River Views Transformations on the Thames

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River Views: Transformations on the Thames Author(s): Roger Woodley Source: Architectural History, Vol. 44, Essays in Architectural History Presented to John Newman (2001), pp. 115-122 Published by: SAHGB Publications Limited Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1568740 . Accessed: 04/03/2011 09:54Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=sahgb. . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

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'The key to London is the Thames. Without the river, the city might not have existed and would certainly not have flourished.'" So runs the topographical argument for London's origin and successful growth. It stems from the Romans' choice of a crossing-point between a hill on the north bank opposite a rare spot of firm land - an island at high tide - among the marshes to the south. This was the first location up the tidal stream clear of marshland on both sides, and from it the Roman road network fanned out in all the necessary directions. There seems to have been no significant settlement in this place before. But if the Thames is so important, why have architects and their patrons so consistently failed to appreciate it as London's raison d'etre?Although the city has exhibited, in most of its historical phases, the characteristics typical of a river town, attitudes to the river, architectural and other, have often been indifferent and occasionally even hostile.2 Compare it, for example, with Paris's long love affair with the Seine. Worse still, today the Thames seems to be seen as a public space along which, or in which, to locate facilities for entertainment: a noble stream metamorphosing into a playground. In recent times few of London's important buildings have been successfully related to its river. Present waterside architecture, to take only that on the reaches between Blackwall and Nine Elms, mostly fails to capitalize on its spectacular location. It has not been for want of opportunity: regular transformations in such an important site are inevitable. The most obvious have stemmed from the successive downstream relocations of the port, but others have included the rise and fall of ecclesiastical building, the Great Fire, the proliferation of bridges, increased canalization by embankments and the south bank's development out of marshland. But aesthetically the trend has been adverse. From around 1840 until quite recently the river has been perceived simply as a commercial street or a sinister purveyor of ill-health (until cleansed of its sewage), or in the Pool, perhaps less unsuitably, as a grand entryway (e.g. the signification of Tower Bridge). In none of these visions is there much of either aesthetic intent or celebration of origin: the few honourable exceptions are largely survivals from an earlier age. These assertions are based on the precept of a significant relationship between a river and the architecture on its banks, and the messages thus conveyed. The process is dependent on the uses being made of the waterway and the priority accorded to waterborne viewers and visitors against those approaching by land. So, to begin with,



important questions ariseon the siting and the orientation of the architecture.Does a building presentits chief fagadeand entranceto the river, or to its approachroad?Are different meanings to be attachedto both elevations, like the east and west ends of a church? A further considerationis the existence or absence of a road alongside the stream. Such a road may be of naturalor ancient origin (e.g. a levee or a strand,including Stranditself) or the consequence of deliberate embanking (e.g. most intrusively Sir Joseph Bazalgette'strio of highways- Victoria, Albert and Chelsea- built between 1868 and 1874). The constructionof such a road, as opposed to a path for pedestrians or towing, tends to emasculatethe architecture's relation to the water. River building is a distinct form only so long as it abuts the stream:otherwise it becomes merely the boundaryof a one-sided street. These arevisual considerations, in London's earlydevelopment topographywas but the more important factor. The high ground of the City east of the probably Walbrook, not the marshy banks of the Thames, seemed to the Romans the more appropriateplace for a town: here they adopted the conventional grid pattern, with importantbuildings such as the forum and basilicalocated as usual at the centre. But to the so-called governor'spalaceappears have overlooked the river at the point where the Walbrook entered it. Was this siting in order to enjoy a scenic location? Also, recent archaeologyhas shown that where the streetsof the Roman city descendedto the banks of the Thames and the Fleet and their wharves, they were carefullycut and terracedto give riverviews. Of course,this may have been merelyfunctional,adapting to the gradientandwithout aestheticintent.3 Roman London was a mainly north-banklocation, a fact confirmedby the fourthcentury extension of the wall along the river, cutting off the wharves. The bridge acrossto the settlementat Southwarkthusbecame extra-mural,andthe riverexcluded. No concern for appearanceshere. Again, the Saxon development at Lundenwic (Aldwych) seems to have been a matter of occupying the high ground further west along the strand,with an embankment at water level at Charing Cross. Next, the establishmentin the tenth century or earlierof the West Minster was presumably,as so often with monasteries, not a question of scenery, let alone trade, but a suitable supply of water, in this case the point where the Tyburn entered the Thames. Even if scenic considerationshad arisen, the south-north flow of the river at Westminster precludeda picturesqueparallelwith the streamlike Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite. The separationand dislocation of these various early initiatives suggest that the location of settlementsin London was determined not by the river as such, even less by river views, but by the incidence of a crossing-point or a tributary.There was no islandto form a centre for growth to both banks (asin Paris),nor bank sides of equal dimension and relative closeness (as in Dublin). Architecturespreadalong the north bank for reasonsof pragmatism, art. not But when we reachthe latermedievalandTudor/Stuartperiods, a greatersensibility towards the river's scenic qualities begins to be exhibited. The Tower is an earlyexample: Henry III's and Edward I's thirteenth-century extensions along the riverside, centrally balancing the White Tower behind, combine access and defence with proportion and scenic order. Between Westminster and the City the ecclesiastical



houses arranged their palaces, not on the higher ground of the river terrace north of the strand, but at the waterside from Whitehall to the Fleet. Even the subsequent changes of ownership and additional building which occurred around their gardens after the dissolution did not mar the continuity of this rich panorama. Some, such as Durham House and the Savoy Palace, were placed at the river's edge, with doorways located Venetian-style, for entry directly from a landing-stage. Others, such as Suffolk House, old Somerset House and the later Northumberland House, were set higher up the bank so that those arriving by boat must traverse a formal garden. The romantic setting of Essex House was celebrated in Spenser's Prothalamion as the point of disembarkation for the two swan-brides for their double wedding: 'Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song.' Today, only the York Watergate (1626), ignominiously tucked away at the back of Embankment Gardens, survives as a reminder of these grand moments of waterside arrival. By the time we reach the period of Wren and his contemporaries, a grasp of the river's potential to display architectural grandeur becomes obvious. At Greenwich, John Webb's first new block for Charles II (1664-69) can be seen as part of a scheme relating specifically to the river, from which downstream it could be viewed as a long palace-fronted facade. The pedimented side elevation overlooking the river can be read as a quasi-entrance. Wren's subsequent plans to rearrange the site to accommodate a naval hospital may have been less comprehensive than he originally wished. But the entire conception (complete by 1728) is Thames-related, matching Webb's block with the Queen Anne block to the east and creating the domed King William and Queen Mary blocks symmetrically in the intermediate space, so that the Queen's House becomes the (diminutive) centrepiece. The image is famous, rightly so, as a nearperfect ensemble, the noblest river view in London. The pre