One of the joys of London, so long as you don’t need to get anywhere fast, is the haphazard arrangement of streets and alleys. One sees this most in the Square Mile, the ancient heart of London, whose street pattern was largely fixed in medieval times. It is an area of curving lanes, inviting alleyways and evocative names like Crutched Friars, French Ordinary Court and Ironmonger Lane.
But imagine if the City instead looked like this:
The map show’s Christopher Wren’s scheme for rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666 (in fact, he started work on it before the fire… hello conspiracy theorists). The architect imagines grand boulevards and radial focal points. It would have been a city very different from the one we know today. It was not to be. The City quickly rebuilt along the existing street patterns, when landowners engaged in piecemeal redevelopment before a masterplan could be deployed.
Wren’s map, along with four other suggestions for rebuilding the City in 1666, are on show at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on Portland Place. If Wren’s scheme seems radical, take a look at this yawnfest by Richard Newcourt:
It’s a city of squares and churches and tedium, unless you like playing hide-and-seek in religious buildings. Yeah, it would have been a godsend for Google’s driverless cars, or for rapidly crossing the city — but what is there to fire the curiosity?
London did finally get its grid systems in places like Marylebone and Pimlico, but the ancient centre of the city remains delightfully jumbled. Pop along to the free Creation From Catastrophe exhibition to get an ogle of how London might have been, and also to learn how other cities have replanned following major disasters (18th century Lisbon, 19th century Chicago, 20th century Skopje…).