The skyline, architecture and landscape of the River Thames in Central London

I see the Banks of the Thames as a place where, during the twentieth century, unimaginative planning and selfishly mediocre architecture often conspired to produce designs better suited to a rundown provincial town than to the heart of a great city. Skylines, landscape and architecture should be considered together, looking to the past and looking to the future. ‘Protecting’ views is important but insufficient. Proposals for ‘high buildings’ ‘tall buildings’ and ‘towers’ should be viewed in context, never in isolation. Studies of their visual and environmental impact require scenic quality assessments, a policy context and full testing on a digital model of the city. As the below quotations reveal, London’s river is both a Place of Darkness and a Place of Light.
William Blake, in 1794, found ‘in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ where ‘the Thames does flow’.
William Wordsworth, 8 years later found the Thames a river of beauty and romance. He declared that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ (1802).
Joseph Conrad, in 1899, knew the Thames as a place of history, romance, toil, darkness and light. He saw London as ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth’, a place which had known ‘the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires’ and was yet ‘one of the dark places of the earth.’
Since 1945 property developers have seen the Thames as a place to make a quick buck
Since 2000, some wealthy immigrants have viewed riverside apartments as great places to launder the ill-gotten gains of financial scams and miscellaneous corruption.

Recent blog posts about London’s River Thames skyline landscape

See also:  Rem Koolhaas on London’s skyline. Koolhaas remarks that ‘London has always changed dramatically and it’s still is not a very dramatic city. So it can go on. I think that in London whatever you do you do not disturb an earlier coherence. You do not disturb an earlier utopia like in Paris. It can stand a lot of development without suffering’.  I read this comment as a polite way of saying that most of London’s riverside is pretty dull, as the above video shows, it has its moments – but not enough of them.

9 thoughts on “The skyline, architecture and landscape of the River Thames in Central London

  1. Christine

    Fantastic videography Tom! It is dense with visual information which will take some time to process.

    My immediate response is to say that the cumulative impact of development on the character of London is a very important consideration that needs policy attention and consideration.

    The sense of London being an historic (as opposed to heritage) city could easily disappear if the balance of new to old development is tipped. So the question becomes, is the history of London as a city important and if so why? Why are some historic buildings considered of particular importance?

    Of course the rate of development is part of this. The speed at which the built landscape transforms, and the degree of its fragmentation or spread along the river bank will impact on these perceptions. (For example the Charing Cross development has settled into its context and is not perceived as brand new, slowly acquiring its own patina). This will over time happen with all new development.

    Is the scale relationship – the amphitheatre space that is created by the river and the height and setback of development along its banks -important?

    How have other river cities developed?

    For example, New York city is sandwiched between the Hudson River opening onto Upper Bay and East River opening onto Long Island Sound, and is disciplined by a grid. How do these facts contribute to the setting of the city? How do they contribute to the development of its skyline?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Rem Koolhaas makes thoughtful remarks on London’s skyline. He says it is not dramatic and it has always been in flux. There are many distant views of London but my thoughts always go to the Thames skyline when thinking about London skylines. I agree with both Koolhaas’ points but they need spatial differentiation. Some sections of the riverside landscape are of high visual quality and merit strong conservation measures (eg Westminster and Richmond). Others are mediocre, mudgy and in need of imaginative design. Koolhaas makes a very justifiable comparison with Paris. It has a more composed waterfront with greater conservation needs. New York is one of those cities to which I am overdue a repeat visit. Not sure about how cyclist-friendly it is!
      The Scoop at More London is good when it is busy and bleakly awful when it is empty – such a steely grey cold pit that one wonders if they should keep a bear there or feed a few fundamentalists to lions, welcoming the spillage of blood. Probably a bad idea!

  2. Christine

    I am not sure I am entirely in agreement with Rem. London has a long conservation consciousness which has allowed the city Rem is commenting on to become the place it is. Without continued enlightened policy oversight this quality he has observed of London always being in flux and being able to absorb new things without disturbing the tenor of the city could be lost.

    The UK does pageantry like no other nation and the city is the setting that allows this drama to unfold. What other city can boast a Carnaby Street, or so many other famous streets? (i.e. Fleet street and the press, Downing street and government and Harley street and medicine?)

    The memory of the Thames is also how one arrives at it – whether by boat, on foot, by rail, by bus, by car or on a cycle. There is always a time when one is approaching the river before it is visually revealed.

    Yes, keep the lions, which protect London from sinking and maintain the modern policy of not being cruel to animals!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree about the ‘tenor’ of London being surprisingly unchanged but would add that it is also vastly changed. I spent a week on my own in the city c1960 and remember taking some photographs in Oxford Street. Regrettably, I am more likely to have photographed the buildings than the people. I do not think there were many bowler hats in Oxford Street then but the City was full of them – and every one has gone! The population has also changed from 99% ‘English born’ to 45% ‘English born’. This has not affected the physical appearance of the city as much as one might expect and, in fact, the most dramatic change has been since the turn of the millennium: the city has seen a large number of over 4 story residential blocks all over the place. This is particularly evident along the Thames. It was a largely industrial river in 1960 and is now a largely residential river.

  3. Christine

    I am wondering when the local population drops to below 50% it is possible to say that London is an English city anymore? Is this population statistic the permanent population or does it include the transient population also? (ie sometime residents of London). Does London have seasonal residents or residents which live between weekenders and the city?

    How are the tourist population considered within the population statistic? How large is the tourist population on any given day? Does it vary from season to season?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      It is definitely a thing to be thunk about. The first part of London to have a predominantly Asian population was Southall. You can see from a Google image search on Southall what has happened: the people are very Asian, the ephemera are Asian too – but the underlying structure remains ‘English’. So the question I have been wondering about is SHOULD the urban character be more Indian? I do not know the answer but several positions are possible (1) because the people are of Indian origin, the character should be of Indian origin (2) because Southall is part of England, the character should be English (3) a hybrid would be appropriate (4) urban form has been globalised – so there is no such thing as ‘Indian’ or ‘English’ urban character.

  4. Christine

    Gosh, I am not sure how you describe the ‘illegal’ immigrant population within the statistics?
    [ ]

    Are you sure that the underlying structure is remaining English? Or perhaps even the urban fabric is slowly being transformed too? Or is this phenomenon of illegal overcrowding English also under particular circumstances? There are probably many Indian characters that could be adopted. If this one is Indian this does not seem to be one of the better ones? Is Bradford also experiencing the trend in accommodating illegal Indian migrants?

    There is a precinct in Melbourne called Lygon Street which because of the Italian population became a premier restaurant and cafe district. Now that the children of the Italian immigrants are third or fourth generation Australian the culinary strength and predominantly Italian character seems to be slowly dissipating. [ ] The precinct is much loved by Melbournians so it has almost become a question of how is it possible to continue to renew the overlaid Italian character of the area?

    And you are right, the underlying structure of the suburb is from the Victorian era, in common with the predominant historic gold rush era fabric of the city of Melbourne. The Italian community have preserved it well.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The phrase ‘his heart was so warm it melted his backbone’ comes to mind when thinking about UK immigration policy. There are many British people who fall into one or other or all of these categories (1) they are closely related to immigrants (2) they have a heartfelt pity for the world’s poor and dispossessed (3) they like being able to employ cheap un-unionised workers (4) they have homes in other countries (5) they like foreign restaurants (6) they believe immigrants are left-wing (7) something else. So there are many vocal people who are sympathetic to immigration – though I guess there is a majority against it. My own view is simple: I am happy for the country to be multi-everything (colour, faith, ethnicity etc) but I do not want the population to zoom up. So I think we should ‘count them in’ and ‘count them out’ [ie count emigrants) and keep the two numbers in balance.
      Re the Lygon Street area, it could be interesting to think about it in relation to the history of the Brick Lane area. It has always been a magnet area for migrants and, in succession has been Hugenot, Jewish, Irish, many other things, and not Bangladeshi. Today it seems part-English and part-Bangladeshi but, as it becomes absorbed into the City, I guess it will stop being an area for immigrants. They move to the suburbs as metropolitan land uses take over.

  5. Christine

    I am in agreement with you about immigration. Counting them in and counting them out is a very good approach. We don’t have the same problem of open borders as there is in the UK.

    In Australia we have been sometimes in a context to be able to take more immigrants, while at other times it seems to be more difficult. So I am not sure, but there might be the opportunity for us to accommodate more people in times of prosperity and less in times of adversity?

    The immediate postwar immigration was an act of empathy and generosity as Australia’s realised how badly Europe had been effected. There was a general feeling of wanting to help others and share what we had – even though Australia too had lost many sons and fathers and was experiencing material shortages and rationing – so that Europe could recover.

    The warmth of feeling towards their new country of the postwar immigrant generation seems to have remained. I am not sure whether it is because they realise the hardships that Australians were experiencing themselves while they were welcoming them here?

    It is less appealing to think that immigration is an opportunity to exploit people. And more appealing to think of cultures being united through marriage and bi or multi-culturally competent children.

    Homes in other countries are also good when people fall in love with that country.

    Beyond Lygon Street Melbourne became renowned for its coffee and coffee culture largely due to the Italian community. Slowly it is becoming more and more difficult to find an Italian owned coffee shop, and hence a good coffee. This is actually having an effect on the ambience of the city as the coffeeshop scene was/is complimentary to Melbourne’s intellectual, artistic and cultural reputation.

    In Brick Lane there seems to be a bit of layering happening, with the fashion element being retained amidst the new community?


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