London: Midterm presentation architectural collage
and a guide through the megacity styles
Writing about big cities like London or Rome leaves much space for doubting: what can I say when everything seems to have already been mentioned? Most information is well-known; yes there is The Gherkin and The Big Ben and those two sort of live together in one place; people know Colosseum and other ruins I have nothing to add to it; Eiffel Tower – oh well some steel structures, also nothing to contribute there. But after travelling to lots of capitals and big cities, this contrast, this overlay of styles seems to be the most observant in London. If at one point you look around you and see Baroque, Brutalism and Post-modern in one frame, the easiest guess would be London. Its social and cultural diversity leaves the space for such co-living and assembly, even though the architecture does not date earlier than 1666 – most of the older one has been destroyed by the Great Fire.

And while Rome has maintained many of its Roman architectural treasures from two thousand years ago, it does not feel like such a puzzle. Comparing it now to London I see it clearly: while there was always a controversy between the environment of XXI century, people with their tablets, phones and cameras and the ruins of the Forum of Augustus, London incorporated its styles in one common picture. It is like a final collage in our presentation drawings, carefully adding shadows to each layer – and, of course, a bit of artificial dust to make it real. Probably this comes with lots of post-modern and contemporary architecture in general: The Shard, and The Gherkin placed next to the old brick buildings communicate and come together. This might seem natural: its long historical and cultural development make different architectural styles obvious, what else could be expected from such a huge – and densely populated city that attracts many developments and businesses?

However, it is not that transparent. While Rome is full of ruins from two thousand years ago which you can feel when walking around, the oldest architecture of London dates back to XVII century: The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed its many architectural riches of the time, spreading rapidly within the medieval London, inside the Roman City wall. It was not the first big fire, and timber construction had long been prohibited for that reason. However, it did not stop inhabitants from using it; only wealthier residents of London could afford to build out of brick and stone. Therefore, mostly timber-built London created fire hazards to the city with its high density of habitation, combined with unsafe building techniques (some of which included jetties – overhanding top floors) and narrow escape routes to the outside of the city wall, which resulted in the quickly spreading fire. In the meantime, main fire-fighting techniques included demolition and water: long ladders, leather buckets and firehooks used for pulling down the buildings.

The fire started in the bakery on Sunday after midnight and could have been stopped in its early stages by demolishing the neighbouring houses. However, the owners protested, and the Lord Mayor did not give permission to act against their will (which would absolutely save the city), either. This led to the conflagration and several days of fire with the almost complete destruction of London at that time.

This being said, not much architecture was left from before, and the list of the buildings is rather brief – therefore it becomes a starting point of the architectural journey. When digging into the history of what it is that creates a picture of London architecture, we encounter a number of terms – which might not tell us a lot. From my side of an architecture student who is still not very familiar with styles, in my mind and observations, I split London into three main categories: something from older times and grandiose, modernism and brutalism, and, of course, contemporary architecture and high-tech.

Older styles include Baroque – extremely massive and three-dimensional, it became the most important tool to restore London after its great fire together with Christopher Wren (who designed Saint Paul's Cathedral). However, just by looking at Baroque you might not immediately be alluded to this mighty capital, while with other styles you will just know – oh, now I am here. Seeing the examples of impressive Georgian estates made with the primary goal of profit in Central London, or the Regency white stucco high-end residencies with the lead of John Nash at the time will immediately lead you to England.
Georgian architecture is a feature that makes us remember London, too. An increase in the building industry combined with the overall prosperity of the country led to British country houses as a remarkable example of such architecture. Its delicate brick facades, cast iron railings, and general exquisiteness were what fascinated me in Bedford Square. Though seemingly simple, its careful similarity around the square and the distinctively decorated doorways breathe out the elegance.

I went to Architecture Association and walked through its narrow corridors. It felt like entering someone's house – narrow staircases and small rooms as if it was not a university but a big residential estate. Exhibitions were over – but seeing the emptied corridors gave me a chance to divert my attention to the atmosphere of the building itself. I got fascinated by the domestic environment of the architecture school, a small-scale interior that did not feel like university but like home, which invited me to be visited. The Architecture Association itself refers to the place as an 'inhabitation of domestic space'; occupying one of the finest examples of Georgian houses and creating a truly comfortable environment.

I went to Architecture Association and walked through its narrow corridors. It felt like entering someone's house – narrow staircases and small rooms as if it was not a university but a big residential estate. Exhibitions were over – but seeing the emptied corridors gave me a chance to divert my attention to the atmosphere of the building itself. I got fascinated by the domestic environment of the architecture school, a small-scale interior that did not feel like university but like home, which invited me to be visited. The Architecture Association itself refers to the place as an 'inhabitation of domestic space'; occupying one of the finest examples of Georgian houses and creating a truly comfortable environment.

Most of the brick architecture with its rough vintage colored elements is a part of Victorian buildings. While the Victorian era might have not been the brightest of times (poor wages, long working hours, and bad living conditions due to rapid migration to the cities), it certainly displayed industrialization in architectural traits. New innovative technologies came along with desperation caused by decay and the urge to address the forgotten Medieval architecture, thus causing…the Neo-Gothic style. This reminiscence of the Middle Ages spirituality is seen through the main inspiration of the Gothic Revival; we see it in the Palace of Westminster with its Palladian floorplans (mirrored around the central space) and the Neo-gothic exterior. Three towers balance the horizontality of the building, various sophistication of detailing, and a majority of other Gothic style features. Like many other London essentials, Tower Bridge is one of the most well-known Victorian-era examples. At the time of this design by Horace Jones in 1884, it was the largest 'bascule bridge' in the world; the steel towers connected by the roadway for the pedestrians for the time when the bridge was open.

The need to provide mass housing hand in hand with the industrial revolution, homes were built to be more accessible and less grand, to help working classes live in the owned property for the first time. Therefore, housing of the time was designed to be of moderate size and manageable without servants, laying on straight streets and more often with dominant chimneys – fireplaces in every room, narrow hallways, and one room wide.
the only picture of the Tower Bridge I had
Brief but substantial Edwardian style, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement (an aesthetic movement in the decorative and fine arts that emerged in Britain in the late 19th century), brought more sunlight into space. Larger rooms and windows (reaching back to the Georgian features), high ceilings, stained glass front doors, sash windows, and steeply pitched roofs. Houses were placed further from the road by aiming for additional privacy, giving extra space as a front garden.

Together with the Neo-Georgian style, the interwar period can be characterized by Art-Deco architecture: clean lines, curves, and ornaments, buildings demonstrate sculptural style and sophistication. Mainly luxurious, Art-Deco was often taken by prospective businesses and resulted in some of the new massive sky-scrapers (for instance, the one of 55 Broadway from 1929).
The post-war reconstruction to recover from the caused destruction had to be cheap and efficient – the definition leading to the use of concrete at the time. It is where brutalist architecture came into London, now still holding and offering an extensive library of such monuments. Coming from a post-soviet country makes brutalism both appealing and repelling to me: while it seems familiar, in a way accountable, and brings me back home, I do not necessarily feel attracted to it. Nevertheless, brutalism always causes a response in people: it is either loathe or love attitude.
I got to Barbican at the dusk, observing its emptied high walks and darkening concrete. I saw people stopping and watching its majesty, but the darker it got, the less comfortable it became for me. Probably being there by myself was not the best idea – even by knowing it was safe, it still felt like I was not supposed to walk there at night, chasing its curvilinear corridors or touching those concrete slabs.

Silent but without concomitant serenity: massive and grey, this complex appeared as a brutalist utopia in the times when the city had a chance to be rebuilt: an air raid by the Luftwaffe…emptied the space in the City center of London. While investigating the best options for this newly acquired vast land, many office variants were suggested; however, the housing opportunities were selected as the winning choices for this central Barbican site. It became a high-density development for mid-to-high-income residents, which was created as a separate body, a living organism inside the city of London. Inspiration for the architects (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon) was guided by various references, some of the most influential ones including the work of Le Corbusier (Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles). Moreover, all three architects were fascinated by Roman architecture, which became a reference for some of the Barbican bridges, pavements and pedestrian systems of Barbican, using Italy's finest examples for this densely populated London. Barbican estate included cultural facilities, a shopping mall, underground parking, private gardens and lakes with fountains and a waterfall, with the hope to attract residents to this higher-price complex. site features versatile architecture and typologies: three towers, thirteen terrace blocks, two terraces of two-story houses and a row of townhouses. Towers are a combination of continuous dominant verticality interrupting the horizontal leveling of the building. All the living spaces were arranged in a way to maximize the use of sunlight next to the external walls, while kitchens and bathrooms – at the inner walls.

Circulation is another specialty offered by the Barbican, it is an interaction of two systems. The highwalk is a complex network of bridges and walkways, and the podium is the new ground level for the estate. The site is entirely pedestrian, and the division between cars and people is created by the levels used. By using the highwalk sometimes you can pass even beneath the main structure in-between the colonnade.

All the possible hazards were carefully taken care of: even the effect of the underground was reduced by applying the rubber bearings for the tracks, and the footprint was purposefully decreased with the floorplans and heights. Some of the details of Barbican were absolutely incredible: for instance, lifts feature small panel doors to provide direct access between the lift and a tenant's service cupboard to improve delivery. Architects paid attention even to the details of installing the windows with horizontal pivoting, making it easy to clean from the inside. Even efficient waste disposal was taken into account by using a Garchey sink unit system throughout the complex (have a look at this short but interesting read). Engineering was undoubtedly special, too: the slightly curved tips of balconies reduce the wind resistance and ease the strain on the structural frame; long protrusions of the balconies were as well offered by engineers to create the eaves for elements protection and added safety. The use of pre-cast reinforced concrete elements for the frame allows redirecting the main use to the exterior (the most common example would be a regular chimney). Each floor contains three apartments around a central core of lift shafts, stairwells and service risers. Living rooms are arranged at the corners to make use of the possibility to offer a panoramic view (imagine such from the 43rd floor of London!)

(For additional information and inspiration I want to thank Archdaily for their elaborate description of the Barbican. Moreover, I still have not watched it myself - but there is a great movie by Bêka & Lemoine about the complex - Barbicania, available on vimeo).

After the long completion of the Barbican estate, it was accused to be disorienting and cluttered, mainly due to the fact that the Barbican Center was suddenly built as a result of new demands from the municipality – therefore forcing the architects to shoehorn the new building into the masterplan after the start of construction. At the times when England became dominantly brutalist, it merged with the main architectural flows and became a part of the general – not promising – image. In 2001 the Barbican received Grade II status from the British Government, regaining the attention and the appreciation previously damaged by other less successful Brutalist examples.

Brutalist architecture works well with English rainy weather and emphasizes grayness. However, not only brutalism highlights the climate features of cloudy London, but the new high-tech modern developments as well. Being one of the main megapolises of the world with major business centers and developments placed in the United Kingdom capital, London is undoubtedly a magnet for striking architecture, experiments and high-rise luxurious developments. They keep 'regular people' at distance and barely let them inside; you need to be a part of the elite, of the businesses, and probably a couple of billions at hand to be a part of it and not simply look at it from underneath with your head raised up high.

This feeling was enhanced by me and Carla trying to walk into Lloyd's bank (the main surprise was that it was actually not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright of course), where we were stopped and turned around for the lack of reasons to come in. However, the Lloyd bank is a good example of how London's high-tech architecture can be represented, with its inside-out approach (same as used for Pompidou in Paris). It is co-living with other popular and newer towers: The Gherkin (fewer people know its official name of 30 St Mary Axe than this one) by Norman Foster, The Shard (a bit further away but still a part of the skyline) by Renzo Piano, and The 122 Leadenhall Building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.
One of my favourite instances of contemporary London became Tate Modern by Herzog & de Meuron; previously, built in 1945, one of the largest power stations in Europe – Bankside Power Station - was transformed into a Museum of 20th-century art collections. Almost no visual changes were implemented into the original brick building (except for the glazed strip on the roof hosting the restaurant with the views of London). The initial three parallel parts division was as well maintained by the architects, nowadays hosting in the former Turbine Hall the ticket counter, a café, and an art bookshop. This vast open space can be observed from the upper part: the bridge crosses two parts of the building, giving the opportunity to watch the people underneath it from the distance. Daylight is provided both by natural and artificial means, making sure the spaces are not dark.

An extension to the Tate Modern known as the Switch House was as well designed by Herzog & de Meuron. It certainly adds to the sophistication and quality of modern London architecture via its perforated brick skin and pyramid shape. By creating the Switch House, 60% of the Space opened up and allowed to make the whole site around it more accessible and attractive to the public. Folding concrete structure and brickwork cladding – both of them carefully combined to ensure natural ventilation, high thermal mass, solar panels and new green spaces. An absolutely fascinating brick detailing, and the lattice it creates, ensure the filtering of daylight and make the interior as engaging as the exhibitions themselves (or, in my humble both artistic and architectural opinion, even more).
Moreover, the architecture surrounding Tate Modern earned its spot in my memories as being one of my favourites with captivating steel connections and structures, curtain walls, and openness to the inner courtyard. While it reminded me of Renzo Piano through its structural approach, it added hints of the capital right next to its older – and more classical – brothers. The colors add freshness to the cityscape, attracting and making one observe and enjoy the height of the capital.

The moment I wrote the previous paragraph of the article, I decided to search for it. Turns out, what reminded me of Renzo Piano is Roger's Neo Bankside complex (to be more specific, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners'). No surprise it reminded me of Piano – this structural exterior approach made me recall Pompidou created by both.
Firmly guided by the context – its shapes emerge as the result of the improved street connections and maximizing the sunlight, the structure resembles the industrial past of the site in the XIX century, keeping in mind its history as the entertainment center even before, connecting to the neighbourhood traits through varying heights and respecting the site. In one of the videos architects mention that they kept the acknowledgment of Tate Modern being the context – therefore, the Neo Bankside remains secondary in the surroundings; it is why you hardly know that the building is, for instance, worth a closer look – you come to investigate the Tate Modern, looking out of the windows with a primary goal to experience the museum. You see the Neo Bankside – but as much as I liked it, I only managed to find the architect less than a week ago – searching for it intentionally. A variety of styles and shapes is treated gently by Neo Bankside with inclusive generosity to its landscape and gardens. Not only the architects thought carefully of the occupants themselves by providing them generous spaces to live (the complex consists of 217 residential units), but so did they use gardens to connect to the complex and lively surroundings.

Tate Modern on one side – Hopton's almshouses on another (for the other people who, same as me, have no idea what almshouses are – these are small low-cost houses given to people in need by charity associations, often to certain groups), Neo Bankside becomes a connecting chain between the two. It is visible in its architecture through the varying heights and certainly adds up to the abovementioned feeling of the architecture collage. Context merges with the complex, city becomes architecture and architecture – the city. Nowadays the area is vibrant and lively, with modern developments attracting people to this heart of London.

Described as a series of complementary disruptions, the buildings themselves comprise the structural efficiency; a concrete frame by adding the perimeter cross-bracing makes the internal planning flexible – it helps provide its residents generous apartments – as noted by the architecture firm itself.

However, the generosity might as well be the waste of money, and the vast spaces – the exorbitant unaffordable prices. Most likely optimistic descriptions of projects by architecture firms rarely unveil the downsides of reality.

Even though Neo Bankside was chosen to be a part of the shortlist for the Stirling prize – the UK's most prestigious architecture award, choosing the buildings to be the most influential for architectural development and evolution – it faced rough judgment from influential critics of the field. For instance, one famous architectural writer and critic Catherine Slessor reflected on the shortlist of 2015: the obvious gnat in the yogurt is Neo Bankside, its cross-gartered silos of stratospherically priced non-dom accom depressingly emblematic of how London is turning into a coarser version of Paris (unaffordable core, atomised banlieus).

Civic considerations aside, Neo is not even aesthetically compelling. Underscored by the sense of a once-great practice (Rogers et al) on cruise control, exhausted High-Tech tropes are tamely reprised and the scale is oppressive, the silos looming balefully over a neighbouring group of almshouses.

(However, after giving a closer look at other comments of Catherine Slessor about Rogers, majority of them was harshly criticizing his work).

Surprisingly, there were even protests against Neo Bankside's nomination for the prize. In the forms, it was described as a project that violates planning obligations to provide more social housing in London boroughs, with market prices ranging from 1.25 million to 19.75 million while 345000 Londoners are simply waiting for homes. Furthermore, it was stated that the project not only ignored the needs of citizens but the larger impact of work and promoted the class war through its choices. Therefore, the nomination – and the descriptions reasoning its success – were strongly denounced.

It is hilarious to rediscover the view of these towers which attracted me in real life – to learn and analyze the architecture I liked at the first glance. When looking back at the pictures from London, Neo Bankside was always one of my favourites, being featured in my sketches together with its connections and structural details. However, the first impressions might not uncover the downsides; as well as the rankings and status of architecture firms do not mean its undisputable high quality.

Observing architecture is like falling in love – you start with the first impressions, with the surface – a small talk and slight observations. Should you get closer, is there a depth you want to unveil and discover? You are enchanted and feel the urge to dive into it more – seeing the bright side given by architecture firms sharing their love and diligence put into the project. However, there is no such thing as black-and-white architecture – or black-and-white love – there is always something repelling at a certain stage. While for people we get to accept and even love complications (and they are what makes us alive and exciting), for architecture we need to learn from mistakes and not conceal what is not working, be transparent about it, and – hopefully – fight the trouble. It is always a complex matter – and not necessarily what appears to be an epitome from the first side is indeed the one, it might as well be a well-designed book cover. This is – again – the importance of the analysis – to excavate what is working and what is not, to separate the expression from the content, address the problems directly and navigate in complexity. It is hard to completely criticize the Neo Bankside in such a city like London: there are multiple layers to it, and there is never a black-and-white case – especially when it comes to big city life.
The truth is that while it is almost impossible to unveil new sides of megapolises, the visions are ever-changing and respond to the… happening of life and the world. It is never a final render – constantly demanding adaptations, it is a permanent midterm presentation. It is the spot where we, as architects, urbanists, and even artists, can still contribute: complexity gives this chance to combine all the bits in a bigger image and give it a broader meaning, as well as give meaning and value to our profession. What is essential is not to misuse the work we do – and question the larger impact produced by all our additions.

Walking around London demonstrates the consolidation of its architectural layers which build up its image while keeping the puzzle apparent. I loved London for its high-paced and high-rise nature being treated with care and remaining open to the touch of the public. Walking around the corner could easily open an architectural gem or another splash of color as the new London headquarters office designed by Renzo Piano. While it is indeed an architectural collage of multiple styles and times, all of them seem to be displayed with elegance – even brutalist ones. The way London treats its past and bridges it to the visions of the future, opening the way to parks and renovations, makes me adore the Big City Life architecture, where I can go with its pace and navigate, get lost in the skyscrapers and the multiplicity of choices. All of it means that we can learn from the best examples of London (for instance, Tate Modern) and use them for the weak points (such as me and Carla trying to find a trash bin for half an hour in the city center) to address one the most powerful tools in problem-solving we possess – architecture.
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