Quite when modern London was born, if indeed it was born at all, has long been a subject of dispute, but the 60 years between 1660 and 1720 are as good a time as any, writes Dan Cruickshank. Certainly during that period London grew vastly in size. The process of speculative house building, responsible for most of the city's fabric, was refined; a series of profoundly influential building acts was passed; financial arrangements such as house and fire insurance were initiated; and new wealth-creating trades and aesthetic tastes were embraced. This was when London finally came of age as one of the great international cities where money and fashions were made.
This book, says the author, is both a 'critique' of, and a 'homage' to, Sir John Summerson's Georgian London. So, no doubt in deference to Summerson's famous opening passage which offers an aerial perspective on London's growth through the centuries, this book starts with a chapter entitled 'Surveying the scene'. The text is then divided into two parts. The first, on the development of the city, includes such chapters as 'The developers: noble landlords and greedy speculators'. The second, on the city's design, is more theoretical, with chapters such as 'Tradition and innovation in the urban terrace'.
The author presents fascinating new detail and brings together much contemporary source and secondary material, both published and unpublished, to create a book that is very informative indeed. But, despite its merits, it does not challenge or revise the story of the making of late Stuart and early Georgian London.
A radically new perspective on such a familiar subject is a lot to demand and only the claims of the author lead one to expect it. We are told that the exploration of 'anonymous, everyday buildings' - the main topic of this book - is a new idea. While this may have been true 25 years ago, ordinary architecture (Georgian and otherwise) has become the focus for an entire generation of architectural historians. Summerson's Georgian London is, of course, one of the earliest and most successful attempts to tell the story of the ordinary house and put it in its artistic, social and political context.
Nonetheless The Birth of Modern London is a very useful book; and, if the publishers had invested a little more money, it could also have been very handsome. Some of the images the author has unearthed are new and could be attractive as well as fascinating. Unfortunately the standard of reproduction is poor (making plans difficult to read), and many of the photographs (all in black and white) are of distressing quality.
Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian