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London's Changing Skyline Past, Present and Future

Report of the lecture given by Anthea Streeter MEd on 27th May 2009

Anthea kept our attention from the outset in this lecture. Roman 'Londinium' was an important trading port and was surrounded by tall city walls. By the 5th century the Anglo Saxons had arrived and renamed it 'Lundunvic' and founded St Paul's. Then we moved forward to Edward the Confessor who built a monastery dedicated to St Peter alongside Westminster Palace and the seat of government. By 1077, William the Conqueror had built the Tower of London, using French stone. London's skyline was developing fast.

By the 12th century London Bridge was built to replace the Roman wooden one and permission was granted to erect buildings on it, including the splendid Nonsuch House, in order to fund it. This was operated by The Bridge House Estate, an institution still going today!

Then in 1666 London burnt like rotten sticks! It was a clean slate for Christopher Wren. His original plan for wide boulevards with St Paul's at the centre was turned down by the city planners. The height of buildings was limited to four storeys as this was as high as was practical for a fire engine. There was also a ban on timber! The wonderful classical buildings of this period were followed by the medievalism of Barry and Pugin. Their St Stephen's Tower housing the bell Big Ben and Victoria Tower at Westminster looked like early skyscrapers. Tower Bridge was their design too.

By the beginning of the 20th century architects were finding ways around the height limit by embellishing rooflines with monumental structures to trick the eye. The 1920s - 30s saw buildings like The Savoy Hotel built and Shellmex House with its slightly Egyptian style Art Deco façade. It was in 1934 that Faraday House caused such controversy at the loss of one of the six key sightlines of St Paul's which had been in force since the building of the cathedral. However by the end of World War 2 an aerial view of London portrayed utter desolation

So yet another chance for a new and exciting skyline arose. Post war architects progressed with angularity to concrete, steel and glass. Laws on height limits were repealed. Richard Seifert used brilliant technology to overcome planning constraints with Centre Point. He used pre-cast mouldings, boltable together on site dispensing with the need for scaffolding. Then came green windows only to be followed by the 'corporate cool' of dark brown.

By the 80s architects started to avoid flat roofs, opt for cantilevers and reintroduce curves. The Gherkin is a wonderful example of Sir Norman Foster's achievement for open internal spaces encompassing all the needs of the modern computer age. As to the future - there are The Pinnacle building by Koh Pendersen Fox (to be finished in 2012), The Cheese Grater and The Walkie-Talkie building to name but a few! All intended, however, to benefit rather than intrude on the skyline.

Julie Rashbrooke

Anthea Streeter, in blue, in discussion after her lecture,
while bookings are carefully checked for future outings.