The Changing Face of the City

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Above: View looking east at the junction of Cannon Street and Queen Victoria Street. It shows a contrast between Victorian offices (far left and towards the right) being dwarfed by the new high-rise offices which tower above them.

No city can stand still – with nothing changing at all – because human life is constantly changing and people find new ways of doing things. Added to that is the fact that fashions change in way we look at buildings and how we think of a modern functioning place of work, place for shopping or place for recreation. Until the Second World War London, in general, and also the City of London changed relatively slowly. Large buildings sometimes took a decade or more to construct.

Through the 1960s new ways of erecting large buildings changed dramatically. By the 1980s construction skills went through yet another revolution. Whereas the NatWest Building (now called Tower 42) was started in 1971 and not completed until 1980 – a time for construction of about nine years – if we consider Canary Wharf Tower, it was started in 1988 and completed in 1991 – taking a third of the time. The NatWest building is 600 feet high but Canary Wharf Tower is more than 150 feet higher – at 770 feet.

Tallest of all the office blocks at the moment is the Shard of Glass, which is over 1,000 feet high and that was also built within the space of three years. Fifty years ago the pace of change in buildings in London was controlled to a certain extent by the time it took to construct them. Now that new ‘fast track’ methods of building have been devised, the face of London changes much more quickly.

Over the last 50 years another factor which has totally changed the face of London has been the evolution of the computer. In the 1960s customers of a bank still received their statements on manually-typed sheets of paper. It may sound like describing the times of Charles Dickens but it is true. Suddenly computers revolutionised life in offices and eventually in private homes as well. Large companies no longer needed to be located near the City of London. They often sold off their prestigious offices and relocated to a town with low rents, well away from London where the pace of life for their office employees was also much more convenient. The famous Prudential Building in Holborn is a classic example. The ‘Pru’ still owns the building but the company have offices elsewhere and draw a good income from renting out space in their original grand Edwardian headquarters.

On the office-worker level, in the 1960s when five o’clock came, the staff could not wait to get out of the door and onto the first available bus or train to return to where they lived. Walking around the City after about 6.00 pm you just saw empty streets, all the shops had closed and most pubs did not even open at all in the evenings. Nowadays people socialise after work and bars and restaurants are packed with City workers enjoying each other’s company before catching the last train home – at around 10.00 or 11.00 pm.

As we become older everyone always says ‘It wasn’t like that in my day’ – that is only human nature. If you have known the City, or other parts of Central London, over the last 20 or 30 years you cannot fail to have realised how much change has been going on within a relatively short space of time. As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t happen to visit a particular street in Central London for more than just a few weeks, you are likely to notice something new!

There is no reason to complain, that is how it is and it is always interesting to see what is coming next. One of Europe’s largest construction projects is going on right under our feet as we move around London at the moment. It is, of course, Crossrail. Opening in 2018, the new railway line will carry 10% of the passengers who travel on rail or underground in the London area. That is sure to lead to further consequences in terms of office development and re-development.

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For subscription members there is a pdf which you can read which expands further on many other aspects of change which have taken place in London since the 1950s. You will be sent a link which will enable you to access the information.

-ENDS-

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