An England That Might Have Been
‘We have chosen as targets the most beautiful places in England,’ said the German radio broadcasts on May 4th 1942. ‘Exeter was a jewel. We have destroyed it.’
Exeter was indeed an unusually beautiful Georgian city, because as its town planner said, ‘The character of the place depends less on its monuments than on the common run of its buildings.’ The vernacular warehouses and homes made Exeter special, not pompous architectural pieces. The RAF failed to jam guided German bombers heading for Exeter, and because the city was not of military importance it was defenceless. But its destruction wasn’t entirely down to the Luftwaffe. Town planners had been keen to get rid of the crowded Victorian streets for years. Bombing was often used as an excuse to remove troublesome buildings in the way of progress – the motor vehicle.
Something similar happened in Liverpool, once described as ‘the principal gateway from the West into Europe’. The mediaeval port had already been lost, but a combination of ignorant planning and bombing entirely removed many of the most astonishing baroque buildings that had remained from early Victorian times. The destruction of cities like Coventry, Hulls, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester took away their unique character, established in their founding and growth, and replaced it with standard commercial street layouts.
London was particularly transformed. The Pantheon in Oxford Street was removed in 1937 with a plan to re-erect it after refurbishment, but the war put paid to that plan. Paternoster Row, a street of bookshops where my father worked in his teens, ran behind St Paul’s and was entirely destroyed by firestorm because there was so much paper to to ignite.
Cities change, of course, but up until the Second World War the changes had taken place around the buildings and streets that were already there. Water, transport and railways had meant the loss of traditional urban layouts, and speculators followed in their wake. Cars and planes were the future – one plan shows a circular flyover built above busy King’s Cross on which planes were meant to land! And although ‘garden cities’ appeared on cleared land they were always mundane and devoid of any aesthetic grace.
German pilots had been involved in tit-for-tat bombing because of Churchill’s decision to bomb Germany. But they effectively put an end to the British architects’ worship of the appalling Le Corbusier, who had said that cities needed to be destroyed to ‘extricate them from their misery’.
What would it have taken to save the old cities of England? One answer is suggested by the Polish city of Gdansk, all but wiped out in bombing raids. Thanks to a complete set of city plans detailing every building, Gdansk was put back brick by brick as it had been, but with improvements to light, power and ventilation behind the facades. I walked around the town without realising it had ever been bombed.
This approach was frowned upon by British architects as a compromise, in the same way that Quinlan Terry became hated by a now-politicised architectural class who preferred brutalism over classicism. But Terry’s buildings were publicly adored because they gave a sense of continuity, and only recently has a brutalist building like London’s South Bank Centre started to become appreciated. The rebuilding of facades was accused of falsity, but the South Bank Centre could face exactly the same criticism; its back and sides are a blank wasteland. The truth is that England did not overly value its old buildings, and it took the war to make us realise that cities need protective legislation.
I would not want to see too many of our lost buildings restored – perhaps the overbearingly monumental Euston Arch (above) is best forgotten – but tearing down every damaged building for commercial gain was morally wrong. And for all the glitzy vulgarity of Mayor Johnson’s free-for-all skyscraper building era, a strong sense of vernacular London remains. I was walking down Gower Street last night when about fifty Chinese tourists gathered to take photographs. What, I wondered, were they looking at in their viewfinders? There was nothing there!
There was, of course; a very long unspoiled 18th century terrace complete on either side, not showy or particularly beautiful but I suppose oddly representative of London, the windows lit golden in the rain. Often it’s the things we don’t notice that need protecting.
And here’s a building in London that didn’t get bombed, a graceful facade of black and white tiles hiding a rather mundane hotel. I wandered past it yesterday in a backstreet just behind Oxford Street.
I am indebted to Gavin Stamp’s superb ‘Britain’s Lost Cities’ for this article.