple lessons this city has to offer. It doesn't take as much effort as architectural education would leave us to believe, only a thorough understanding of proportions and respect for materials and context.  

I love British Georgian and Victorian architecture, that unique combination of simplicity with whimsy that only they can pull off. Historical British architecture always borrowed from the French and Italians, but by making it their own British architects built some of the most delightful and unique buildings the world had ever seen.

In London, especially the best areas of North and West London, all these concepts come together on a grander scale than anywhere else in the country. The British preference for single family homes (“a man’s home is his castle”) resulted in the ubiquitous terrace housing seen throughout the city, further aided by the unique garden squares which make London the greenest major city in Europe. Ubiquitous, yet full of variety. Some are like grand palaces, others modest two-story brick buildings with little decoration. Every landowner hired his own architects and surveyors, so the terraces of South Kensington do not look the same as those in Notting Hill or Mayfair. No two districts look exactly the same. 

No city before, nor any city since, has built as much terrace housing as London. More than any other major city, London is a city of houses, not apartments. Even areas where many of the homes have been converted into apartments still retain that character, as they still look like single family homes from the outside.

Unlike, say, New York, which has a similar atmosphere throughout due to the strong street grid, the various areas of London are often so dissimilar to each other you’d hardly guess it’s the same city, which makes visiting the various corners of the city such an enjoyable, varying experience. On any given weekend I’d take 15-20km walks across the city, often crossing several districts. Hampstead and Highgate are almost like a village in the countryside, Marylebone more urban, Chelsea a quaint hamlet, Notting Hill like living in a park, and Belgravia a bastion of elegance with all that white stucco. My favorite would constantly revolve, dependant basically on which one I’d been to most recently. I could see myself living happily in any one of them.

The great Victorian city of London may be showing some cracks in its seams with recent development. Corrupt politicians are only too happy to let developers put up cartoonish towers completely out of character and detrimental to what the city has been for hundreds of years. Speculative investors don't help by driving up home prices and leaving many sitting empty. I hope these trends will die off soon. 

But luckily, for the most part, the city is doing an admirable job of resisting the onslaught of modernity where it really counts. This is further aided by something the British do better than anyone else: restoration. Whereas in countries like Germany a building after restoration usually looks brand new, all signs of its unique history erased, the British treat restoration as an art, doing what needs to be done to extend the lifespan of a building, but leaving untouched signs of age. Thus preserving what makes it unique in the first place. London messes with itself at its own peril. Thank goodness there are many people dedicating their lives to preserving the best of this special and historical city.

Something else I really love about London is how easy it is to escape the hustle and bustle. One minute you may be on a busy shopping street like Brompton or King’s Road, but turn off into a leafy residential side street and within a few seconds you can find yourself in an entirely different world, away from the noise and traffic. The London residential street is a world of it’s own, each possessing an identity all its own. Within that very specific London archetype one finds multitudes of variations. Harmony among chaos. Boy do I miss those Victorian terraces just thinking about them.

I guess that's what really draws me to London, the fact that this is a city defined by its homes and remarkable residential areas that are distinct both in design and spatially from the city's commercial areas. These were the early suburbs, but suburbs done right. Separate, but not so much that residents lose sight of the city or lose the ability to walk. And unlike many European cities, which with my American sensibility I find somewhat claustrophobic, in London the scale is comfortable, the street widths are relaxed. One can still breathe, and you are never far from a park. For all its big city credentials, London is a city in which it is easy to wander and escape reality, no matter who you are.

Maybe London isn’t for everybody. My brother was never anywhere near as fond as I am, for example. But it is for me, if I could afford to live in one of the beautiful areas I enjoy so much. It’s the one place I’ve ever lived that I felt at home. I could walk those streets among the glories of Victorian architecture all day, every day. There's no other place like it. It’s my favorite city in the world, and probably always will be.

All photos my own. See more of my London photos here.