Book Review


The Anatomy of Greater London
Paul L Knox

This coffee table book about London' suburbs and their development contains many photographs of buildings – without people or cars – annotated by lengthy but hard-to-read captions. It is structured into place-based sections, but there are only four maps apart from a few historic neighbourhood plans.

This American author, who has written extensively about American suburbs, conceives London as seven radial sectors. Three are narrow strips along the Thames East and West and the Lea Valley; the other four are spaces in-between. His divides are not dissimilar to the key diagram in the latest London Plan. The fourth (undated) map represents London's built up area. Yet none are able to convey the grain and diverse characters of London's suburbs, nor explain the massive interventions in more recent times, and why and how they have transformed specific areas.

Knox describes five historic layers of development. They start with pre-modern times and distinguish between the Victorian- Edwardian period, interwar suburbanisation and ‘automobility’, welfare state and everyday Modernism, and end with the neo-liberal counter-reformation from 1979. The chapters on the 19th century up to the Second World War have many historic details, including the key protagonists instrumental in London's rapid and often unfettered development. His emphasis is on architectural style rather than on the neighbourhoods and their people, which would say more about Greater London's anatomy.

The post-war chapters contain many inaccurate statements which are not referenced (e.g. 40 per cent annual house price inflation in London) or not quite accurate (e.g. Britain – instead of UK – acceded to the EEC), leads one to query the veracity of other statements. In reality, the unsatisfactory physical conditions of many social housing estates in today’s London suburbs are due to many reasons. What their inhabitants have in common is the threat of displacement to make way for wholesale reconstruction at much higher densities – with little, if any, low income housing – thus reinforcing London's already stark social polarisation. Neither the Battersea Power Station redevelopment nor White City, or Old Oak Common, Barking Creek and others are shown, let alone regeneration projects around stations and along new public transport corridors.

Perhaps his selections correspond to ideals about American suburbia, a green world remote from congestion and the squalor of city centres – a far cry from London's suburbs.

URBAN DESIGN 144 Autumn 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 144 Autumn 2017

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Reviewed By
Judith Ryser