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Urban Wrenaissance

Terry Farrell celebrates the legacy of Wren but is grateful that he never imposed his formal plan on the organic sprawl of London

As part of the London Festival of Architecture I gave the inaugural Wren Lecture, in aid of the appeal for St Bride’s Church, one of Wren’s undisputed masterpieces. The architect’s contribution to London is unsurpassed and the inscription on his tomb ‘if you seek my monument, look around you’ is as true today as it was in the 18th century.

Wren was of a generation of revolutionary thinkers the like of which had never been seen before and may well never be seen again. The two-cultures debate that emerged during this era of enlightenment was an incredibly powerful and in some respects uniquely British phenomenon. When Blake depicted Newton he was lamenting the limitations of science through the medium of artistic expression. This dichotomy between the rational, ‘top-down’ approach, which has pervaded architectural and planning theory ever since, and the creative, artistic approach that celebrates complexity and diversity is still very much in evidence today.

Much as I admire Wren, there is one scheme of his that I am glad was never implemented: his masterplan for London. It is revealing how an architect of his stature approached a city-wide proposal, and reflecting on it today prompts certain thoughts about the future of the capital in the 21st century.

London, unlike Paris, was never rebuilt according to a grand plan and has a long history of adapting and making incremental changes that is more like the self ordering that we see in nature than anything Haussmann would identify with. The closest Wren came to this was ‘Haussmannising the skies’ as a result of the peculiarly British and arbitrary legislation protecting views of St Paul’s that have determined where all our tall buildings are.

Later attempts by Abercrombie to impose a plan that was civil engineering-led were also rejected in favour of working with the grain and we must learn lessons about this natural inclination to evolve organically and move away from the iconic and gestural planning that has been favoured even in recent years (as was evident at the South Bank and Paternoster Square) over what works, and what manifestly does not, in the context of London.

One of the most extreme examples of this was the debate over Mansion House where the architectural community were almost unanimously in favour of Mies van der Rohe’s plan. Since then the debate has moved in the right direction − albeit slowly and painfully − away from a Corbusian view of the world towards a paradigm that Jane Jacobs would be more familiar with. It is no coincidence that this has happened at the same time that most other industries have moved from a ‘Fordist’ model of mass production to a more open and bottom-up model that celebrates diversity and consumer customisation, driven by the internet.

Today, throughout London major regeneration projects are stitching black holes in the fabric back together again, many of which are situated along London’s lost and industrialised rivers such as Counters Creek, the Fleet and the River Lea. The important thing is to really analyse these patterns and get under the skin of a city that has built up layer after layer over many hundreds of years. The most successful projects that are moving forward these days are not trying to reinvent but are instead celebrating the key ingredients that make London the most liveable city in the world.

My work advising the Mayor in recent years on the importance of high streets and the public realm has manifested itself in projects that my practice has been working on such as Earl’s Court, Holborn and Vauxhall. The imperative has been about placemaking and the subordinate role of the ‘object’ (as in buildings) over the surrounding streets, squares and public spaces.

There is an old Irish saying that if you want to get there I wouldn’t start from here. My appeal to those planning London’s future who may have top-down visions, is that here is not such a bad place to start after all.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I have always believed that Wren only submitted this plan because he needed to be in the running; his lifelong friendship with the King more or less guaranteed that he would have won the "competition" anyway; and up his sleeve he had another project, the reconstruction of all the city churches and the raising of many spires and campanili to surround his new cathedral. That was Wren's real project for London, but alas it has largely been destroyed or obscured.

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