A tourist’s guide to the architecture of London; a city that combines ancient buildings and important historic sights with ground-breaking contemporary architecture and modern skyscrapers
London attracts tourists and sightseers from all over the world, and with good reason! It is a fascinating city to explore, with a striking, surprising and sublime selection of architectural sights both modern and historic. Unlike many of Europe’s other big tourist-destination cities, London’s ancient and historic sights can be found jostling for space right next to the city’s cutting-edge new skyscrapers and modern architecture. Go for a walk around the city and you will see that there is no clear separation between ‘old town’ and ‘new town’. Instead, London is a patchwork of architectural styles and everything is mixed together to create a surprising cocktail of historic sights and contemporary architectural design.
There are not many buildings left in London that predate the famous Great Fire of London which destroyed great swathes of the city in 1666. Happily, a handful of spectacular and important buildings such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Banqueting House survived the flames. After the fire, Christopher Wren came up with extensive plans for rebuilding the city as a beautiful, open and ordered place. However, these plans would have been costly to put in place and the people of London wanted to replace homes and businesses as quickly as possible. In the end, Wren’s plans were never realised, although he did go on to build the beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral and many other Parish churches across London. Instead of following Wren’s careful plans, London was rebuilt without a coherent strategy or architectural style.
The Great Fire of 1666 was not the only disaster the city of London has faced. During the devastation of the Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed the city from the air, over 1 million buildings were destroyed in the city. St Paul’s Cathedral remained intact, standing out amidst a wasteland of bombed buildings, and became a symbol of survival for the British people. After the war, London had to be rebuilt once more. High-rise accommodation buildings began to appear amongst the older houses of London, and The Royal Festival Hall was built on the Southbank – later becoming the first post-war building to be classified as a Grade I listed building.
These two historic periods of destruction go some way to explain why London is such a mixed city in terms of architecture. It is a place where you will find Victorian townhouses next to modern tower blocks. Gothic, Tudor, Victorian, Georgian, Brutalist, and modern buildings are all present around the city, and you can even see Roman ruins in the remains of the ancient London Wall that exists in a number of places around London!
Adding to the ‘mish-mash’ style of modern London are the growing number of skyscrapers in the city. While not to everyone’s taste, many of London's skyscrapers are affectionately known by nicknames such as the ‘Walkie Talkie Building’ and the ‘Gherkin’. Standing at 310 meters high, the Shard is now the tallest structure in London, with One Canada Square in Canary Wharf and the Heron Tower in the City of London both also towering over most of the city. And these days the London skyline is constantly busy with cranes engaged in building more skyscrapers; a stark contrast to the older, more historic buildings elsewhere in the city.
London’s past has led to the creation of a unique city; a city where contrasting architectural styles are juxtaposed next to each other. And despite the current surge in construction, there are planning regulations in place which attempt to ensure that the character of the city is not damaged and that the most important and beautiful of its older buildings are respected. For example, tall buildings are not allowed to impede on certain views. In particular, views of St Paul’s Cathedral are protected; a fitting tribute to a building that represents London’s history of overcoming disaster and rising from the ashes of destruction.
Want to find out more about London’s architecture and what makes this fascinating city so unique? Join us on our Modern Architecture Walking Tour to find out about the most innovative and iconic buildings in the city, and how the newest buildings are influenced by the city’s past.