The origin’s of the playground round “London’s Burning” are unclear; it seems to pre-date the Great Fire that swept the city in 1666, and the city had form when it came to conflagrations. The Roman town of Londinium was burnt down twice (most notably by Boudicca), and shortly after William the Conqueror’s invasion it was devastated once again, at which stage construction began on the original St Paul’s Cathedral.
Surely it was the 17th Century fire that gave the tune its popularity and ensured it’s survival through the ensuing centuries, a fire that obliterated the medieval city including nearly 90 churches, destroyed the original St Paul’s and left 70,000 homeless.
Arise Sir Christopher Wren, who famously designed the new cathedral (featured in an earlier post here) but also submitted plans for a complete redesign of the city, (as did several other architects of the era) which might have resulted in a layout to rival Paris. Instead, due to difficulties in establishing the ownership of much of the affected land, a characteristically British fudge saw new buildings constructed where the old had stood. Wren oversaw the rebuilding and refurbishment of 50 churches as part of this scheme. St Brides is an obvious example; its tall and immediately recognisable spire clearly visible from St Paul’s, but between the two is another; St Martin’s Ludgate, though it is easily overlooked as it sits flush with its neighbours in the city. Only the presence of another tall spire alerts you to its presence.
Wren also designed the monument that marks the origin of the Great Fire; a tall Doric column surmounted by a gilt representation of a fire burning in an urn. Keep that image in mind!
In September 1940 the city was burning again as the German bombing campaign known as The Blitz began with the City of London the focus for much of the destruction. Nearly half of those killed by German bombs were Londoners.
St Paul’s survived the onslaught this time, and though much of the surrounding area was reduced to rubble the exquisite masonry remained.
Time for more bureaucracy, as over 20 years passed before rebuilding took place, rebuilding in a brutalist style totally at odds with the Baroque splendour next door. Another 20 years and there were new calls for the site to be redeveloped. A fierce debate ensured over the direction that should be taken – modernist or classical? Prince Charles weighed in and was famously quoted as saying
You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.
Plans were submitted, plans were rejected but eventually agreement was given and in 2003 the new Paternoster Square opened featuring architectural styling that owes more to Mussolini than Palladio. As an office development it would be inoffensive if it were anywhere else. At its centre stands a column which acts as a ventilation shaft for an underground car park, and which more than anything else that forms part of the development, echoes Wren.
Nevertheless there’s a gem here. Temple Bar, once the ceremonial entrance to the city, was dismantled in the 19th Century when it became too much of a bottleneck for traffic. It was reconstructed on a country estate in Hertfordshire where it gradually decayed for over a century until in 2004 it was returned to the City and rebuilt as an entrance to Paternoster Square. It would be worth a viewing in its own right, but it continues the styling of the great church beyond as well it should.
It’s another design by Wren.