Towards A Master Plan

After 1666′s Great Fire, a group of luminaries, headed by Sir Christopher Wren, began to come up with ideas to rebuild London. They ranged from grid-systems, through boulevards and radial designs to series of squares and park ways, and most were pretty radical stuff.

Of course none of them came to fruition – Utopian ideas that mean your particular hovel’s footprint will now be the middle of a boulevard are rarely popular with current landowners. And there were always going to be the odd buildings that didn’t get torched or bits that would need to be kept for one reason or other, right in the middle of an otherwise perfect grid.

I confess that I am rather glad that the City never ended up as New York or Tokyo – lovely thought they are. I love to get lost in the tiny, illogical alleys and ridiculous windy streets that more or less follow the old plans. I really like that modern buildings often end up really daft shapes to fit in the space available, their architects dictated to by medieval Londoners.

In 1943, London was facing the biggest mass-destruction since 1666 – and in many cases, not least in loss of life, it was worse. It certainly covered a bigger area. The sirens of the Blitz were still sounding in Londoners’ ears and the fire engines would not be stood down for another couple of years.

Nevertheless, a fearless bunch of luminaries were already having similar ideas to Messrs Wren, Hooke & Co. and in May, RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) produced the Second Interim Report of the London Regional Reconstruction Committee - Greater London – Towards a Master Plan.

Of course, it could only be an interim report – at the time, they had no idea just how much longer Britain would be at war, or how much more of London would be lost, but they had faith – if nothing else, that St Paul’s Cathedral at least would survive, and they seem to have made that their central starting position in their idealised London rebuild.

They were only too aware of the issues the Great Fire rebuilders had faced – they stated quite baldly

“Our effort must be fearless, it must not allow obstacles to blot out our vision of the future and no substitutes for proper planning can be allowed. Unless planning is started now we shall find ourselves countenancing a continuance of the bewilderment which at present exists.”

The main bewilderment was with transport, which, they correctly predicted, was only going to get worse. They included helpful diagrams to show the problem:

Which finally brings me to the point of today’s post. Anyone who complains about too much air traffic over Greenwich, look away now, while I reveal what I think is the first ever suggestion for London City Airport – not a million miles from where the present one is, but with, ahem, just one or two more runways than we have:

Yup, folks, that’s FIVE runways criss-crossing their way across Canary Wharf, though to be fair, they weren’t expecting 747s, Concorde or Airbus at the time. But all the same there are two direct flight paths across Greenwich, where the other directions only get one each.  The reoprt points out“The effects of the development of aerial transport may be far-reaching…both in regard to the transport of passengers and goods. It is only necessary to call attention to the interplay of the air with railway and road communications and the necessity to zone air-ports for the protection of aerial traffic, Zoning of this kind is also concerned with the preservation of amenity, especially protection against noise.”

So, basically, South East London’s already ruined, has a load of docks, factories, bomb damage and nasty roads – best put the airport there too, keep the grot from the rest of town. Makes sense – if you don’t live in South East London. The bit on the bottom of the Isle of Dogs, and on Greenwich peninsula, BTW, are proposed redesigned dock-basins, with railways going all around – well, everywhere. Interestingly there are no major roads south of the river save the A2 (and of course there wasn’t a major road leading north across the peninsula until the 70s.)

It’s a curious map - and, even though the London City Airport we did end up with is actually quite nearby (albeit just with the one runway) it shows something that it’s almost impossible to imagine. So this morning, I’m idly wondering how things would have turned out if, instead of developing Heathrow, Docklands  had become Britain’s major airport…


the attachments to this post:

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5 Comments to “Towards A Master Plan”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by IanVisits and darryl1974, Political Animal. Political Animal said: RT @ianvisits How Canary Wharf almost became a 5 runway airport. http://j.mp/9xAIFY <Cor, but that'd have made SE London unliveable in. [...]

  2. Joe D says:

    Uhm… I see SIX runways and approaches marked on the map…

  3. Ooops – you’re right Sir. I’ll change that before anyone notices I can’t count numbers below ten…

  4. Dazza says:

    WOW, I would have been living with Docks outside my window. Thank God they never got their way!!!

  5. TPlautus says:

    it’s rather chilling isn’t it that in the middle of the greatest mass killing in human history, brought about by totalitarianism, architects and town planners could still be writing phrases such as “Our effort must be fearless, it must not allow obstacles to blot out our vision of the future”.

    No room there for asking the people whose sons and fathers were being killed and who themselves were being killed by bombs, what they’d like the future of their country and their city to be like.

    It could have been written by Speer himself, and given half a chance the town planners would still be bulldozing everything to satisfy their vanity and their pipe dreams.