Modern icons: The stars of London’s architecture renaissance

Editor’s Note: Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the Financial Times, and author of more than a dozen books. This is an edited excerpt from his introduction to “New London Architecture,” published by Prestel.

CNN  — 

There are old cities. There are new cities. London’s strange and seemingly eternal attraction lies in its ability to be simultaneously both.

London is a city with Roman foundations and a street plan that emerges as a chaotic hybrid of arrow-straight Roman roads, winding medieval alleys, and marketplaces; but also well-meaning, if often half-hearted, attempts to make it grander, more beautiful – or at least more rational. But it resists all attempts to overlay it with a sense of logic, just as it defies the efforts of successive generations to transform it, despoil it, or iron out the creases.

Through this chaos emerges one of the world’s most persistently desirable, expensive, successful, and unpredictable cityscapes, a place that is constantly changing yet somehow always remains fundamentally London.

Each century seems to bring its radical transformations, from the Great Fire in the 17th to the elegant city squares of the 18th, the explosion of the suburbs of the 19th and the scars of war and the neophilia of modernism in the 20th. But the 21st century is arguably already bringing about the most radical shifts in scale and skyline that the city has seen since the medieval era.

While the post-Great Fire skyline was defined by the spires of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches, culminating in the great dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the new cityscape is marked by supertall towers articulating the city’s real estate status as the reserve currency of the global elite.

That transformation from a skyline that once combined commercial development with social housing into one that celebrates the victory of private wealth has been radical in its visual impact and eye-watering in its pace.

And, as if to reimpose itself on a profile in which height in itself is no longer enough to make a statement, London has supercharged its architecture to make itself seen.

Cities with porcupine skylines are almost a cliché; what actually makes a city buzz happens in its streets and squares, its shops and bars, the chandelier-crowned restaurants and the subterranean dive bars. And that’s been a different story, one expressed through a cocktail of the salvaged and the shiny, the particular and the generic.

In one interpretation, the city’s streets are being homogenized, the plate glass windows and the glazed facades reducing the interface between public and private, interior and exterior to a banal membrane. But in a parallel route, architects and clients are weaving their buildings back into the historic fabric, the city streets becoming intriguing palimpsests in which the high tech gleams next to artfully maintained dilapidation.

Walls are being stripped of centuries of plaster and wallpaper and taken back to the bare bones of brick and steel; battered floors and ceilings are revealed as precious surfaces divulge their history through their degradation.

Many of the best new works in the city appear not as monuments or towers, as museums, or malls, but as pieces of infill – considered, modest, occasional glimpses of a coherent, characterful architecture that has somehow emerged from this polyphony of voices, styles, and forms.

Eric Parry Architects’ faience facade at 50 New Bond Street and 6a Architects’ cast-iron shop front for Paul Smith’s store in nearby Albemarle Street seem to represent a new, but also rather traditional, idea of ornament as inherent to structure, a willingness to merge experiment and art with the historic texture and the subtle but intriguing decorative character of the city.

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance by Herzog & de Meuron

Adjaye Associates’ Rivington Place, meanwhile, introduces what appears to be a memory of soot-stained industrial architecture scaled at the level of the street, while Herzog & de Meuron adopt the cheap, polycarbonate, and concrete language of industrial construction for their shimmering Laban Building.

The complexity of London’s streetscape, the incoherence – perhaps even absence – of an overarching plan, the layering of historic strata, and the way in which modern megastructures are allowed to burst through the filigree lace of medieval scale and grain, mean that buildings are never experienced in a straightforward way.

Instead they are glimpsed poking above streets or reflected through shop windows or rain puddles.

London is not a city of monuments but a metropolis of glances and slightly hidden surfaces. Once obscured by the fog, it now fades into the drizzle or creates the backdrop for the ebbs and flows of the crowd absorbed more in their phones than the streets they are walking through.

The photographs here capture precisely—or perhaps impressionistically—that realm of glimpses and impressions, unexpected details and sudden surprises, a cityscape of infinite variety and constantly evolving aesthetics, which, no matter how well we think we know it, folds, collapses, and elides into new views and vistas even as we walk its endlessly intriguing streets.

“New London Architecture,” published by Prestel, is out now.