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Book Review: London – The Unique City, Steen Eiler Rasmussen (1934)

“London’s contribution to architecture is simplicity”.

Some architects are best known for what they have produced, and some for what they have understood. There is no published portfolio of Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s built work, though we can be reasonably sure that he was an accomplished designer. His influence on post-war town-planning in Copenhagen is accounted for, and we shall return to this later. However, until the publication of that monograph, Rasmussen will remain best known as an effective communicator of simple ideas about complex towns and buildings.

London, The Unique City, is one such idea. Here, Rasmussen approaches London with some straightforward presumptions. He proposes that the historical development of London has been different to that of other major cities and that this difference has led to what he describes as a ‘scattered city’, rather than the concentrated varieties that are more common throughout Europe. In addition, he surmises that this has resulted in a vernacular domestic architecture that is particularly agreeable to him.

For Rasmussen, the driving force for this diversion from the urban-norm has been a combination of English idealism, and the strength of the City as a financial and political organisation. He describes London as a city untainted by the arrogance of rule, and free of absolutist town-planning – it has never been the City Beautiful. This is because London has never belonged to royalty but to merchants, guildsmen, landowners and bankers. The combined influence of the City’s wealthmakers, from mayors to apprentices, has always transcended the power of the Crown.

Consequently, London was assembled piece by piece by wide-eyed developers. At the end of the 18th Century it was the largest city in the world but contrary to folklore its gold was never used for paving but further speculation. Simple, cost-effective housing was London’s stock: “The English continued to accumulate riches, but they certainly didn’t spend them on the exterior decoration of their houses”. In time, the pragmatism of Georgian design, its roots in straightforward classicism, and more importantly, its lack of adornment, would become a draw for European designers of the modernist school. In this book, Rasmussen was one of the first to make this connection and in doing so raised the status of Georgian architecture a tier.

So what of this English idealism? London was originally only published in Danish and one wonders if the subtext might have been intended as quirky reportage for the amusement of his compatriots – those crazy English, with their funny domestic rituals in their rows of small houses! But Rasmussen shows compassion for the English approach to living, “The English have cultivated everything connected with daily life: they have made it an art to live in the right way”. He documents the evolution of the London townhouse, its style and function: the sober Georgian terrace; the ‘vulgarized’ house of the Victorians; and, the mock-tudor detached garden cottages of early twentieth century suburban London. In their house of choice, Londoners have moved from puritanical simplicity, to a denser version of the same with decorated floral motifs in plaster and oil, to a fantastical recreation of a medieval country retreat.

It is clear to Rasmussen that rural sensibilities abound in the English city. He sees it wherever he looks. The imperial system of measurements determines the size of the most common London townhouse, sixteen feet and six inches wide, according to Rasmussen. Feel free to measure the next one you come across. This system is derived from the agrarian units of acre, furlong, chain and rod, which were used for measuring fields – a rod is precisely sixteen feet and six inches. In describing the development of the English landscape garden, Rasmussen argues that rural England is tightly entwined with an Englishman’s image of himself, even amongst city dwellers. Londoners were as soon to riot for the protection of open fields surrounding the city as demand improvements to streets or buildings within. And country pursuits were deemed more fashionable than city culture, a very different arrangement to that of continental Europe where trends emanated from the royal courts of major cities. When Charles II opened St James Park for public recreation it was the greatest thing he could have done for Londoners – not rebuild the city, but invite the rural English landscape inside. Idealised.

Rasmussen was influential in Copenhagen as a town planner. One of his most ambitious projects was the design for Tingbjerg, a new suburb for 6,000 people built from scratch between 1950 and 1972. He led the design team which produced all of the plans for the project: every road, building and public space. His enthusiasm for English domesticity seeped into the design. It was a gentle modernist development, flavoured with Georgian London and the Garden City. Avenues of sturdy brick housing of a consistent type, generously scattered with natural parks accessed through cobblestoned alleys. It is now one of the most deprived areas in Copenhagen, rundown and crime-ridden. The project was a failure that has severely damaged Rasmussen’s reputation as a designer. Though why is this surprising when Tingbjerg was clearly at odds with his convictions? Much of Rasmussen’s writing conveys the same message – good urbanism cannot be designed by architects, it must happen naturally. It appears that he may have succumbed to the same heady notion shared by other designers of influence: that his greater understanding of the city will help him fake it. It can’t, and it never will. London, The Unique City tells us this. Perhaps he forgot?

Tingbjerg, Copenhagen

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