The ‘Wobbly Grid’: Why London Streets Are So Tricky
When you see London from the air the first thing you notice is the Thames. The slate roof houses and backstreets echo the swerving shape of the river. The film ‘This Happy Breed’ is set in Battersea between the wars, and shows off London’s road layouts well. But why do they look like so distinctive?
The river was the central delivery point of the Empire’s goods. Arches were cut to the height of barrels, roads were shaped around the Thames’s 55 tributaries, and the geometry of streets was intuitively created rather than having the order of a grid imposed. The spaces were then filled in between the city’s two main hubs, the City and the West End.
London does have a ‘wobbly grid’, however. It comes from combining formal Roman roads with organic rippled roads from the river, the first main thoroughfare of which is The Strand. In his excellent book, ‘Shaping London’, architect Terry Farrell lays out the design principals that lie behind Oxford Street and Holborn. Oxford Street may not be pretty but it remains London’s most social street at a time when most high streets are in trouble precisely because they are no longer social hubs.
This is why residents of Mount Pleasant in North London are fighting plans for a vast new ‘luxury’ housing project rising on the site of London’s old sorting office. Instead of intuitively following the natural shape of the land, it’s to be constructed on opposing principles in order to cram more buildings in.
While there are good new piecemeal designs for the city (revamped stations like Blackfriars are excellent) high streets are cluttered with millions of short-lease shops. For 200 years London has patched things up, with the result that when you look at 1950s photographs of the bombed-out city, you actually find yourself thinking the streets were less chaotic then because you can see the original layouts. Poor areas suffer most; a trip down gruesome, derelict Brixton Hill (once an elegant shopping parade) is enough to induce suicidal thoughts. Why did this change come about?
It’s easy to blame the Blitz, but that’s not the real story. The problem has its roots in the late Victorian era, when the heart of London was residential. The massive house-building projects that were undertaken resulted in large properties with gardens. When people moved out the gardens were sold off, which is why so many streets still have separate ground-floor shops.
‘Where do you live?’ the snobbish novelist asks his working-class adversary in Anthony Schaffer’s play ‘Sleuth’, ‘above, below or behind your shop?’ High streets gained a reputation for being ‘low’ and dangerous. As anything declines it attracts bad elements. There are a number of terrific books on the subject from authors like Jerry White and Harry Mount, most of which reach the same conclusion; that after London’s grand layouts were established, the rest was stitched together by its people and stitched up by its councils.
Farrell points out; ‘By the 1960s London had a legacy of boroughs designed to suit political convenience, according to voting patterns.’ He argues that the reason why banking remained in the City is because of its Mediterranean compactness and order, which makes it a clone of Roman fortified garrison towns. South London suffered because of its elevated railways, which obliterated planning, but also because the river twists, so that the inside bend of the Thames turns turns the south side into a cabbie’s shortcut from east to west. If you stand on Lambeth Bridge and look at Canary Wharf it’s far from where you expect it to be – way over to the right.
The Thames is a trickster, and if you use it to take your bearings on foot you are doomed to get lost. But it has another trick up its sleeve – the deep water channel is not in the centre but to the north side, which is why docks were built to the south. The north is the side that’s in sunlight, and yet it’s the side that doesn’t have a developed walkway – yet.
What can be done to improve the flow of people? This week London’s population hit its highest peak in 2,000 years. We need a co-ordinated commitment to crowd control; the tubes are disastrously overcrowded in peak hours, with passengers backed up through the tunnels. Pavement railings still cause bottlenecks, despite assurances of their removal. Promised pedestrianised zones in the West End never materialised, vehicles still clog the city and the congestion charge has failed in every respect except collecting revenue. London no longer has specialised areas. Go to Tokyo, Berlin, Nice or Madrid and you’ll find whole streets dedicated to certain kinds of shops and restaurants. Tottenham Court Road was where everyone went for their audio equipment. Online buying changed that, but arts, technology, homeware and fashion need designated zones. If you’ve ever tried to buy furniture in London, you’ll know how impossible it is to get a sense of what’s available.
London continues to deceive, and to defy all attempts at rationalisation.