September 02: the fire and the path not taken

2012/09/02 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1666 the Great Fire of London broke out.

In the mid-seventeenth century, London (here it is in 1593) had grown to a size of some half-million residents, most of them crammed into tottery wooden structures pushing up  against their neighbors and jutting out over the highly irregular pattern of streets that had been tramped out during the middle ages.  Rules prohibiting construction in timber and thatch, and regulations condemning the mix of trades that depended on the stockpiling of highly flammable materials, were both regularly ignored.

Late on a Sunday night a fire broke out in a bakery on the east side of town; clumsy firefighting protocol and environmental conditions joined to create the ideal situation for the blaze to become unstoppable.  Only on the following Tuesday did the wind peter out, allowing for fire breaks to do their job, and the fire was finally suppressed.  Tens of thousands were left homeless and, given the tradition of living house-above-the-shop, had lost their livelihood.  Dozens of civic structures had burned; eighty-seven parish churches fell in the flames as did the central monument of the Church, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

No doubt, a catastrophic citywide fire is not a thing to be wished upon a place and its people; at the same time, the distance of time allows a certain accommodation of urban conflagrations as sparks to architectural and urban development.  In other words, behind those clouds of smoke one might find the silver lining of a better-planned city and a renewal in architectural design.

Like 64 AD Rome, 1871 Chicago and 1906 San Francisco, 1666 London had its opportunity to start over from a tabula rasa–a smoldering, stinky, cindery tabula rasa, but a tabula rasa none the less.  Just a generation or so after Inigo Jones, working for the Stuarts (and on projects like the Banqueting House), introduced Classicism in England, contemporary architects set out to rebuild in the new style.  Foremost among them, of course, was Jedi Master of English Baroque, Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt dozens of the parish churches as well as the great domed St. Paul’s, which is such an integral and essential part of the city’s skyline.  Although the ascent of Classicism would be challenged from time to time (and in very significant settings) by architects who believed the lost medieval heritage was the “real” English architecture, Wren’s work set a new standard for many later architects of public and private buildings, either to emulate or refine (especially among the Neo-Classicists who showed up about a century later).

Other legacies of the Great Fire include the strengthening of building codes that would prohibit such a disaster again.  While these were enacted by the government with relative ease, encouragement to redesign the city met greater opposition.  Baroque plans were put forward by architects like Wren and Sir John Evelyn.  Had they been adopted, the city streets would have been regularized and widened while the impression would have looked more like the Rome of the sixteenth-century popes or Paris under Napoleon III.  However, political turmoil prompted by landowners disinclined to have their holdings redefined carried the day, and nothing happened.  London was rebuilt with lots of  fancy new buildings on the decidedly old-fashioned and un-planned city plan that had grown and expanded across centuries.  Visitors have the interesting sensation here–perhaps unique among European capitals–of walking through a city whose architectural character is informed by developments that follow the Renaissance while their feet trod the paths put in place long before it.

Image: painting of the Great Fire by Lieve Verschuier, 1666 (from this source)


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