4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 8: Transformations I: London

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Lecture Summary

Other than the Marxist leap to 1917 and the utopian movements, the major reforming ideas of the form of the nineteenth century city rested on continued economic expansion accompanied by social change. For the first time, the city was subject to public clients as the state involved itself in health, education, welfare and housing, the control of the built environment through by-laws and codes, and eventually in city planning. At the same time a stable middle class achieved status, government depended on the wide authority of all to vote, and worker power was recognized through the organization of labor into unions. The next classes focus on five models according to which major cities transformed themselves and set the stage for the contemporary city.

Five economic inventions are regarded as fundamental to these transformations. The invention of the constant repayment amortized loan meant a change in relations with landlords, the emergence of secure paths to home ownership and major changes in land patterns. The change from the guild-like temporary building societies to permanent institutions meant a regulated supply of capital for home owners. The third component of the change in the delivery of housing resulted from the first building firm, attributed to James Cubitt, which employed full-time labor instead of itinerant journeymen and could provide a comprehensive service at a preset fixed price. In order to satisfy the enormous new demands on land, traditional tenure relations had to be changed, which started to shift control over land and property out of the hands of the aristocracy. Finally, the invention of municipal deficit spending, another mechanism based on progress and optimism, enabled cities to undertake major reconstruction in anticipation of increased tax revenues in the belief that a more efficient and attractive city would yield great future economic benefits.

In 1850, London, the center of the world’s greatest empire, manifested this position by building the most emblematic building of the nineteenth century: the Crystal Palace, the first of the great commercial/cultural exhibitions of the century. Through land reorganization, many experiments with housing types and subsidies, upgraded infrastructure and public transportation investments, London responded to its new size and economy to become the world’s first metropolis. The form of land in the city had remained largely unchanged through the maintenance of private ownership (note the rejection by King Charles II of Wren’s plan for reshaping the city after the 1666 fire). But as the city became such a powerful economic engine, the demand for land increased and led to the vast accumulation of wealth; for example, Mary Davies inheriting from her uncle large amounts of swampy land forfeited to the crown after the plague of 1665 which, when added to the rural fortune of her later husband, Grosvenor, led to the largest fortune in private wealth in England.

Two examples of land reformation in central London are examined. The construction of Regent Street through the efforts of the Prince Regent and his architect friend, John Nash, involved an act of Parliament and financing from the Royal Exchange Insurance Company and the Bank of England. This association of royalty, government, and commercial wealth produced a cut through the city between Regent’s Park in the north and Green Park and Buckingham Palace in the south. It also happened to be a dividing line between rich and poor in Booth’s map of 1879, the first economic class map ever made. In the second case, the subdivision of the nine estates which comprised most of west central London, including the Crown’s estate (the largest), is examined as “little towns” designed to include a mixture of housing types, uses and inhabitants. The role that different types of open squares, from the earliest Covent Garden, Bloomsbury and St. James onward, played in these subdivisions, as well as in the spatial pattern of central London, is noted and compared to different textural orders in cities.

A final aspect of the restructuring of London involves the building of many layers of public transportation rendering access to the outskirts and contributing to the low densities of London as compared to, say, Paris. Among the new infrastructure are the intrusions of the major railroad lines, with the help of parliamentary acts, into the heart of the city, forming a central box of about 4 x 1.5 miles, later to become the underground’s Central line. The world’s first underground system, begun in 1863, was virtually complete by the end of the century and has only been added to marginally since. It was reticulated to cover the city and connected to a suburban railway system that enclosed London’s growing suburbs into the enlarged city.


Handout for Lecture 8 (PDF)

  • Page 1: Subdivision and development of Bedford Estate, London from 1761–1845
  • Page 2: Matrix of textural orders comparing West London to other cities

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Thames Street, city grid of Regent Street, map of city, Grosvenor Square, Old Church, Booth’s map of pubs, the railway system, Euston Road, Charing Cross, Birmingham Railway, St. Pancras Station, Victoria Station, the Crystal Palace (London, England); Victoria Station (Mumbai, India)

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Spring 2013
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