Thursday, March 1, 2018

It is centuries of happy accidents

From The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson. Page 62.
“On the larger scale, however, things have improved enormously in London. In the space of twenty years or so, London has acquired an interesting skyline, for one thing. It isn’t that it has a huge number of tall buildings, but that the tall buildings it has are distributed over a wide area. They don’t jostle for attention, as in most cities, but stand alone so that you can admire them in isolation, like giant pieces of sculpture. It’s a brilliant stroke. Now you get memorable views from all kinds of places – from Putney Bridge, from the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens, from platform 12 at Clapham Junction – where there never used to be views at all. Scattered skyscrapers also have the incidental benefit of spreading prosperity. A new skyscraper in central London just adds more bodies to crowded streets and Underground stations, but a big new building in Southwark or Lambeth or Nine Elms gives a jolt of economic input that can lift whole neighbourhoods, create demand for bars and restaurants, make them more desirable places to live or visit.

None of this was precisely intended. It is the by-product of something called the London Plan, which decrees that tall buildings may not impinge on protected views. One such view is from a certain oak tree on Hampstead Heath. (Well, why not?) No one can build anything that interrupts the view from the tree to St Paul’s Cathedral or the Houses of Parliament. There is a similar view from Richmond Park, miles from the city – so far out that I didn’t even know you could see any of central London from there. London is criss-crossed by protected sightlines, which effectively requires tall buildings to be spaced out. It is a happy accident. But then that is London. It is centuries of happy accidents.

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