Visiting ‘Lost London’ at Kenwood House in Hampstead reinforces how this city is an accretion of buildings constructed over hundreds of years. English Heritage has mounted a display of its photographic archive of buildings and streets that were brought down to the ground by bureaucrats and developers or destroyed under aerial bombardment. To see this accumulation of loss is to suffer a pang of sadness at the immense scale of unnecessary damage in the past 150 years. It’s true all cities are constantly remade, Paris being the ironic exemplar, so that buildings inherited from the past are occasionally superceded by better designs, but whenever a historic structure is lost all the traces of activity contained within it evaporate at the stroke of the wrecking ball. We lose contact with people who once inhabited or worked in these structures, the embodied of their values and experiences and which provided some form of access to the past.
Now we can never experience the grandeur and grime of the old Columbia Market built in Gothic splendour on a scale to rival St Pancras Station. Photographs remain a documentary record but are a poor substitute for strolling its market stalls. Such irresponsibility illustrates an extraordinary lack of appreciation of London’s legacy, it’s inhabitants and the value of their labour. That such a remarkable testament to the Victorian age could be cavalierly ripped down is frankly an assault on the spirit of anyone who values the legacies of history.
But what this exhibition staged by English Heritage demonstrates is the slow but concrete progress towards conservation in this country, that our past can be preserved while continuing to remain relevant to our lives today. You only need to think of Covent Garden’s brilliant transformation from redundant market to its respectful adaptation today to appreciate how we might regenerate London without ruining our collectiveinheritance. With its archaic sounding name, the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London was founded in the 19th century to use the new technology of photography in order to hold onto to something that might endure of London’s history.
Later in the 1950s and 1960s a slow reassessment of Modernism’s utopian impulse for shaping the future from the ground up, real conservation gradually took root. Too much of London’s fabric suffered destruction during the war, but the exhibition uncovers how bomb damaged structures provided the rationale for widespread post-war flattening of entire streets. Georgian King’s Square in Finsbury and Swedenborg Square in Stepney suffered the inevitable degradation of war but nevertheless survived largely intact. Instead of refurbishment, they were swept away in the rush to modernize housing. It seems so obvious today that renovation is so often preferable to wholescale demolition. Not until 1971 did listing buildings require prior consent before being altered or pulled down.
This is an exhibition that doesn’t simply focus on the lost artistocratic townhouses or great landmarks but also highlights slum housing and mundane, rickety commercial structures that accidentally survived the Great Fire of London. But the humble coaching inn, the tenement, the pub and the parish church lost to the wreckers are irreplaceable features of the city that once connected us tangibly to the lives of our ancestors and those subtle aspects of history embodied in brick and stone. Our losses in the past serve to impress upon us today that we needn’t carelessly allow the pressures of development to destroy the fabric and character of London or indeed any other city. ‘Progress’ requires a responsible negotiation with and respect for history.