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Superb evocation of London's lost heritage
on 10 April 2010
Despite Philip Davies's claim in his wonderful introduction to this sumptuous book that we should not mourn too deeply for some of the lost buildings and streets of London - they were unarguably homes to grinding poverty and nascent social breakdown - it is hard not to feel horrified by the sheer scale of loss and wanton destruction. What comes out strongly is that despite the efforts of the Luftwaffe, much of the loss was self-inflicted long before the German bombers took to the skies. Ruthless Victorian and Edwardian developers and planners swept away vast tracts of London's Georgian, Shakespearean and medieval heritage in the cause of improved transport connections and a desire to replace the ordered elegance of Regency terraces with statement-making stone edifices more in keeping with Britain's new imperial status. Buildings that escaped the Great Fire and the Blitz succumbed ultimately to the joint wills of commerce and progress.
Modest though some of the lost buildings clearly were, they represented a link to a historical past that has now entirely disappeared in some areas. Their human scale guaranteed them no protection whatsoever in the days before planning controls, but larger public buildings were also swept away with an insouciance almost unthinkable today.
This is a superb book, filled with beautifully reproduced black and white photographs of a capital city that looks hauntingly familiar, but that most of us have never seen. Endlessly informative and fascinating both visually and textually, it offers a profoundly moving evocation of a lost age. Many of the photographs were taken as a last record of buildings already condemned to die. Others are in traffic-free streets bustling with humanity. While wondering pensively about the fate of these people who stare with curiosity into the camera, Philip Davies also mourns our modern inability to plan cities with the innate sense of order, elegance and farsightedness that our forebears brought to even the humblest corners of our once beautiful capital. This book stands as a testament to their skills.