For most of the two millennia that have ensued since its founding, the City of London has experienced numerous crises whose import and impact far outweigh the minor financial ripples that our media message as crises. It is ironic that we, with the greatest weight of empirical evidence to benchmark our times against, have lost any sense of proportion. The effects of the much-vaunted crisis of 2008 and now Brexit are little to nothing when compared to the numerous sackings of the city, where all property was destroyed and most of the population slaughtered. We may be a little richer or poorer but, relatively, we are unaffected.
Similarly, comparisons of the impact of supposedly ‘rapacious’ overdevelopment, the City’s tall buildings cluster, and the consequent ‘vandalism’ of the skyline is much exaggerated. Comparisons to the Blitz – where the city burned and thousands died (whilst as per the apocryphal and popular slogan declares they survived by keeping calm and carrying on!) is an insult to recent history that survives in living memory. Though for that recent hysteria the media are to blame only for slavishly backing the pronouncements of a dimwitted yet meddling prince.
That our ancestors had a much better sense of perspective is proven by the fact that for most of the near two millennia the City of London’s focus was solely on the preservation of wealth and power, and never fabric. Destruction by war or fire was expected! So our obsession with conservation is but a recent idea that tragically came too late to stop Sir Herbert Baker’s wanton vandalism of Soane’s Bank of England. And one could argue that with that gone the war was lost!
Anyway, as the dynamic silhouette of the city proves, despite much talk, conservation has really never taken hold in the city of finance and pragmatism. Then as now, space required for a modern working bank matters far more than an architectural labyrinth. Still the detail that remains of a magnificently austere and pared back wall underpin Soane’s position as the modernism’s favourite distant relative as much as they damage Sir Herbert’s limited legacy.
To walk from the base to the top of the Monument is to understand the last 350 years of the city’s endless project of reconstruction. Little is seen in between but arriving at the top you witness how very efficiently the city is continuously winning space and reclaiming new buildings from within old and from the sky. Conservation for the work of the 60s was not discussed until the 90s, and then in a magnificent time warp, the argument at Mansion House was whether a scheme of the 60s should be built in the 90s. As ever pragmatism won and Palumbo called on Stirling. I remember at the time as a student being struck by an old sage warning a young buck – who was to arrive at the top of the city’s planning pyramid – of the perils of berating the immediate modernist past in favour of an imminent postmodern future. The sage has been proved right – for the saddest architectural details of all, worse even than accretions of rooftop plant, are the plastic baubles that drip from the illiterate nonsense that the most limited of architects constructed from the half-baked idea of postmodernism. Still, there are practical benefits, as this leaves the future with plenty of sites free from the protection of even the most ardent of conservationists!