Monday, June 14, 2004
When King George III was declared mad, his antithetically fashionable son became the Prince Regent, ruling in his father's place. The prince greatly admired Napoleon's urban interventions in Paris, so one of his first acts was to hire the architect John Nash to create a new, formal processional way from Pall Mall to a new park, called Regent's Park.
The southern end of the Regent's street was a broad axis terminating at Carlton House, the Prince Regent's residence between Pall Mall and the Mall, the royal ceremonial route between the Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace. The northern end of the new street was Regent's Park, a new park in the middle of boggy, mainly undeveloped land belonging to the Prince Regent in Marylebone, which Regent Street opened for development.
Nash used some existing streets and primarily kept within the street grids that floated at different angles between the new park and Pall Mall. That meant that the street had to shift to the east before it got to Pall Mall. The result was the beautiful curve of lower Regent Street, an unusual urban space.
The curve ends at Piccadilly Circus, Nash's circle which also terminates the axis to the Mall and marks the beginning of Shaftsbury Avenue, Coventry Street and Piccadilly Street (originally Portuguese Road). For many years, Piccadilly Circus functioned like Times Square in New York, although the government has pushed much of that use over to Leicester Square, which is now traffic-free.
In 1829 Carlton House was torn down, opening the vista down the hill to the Mall from Piccadilly Circus. The lower end of the street was renamed Waterloo Place, and a monument to the Duke of York was erected at the top of the new steps going down on axis to the Mall.
London would be a very different place without Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and Regent's Park. Paris would not be Paris if it only had the medieval streets of old Paris, without the grand urban interventions of Louis XVI, Napoleon and Napoleon III with Baron Haussmann.
Click on the image to see it at a larger scale. The center view is from a vintage postcard taken while Regent Street was in the middle of a cleaning.
There's an urban myth that Napoleon's and Napoleon III's grand boulevards were designed to ease troop movement and open axes which could be controlled with cannon shot. In the list of priorities, these were perhaps numbers 9 and 10 on the list. Number 1 was social reform: opening up transportation around the city, clearing some of the worst housing, bringing a sewage system to the city and providing a modern beauty representing social progress.
Siefgried Giedion and Le Corbusier, two of the most important theorists and polemicists of Modernism, recognized the social program and admired it: they also wanted to reform the world. The scale of these works also fit with the abstract, aesthetic scale of Modernism and the scale Modernists hoped to work at in their public works.
Urban renewal became an essential part of Modernism's agenda. On the whole, the urban renewal was a failure (Jane Jacobs called it "urban removal"), and it led to a backlash against large scale urban interventions.
This is throwing out the baby with the bath water. All of our greatest cities — Paris, Rome, Berlin . . . New York, Chicago, Washington . . . Munich, Nancy, Venice and Florence — would not be the places they are today without these large, retro-fitted interventions. And there is no American city which would not benefit today from better urban design. Many of the urban messes created in the last 50 years can only be corrected by large-scale interventions.
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Last week, an interesting exchange about Regent Street in London, between John Massengale's Veritas et Venustas and Peter Lindberg's Tesugen.com, prompted me to reach for my bookshelf and open my copy of 'How to Look at Buildings'. Written by the wonder [Read More]
Tracked on Jun 22, 2004 7:25:56 PM
I'm not so sure about large scale interventions - see this for example just off Waterloo Place.
Lots of small scale interventions as here for example
seem to produce a better outcome
Posted by: Ian at Jun 15, 2004 6:11:07 AM
I agree with Ian, to a degree.
Case in point: Mission Bay in San Francisco is turning out to be a pretty bleak place, imo. Combine a laborious city bureaucratic process with endless citizen reviews and a bombastic corporation apparantly uninterested in good design.
Unfortunately, given the monolithic land ownership pattern and the degree of decay, some kind of major intervention was needed. Did it have to be so banal? Even if the buildings meet your three rules (which they appear to large do), it is becoming an amazingly dull place. I mean, is Costcutters and Safeway the best San Francisco can do?
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 15, 2004 11:23:23 AM
I'd like to talk about the Carleton House that you mention in your article. It was torn down in 1929 but what else do you know about it?
Please let me know. History? Owners?
Posted by: Jim McMahon at Nov 2, 2007 8:09:29 AM
I'm interested to hear the influence from Napoleonic Paris; there is also frequently said to be an influence on Paris, by way of the later Napoleon III's Haussmann. Certainly the two cities have continued to influence each other over the years, and not least in terms of the conception of large-scale interventions.
Posted by: Rupert Waldron at Jan 2, 2011 11:33:35 AM