London is England’s and the United Kingdom’s capital and largest city. It is located on the Thames River in southeast England. London, being one of the world’s major cities, has a significant impact on the arts, business, education, entertainment, fashion, finance, health care, media, tourism, and communications and has been dubbed “the capital of the world” on several occasions.

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Cityscape of London_©wikipedia.org

The Tower of London’s Romanesque central keep, Westminster Abbey’s great Gothic church, the Palladian royal residence Queen’s House, Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece St Paul’s Cathedral, The Palace of Westminster’s High Victorian Gothic, Battersea Power Station’s Industrial Art Deco, The Barbican Estate’s post war Modernism, and the Postmodern skyscraper 30 St Mary Axe ‘The Gherkin’ are all examples of London’s architecture. Because of their different eras, London’s buildings are too diverse to be defined by a single architectural style. Many architectural styles from many historical eras are represented in London’s architectural legacy. The architectural eclecticism of London is due to the city’s lengthy history, constant renovation, damage by the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, and official protection of private property rights, which have hindered large-scale state planning. This distinguishes London from other European cities, such as Paris and Rome, which have a more uniform architectural style. 

The middle ages (1066 – 1603)

Due to the city’s near-total devastation in The Great Fire of 1666, little of London’s medieval architecture survives, but a few scattered survivors, as well as other documents, offer a vivid image of the city throughout this era. In the Middle Ages, London was mostly contained inside its Roman city walls — the region is now known as The City of London – with Westminster being a tiny hamlet to the west. 

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Panorama of London in 1616 by Claes Janszoon Visscher. Old London Bridge (1209) complete with its own street of houses is on the right with Southwark Cathedral next to its southern gatehouse. Old St Paul’s Cathedral dominates the skyline_©wikipedia.org

The Norman Conquest marked a watershed moment in English architectural history. The Normans erected multiple fortifications along the River Thames in the heart of London very quickly after their conquest of England, including the Tower of London, which still stands today, to solidify their dominance within the city. The White Tower, the primary keep of the Tower of London complex, was erected in the 1080s in the Romanesque style and would have been the city’s highest edifice; it was William the Conqueror’s royal palace. Westminster Hall was also built by the Normans and is a notable London landmark. On Ludgate Hill, the Normans began construction of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, which would eventually replace a crude Saxon timber-framed structure. The cathedral contained Gothic characteristics, such as an elegant rose window at the east end, with the Norman-built Romanesque nave by the time it was completed in the 14th century.

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The White Tower (1080) the Romanesque central keep of the tower of London complex_©wikipedia.org

Stuart London: Inigo Jones and the rise of Classicism (1603–1666)

The classical style arrived late in the Stuart period, a century after it first appeared in Italy in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Inigo Jones, appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works in 1615, was the preeminent architect. Banqueting House, Whitehall (1622), an expansion to the largest medieval Palace of Whitehall with a Palladian Portland stone exterior and a beautiful painted ceiling by the Flemish painter Rubens, was his first significant work in inner London. Another royal commission, Queen’s House, Greenwich, was finished in 1633 and reflected Jones’s conservative Palladian design, which did not reflect the extravagant Baroque style popular on the continent. 

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Banqueting house (1622) by Inigo Jones, one of London’s first classical buildings_©wikipedia.org

Baroque London: The Great Fire and Christopher Wren’s Reconstruction (1666–1714)

In 1666, the Great Fire destroyed over 90% of the most medieval city. Although the Great Fire was a disastrous event in London’s history, the massive devastation it inflicted provided a historic chance to replan and modernize the primarily medieval city. Radical classical rebuilding plans were rapidly put up by architects like Christopher Wren, proposing to abandon the city’s chaotic medieval street network in favour of a rationalized grid system with large boulevards, piazzas, and a consistent classical design for all new buildings. Despite this, London underwent a significant architectural shift. The architectural unity of the new metropolis was perhaps its most remarkable feature. 

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St Paul’s Cathedral and The City Churches by Canaletto (1747)_©wikipedia.org

The rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City Churches by Christopher Wren, the renowned architect of the English Baroque movement, was the most remarkable architectural achievement of the new city. Wren and his crew created 51 city churches (25 of which exist) that are architecturally significant. They are diverse and imaginative designs that are typically erected in tiny and constrained settings. Their exteriors’ most architecturally innovative element is their towers.  

Georgian (1714–1811)

The Georgian era (1714–1830) saw Britain develop as a worldwide trade power with London as its center, resulting in economic and colonial growth. This is mirrored in London’s population increase. The creation of terraces and attractive new squares such as Grosvenor Square, Portman Square, and Bedford Square were at the forefront of this expansion. The rising middle classes that arose from Britain’s emerging mercantile economy made their homes here. The city began to develop dramatically south of the river with the construction of new bridges across the Thames at Westminster (1750) and Blackfriars (1769), the first since the early Middle Ages.

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Georgian terraced housing in Bedford Square (1780), one of many squares built in the west of London as the city grew_©wikipedia.org

Regency (1811–1837)

The late-Georgian period of British architecture known as Regency is represented in London by some of the best specimens. Though it follows the neoclassical style tradition, it is visually distinct from early Georgian buildings. Enhanced embellishment, such as friezes with high and low relief figural or vegetative themes, sculptures, urns, and porticos, were used in the Regency period, yet the clean lines and symmetry of early Georgian architecture were maintained. Sash windows, which became very popular during the Regency period, were kept, as were first-floor balconies with either elegant cast iron scrollwork or classic balusters. John Nash was the most prominent proponent of Regency Classicism, and his works may still be found in London. Cumberland Terrace, Cambridge Terrace, Park Square, and Park Crescent are among the stately residential terraces that encircle Regent’s Park. Nash’s excessive use of stucco on these structures was frequently deceiving since it could be used to hide poor construction: Nash had a vested financial stake in the Regent’s Park renovations. 

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Park Crescent (1821) John Nash, a grand stucco Regency crescent marking the entrance to Regent’s Park_©wikipedia.org

Victorian (1837−1901)

Buildings from the Victorian era (1837–1901), with their broad range of shapes and decoration, make up the single greatest group of buildings in London from any architectural period. The Victorian era witnessed enormous urbanization and expansion in London, coinciding with Britain’s worldwide economic dominance and London’s global preeminence as the world’s first city.

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The Midland Grand Hotel’s Gothic Revival architecture at St Pancras railway station (1868)_©wikipedia.org

Neo-Gothic, often known as the Gothic Revival, was the most popular architectural style, exemplified by the new Palace of Westminster, which was erected between 1840 and 1876 to designs by Charles Barry. Gothic architecture conveyed “the impact of London’s history” and was contemporaneous with Romanticism, a cultural movement that exalted all things medieval. To replicate the great cathedrals of the past, new churches were built in flamboyant and grandiose Gothic Revival styles. The Royal Courts of Justice (1882), the Midland Grand Hotel (1876) adjacent to St Pancras station, Liverpool Street railway station (1875), and the Albert Memorial (1872) in Kensington Gardens are all notable Gothic Revival structures.

Edwardian Architecture (1901–1914)

Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, there was a movement in architectural taste and a reaction against Victorianism. For the impact that Wren’s work had on this movement, the popularity of Neoclassicism, which had been dormant throughout the later part of the nineteenth century, was resurrected with the new styles of Beaux-Arts and Edwardian Baroque with the new styles of Beaux-Arts and Edwardian Baroque. British architects drew inspiration from revered English Baroque monuments like St. Paul’s Cathedral and Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House when they adopted similar forms. For large construction works like the Old Bailey (1902), County Hall (begun in 1911), the Port of London Authority building (begun 1912), the War Office (1906), and Methodist Central Hall, municipal, government, and ecclesiastical buildings of the years 1900–1914 eagerly adopted Neo-Baroque architecture (1911).

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Admiralty Arch, The Mall, commissioned by King Edward VII and designed by Aston Webb (1912)_©wikipedia.org

Art Deco & Interwar Architecture (1919–1939)

Several remarkable building projects started before 1914 were ultimately finished after World War I ended. The gloomy atmosphere and tight financial situation in interwar Britain rendered the flashy Neo-Baroque design unsuitable for new construction. Instead, British architects reverted to Georgian Architecture’s stark, clean lines for inspiration. Many of London’s biggest aristocratic buildings were sold and demolished, resulting in some of the largest private construction projects of the interwar period, designed in Art Deco or Neo-Georgian styles. The Dorchester (Art Deco) and the Grosvenor House Hotel (Neo-Georgian) on Park Lane are two examples; both built on the grounds of old London residences with the same names. 

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The Hoover Building (1931), Art Deco and “Bypass Modern” industrial style_©wikipedia.org

Post-War Modernism and Brutalism (1945–1980)

During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe continued to attack London’s urban fabric and infrastructure, killing over 20,000 Londoners and destroying or damaging more than a million homes. The re-housing issue, along with post-war optimism embodied in the Welfare State, provided a chance and a responsibility for architects to reconstruct the shattered capital. Sir Patrick Abercrombie, an internationally prominent urban planner, produced the County of London Plan in 1943, which outlined the reconstruction of old metropolitan districts using modernist zoning and de-densification concepts. Overcrowded urban populations were transferred to new suburban projects, accelerating pre-war trends and allowing inner-city districts to be restored. 

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Royal Festival Hall (1951) by Robert Matthew embodied the optimistic ideals of post-war modernism in Britain_©wikipedia.org

Postmodernism, High-Tech, and High-Rise (1980-Present)

In the history of architecture, the late 1970s are seen as a stylistic turning point. The postmodern school, which first expressed itself in Robert Venturi’s controversial book Learning from Las Vegas (1973), was a movement that rejected minimalism by embracing irony, playfulness, pop culture, and quoting historical styles in their buildings. It was formed in reaction to the austere modernism that had dominated architectural design since the end of World War II.

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Postmodern architecture of the SIS or MI6 Building by Terry Farrell (1996)_©wikipedia.org
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(left) City Hall (2002) Fosters and Partners and (right) The Shard (2012) Renzo Piano, high-tech and neo-futurist architecture_©wikipedia.org

The high-tech style, as well as the comparable neo-futurist style, are an offshoot of the postmodern trend that became popular in the 1990s. These two styles take influences from the modernist movement with utility and utopianism while embracing much of the quirkiness of postmodern design with odd shapes. 

30 St Mary Axe (2003) by Foster and Partners (‘The Gherkin’), an iconic high rise building_©wikipedia.org

The use of glass, steel, and high-tech manufacturing techniques, as well as revealing the structural and functional parts of the building as a form of adornment, are all highlighted in terms of construction. Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building (1986), an ‘inside-out’ design in which all of the building’s services — its lifts, ducts, and vents – are on the outside, functioning as a façade, is an innovative example.

Author

Rajita Jain is an architect by profession who engages with the dynamics of urban spaces and the people. She aims at developing ways of amalgamating cultural and traditional beliefs with modern day technology to give the urban fabric a vernacular sensitivity.

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