Northumberland House, demolished in 1874 to make way for Northumberland Avenue. Painting by Canaletto, WikiMedia Commons
Artillery Row

Bring back Victorian YIMBY-ism

We cling to the buildings our 19th century forebears left behind, but they would decry our squeamishness

Living in south London comes with the permanent risk of having to admire other people’s period features. No sooner do people acquire a great big slab of Victorian house, than they have to start restoring it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tiled fireplaces and china door knobs as much as the next person. But as a parent of young children, living in a two bedroom flat, the enthusiastic spirit of preservation can wear a little thin. The love of stained glass doors is harmless enough — but you hear stories of people who vet potential buyers before selling their houses, all because they want to “preserve the character of the area.” And local societies seem to exist simply to object to planning applications. It is remarkable how important some people think it is to prevent other families from having as much space as they do, all in the name of preserving yet another Victorian terraced house.

There is, of course, a great irony at the heart of this. The Victorians whose housing stock is the subject of such overzealous petty bureaucracy were hardly preservationists themselves. Quite the opposite. When the poet Robert Browning was a young man in the 1840s, he used to walk back from seeing his mentor Thomas Carlyle in Chelsea to New Cross. After the New Cross turnpike he walked home on what was essentially a country lane. By the end of the century terraces and villas had been flung up all over south London. Much of that building is excellent. New Cross is home to the magnificent Edwardian Baroque Deptford Town Hall. But in the name of progress, fields were turned into suburbs. 

Would we be brave enough to pull down Wren churches?

At the same time, the City of London, the financial and business centre of the capital just a few miles away, was being depopulated by the rise of the railways. As a consequence, the Victorians were able to re-shape their city. In 1871, Queen Victoria Street was opened, a new thoroughfare from the west of the City to the Bank of England. Slums and squalid houses were cleared, exposing one side of Wren’s church St Mary Aldermary, which used to be much more crowded in. Further along the road, a commercial building merely two years old was also demolished. Odd spaces were left that are today filled with charming, quirky buildings. 

Would we be so brave? We cling to the charming Italianate corner buildings built in the spaces left behind, but I cannot imagine we would simply slice through existing buildings and leave odd shaped spaces behind. 

At the junction where Queen Victoria Street meets the Poultry, St Mildred’s, a Wren church, was demolished to make way for an insurance building. Many other Wren churches were pulled down as parishes shrank. I give tours of the City and tell people this was a rather good idea. Wren’s finest masterpieces like St Stephen Walbrook are left intact — did we need another twenty of them? You should see the looks I get.

When we think we’re preserving the Victorian legacy, we’re often being snobbish, silly, and sacerdotal. The Victorians were so unsentimental about the past they even interfered with Wren’s masterpiece, St Pauls Cathedral. Wren had built a plain, austere, Protestant Cathedral. This was too much for the anxious Anglo-Catholics of the late nineteenth century who filled in his dome with gaudy, glittery mosaics. An outrage, but not one we’ll ever undo.

Further west, in Trafalgar Square, Northumberland House, a rare and marvellous example of Jacobean architecture, was demolished to make way for Northumberland Avenue, which connected the new Embankment with Whitehall. Even for a YIMBY living in close quarters, that loss pulls hard at the heartstrings. The pre-demolition photos inspire some pretty deep longing for a time machine. But Northumberland Avenue is famous for more than its position on the Monopoly board. The metropole hotel is a splendid glamorous Victorian building. It’s also the street where Edison had his British headquarters and recorded the voices of poets and prime ministers. It is difficult to prefer an aristocratic mansion to Thomas Edison. 

Today it seems unthinkable that such a building would be demolished, Edison be damned. It’s hard enough to put an extension on a mid-size 1950s house. But the fact that the Victorians had a splendid architectural style of their own, full of innovation and creativity, makes it easier to accept the trade off. The fussy 1890s houses that look like over-decorated cakes (some of them practically crenellated) aren’t to my taste. But it’s far preferable to the vapid, imposing, flat-faced blocks of flats that depress the visual tone of the whole area. 

Preservation has gone too far

Victorian YIMBY-ism wasn’t just a commercial project. Ruskin and Morris might have been against the new industrial aesthetic (indeed, Ruskin vomited when he came out of the Great Exhibition), but there is a serious legacy of good-looking housing from the nineteenth century. It is essential to YIMBY-ism that new buildings are actually worth looking at, day after day, year after year. South London, where I live, has a great share of wonderful buildings to be admired. Rebecca West captured this in her 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows, which is based on her childhood in a Streatham villa. 

Preservation can be so damaging that one recent study has found the Blitz was actually good for London’s GDP in the long term. Heavily bombed areas have taller buildings. Without the Blitz, London’s GDP would be some 10 per cent lower today, which is roughly fifty billion pounds. Just as the great fire of London enabled Wren’s churches and St Pauls to be built, the Blitz was what made the Barbican possible. We shouldn’t have to wait for another devastating crisis to start building. Brexit was a national outrage for years because of poor economic projections. But where is the outcry about the inhibiting effect of planning policy? Where is the big Remain energy for the YIMBY campaign? Such a dizzying statistic that seems to have passed us all by

The Victorian period of ruthless demolition contained the seeds of the eventual push back. When the Oxford Arms was demolished in 1869 — one of London’s last old galleried coaching inns (don’t worry, you can still drink in one on Southwark High Street) — there was a public outcry. This led to the foundation, a few years later, of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. We need such a moment now, running in the other direction. Preservation has gone too far. In the spirit of Victorian YIMBY-ism, it’s time to rally around attractive architecture, forge an optimistic spirit of progress, and be outraged at rich pensioners sitting like Tolkien’s Smaug on unearned wealth from a rigged market who tell local families where and how they might live. The people whose legacy we seek to preserve would have implemented Street Votes, built on 1 per cent of the green belt, and had a wave of outrage about lucky homeowners’ tinkering with doorknobs and fussing over fireplaces while many people are living in expensive and cramped apartments.

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