London’s Greatest Architecture

Take a tour of the building which put the Great into Great Britain.

London’s rich history means there is a hotchpotch of architectural styles in the capital, therefore in the space of ten minutes you could very well encounter gothic, neo-classical and art deco buildings, all jumbled up together in one area. Just to confuse things further it’s worth noting that many important buildings were partially destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, with sections of them rebuilt later; then again, it’s all part of the fun.

Central London
Westminster is as good a starting point as any. This is where the neo-gothic Houses of Parliament are, along with a number of other government buildings and of course, 10 Downing Street. Westminster has been Parliament’s home since 1532, however a fire in 1834 destroyed most of the building with the exception of Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower. The Big Ben is a much more recent invention, having been constructed in 1859. Opposite the Houses of Parliament is Westminster Abbey, which has seen the coronation of nearly every king and queen of England except two, and many of their funerals too. The current building, which is one of the UK’s most important examples of gothic architecture, dates back to the 13th century.

Take a walk across St. James’s Park to Marlborough House, Christopher Wren’s design. Made from red bricks imported from Holland, it was completed in 1711. It was initially commissioned by the Duke of Marlborough and has been the London abode of several aristos, however since 1965 it’s been the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Walk up Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, where you will find the iconic Nelson’s Column, erected in 1843 in honour of Lord Nelson. To the north are the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, and crossing over St. Martin’s Place from here is the pretty church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, dating back to 1726. Take a bus up Charing Cross Road towards Great Russell Street, where the British Museum is located. It was first conceived in the 19th century in the Greek Revival style, evident in the pillars at the front entrance. More recently Norman Foster designed the Great Court, a huge courtyard with a glass ceiling that is the biggest covered public square in Europe.

From Russell Square it’s one stop on the tube to King’s Cross on the Piccadilly Line. Walk out of the station heading towards St. Pancras International. This wonderfully gothic construction was first designed in 1863. It became Grade I listed in the 60s, and despite periods of neglect was recently renovated to great effect to accommodate the Eurostar. It also houses the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, who claim - rather accurately - that it’s London’s most romantic building.
Docklands and the City
The Tower of London has a gruesome history, as over the centuries it’s served as both prison and place of execution. Construction began in the 11th century, when its purpose was to serve as a fortress to defend the royals from enemy armies. At 27 metres tall it completely dominated the skyline. The White Tower, where the Royal Armouries are kept, is the oldest part, and dates back to 1076. The bridge that crosses the river from here is Tower Bridge. When it opened in 1894, it was the most sophisticated bridge ever constructed, and its steel structure is typical of Industrial-era design. The Tower Bridge Exhibition explains in detail the history of the bridge and how it has operated, from being steam-powered to using electricity.

On the south side of the river you will Butler’s Wharf, where the warehouses once housed the goods that were unloaded on the docks. These warehouses are now luxury apartments, of which there are more all over the Docklands. Head back onto Tower Bridge Road and walk along The Queen’s Walk until you come to City Hall, the new Mayor’s office. This futuristic, tilted glass building was designed by Norman Foster, and is a great example of green architecture thanks to solar panels, recycling heat generated from computers and using cold water for air conditioners rather than employing refrigeration.

From here hop on a bus to St. Paul’s Cathedral. There has been a place of worship on this site since the year 604, but this incarnation was built by Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, after being burnt down in the Great Fire. Wren was committed to the City of London, therefore most of the churches of the area are likely to have been at least partly designed by him, look out for St. Mary-le-bow, St. Stephen’s Walbrook and St. Margaret Pattens (elsewhere he is also responsible for Greenwich Hospital and the Royal Hospital Chelsea).

Walk down Cheapside till you get to Bank tube station. The imposing, neo-classical Bank of England is on the corner of Princes Street and Threadneedle Street. Much of it was re-built in the early 20th century, but some sections remain from Sir John Soane’s original 18th century creation (see also Dulwich Gallery and the Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone for more of Soane’s work). The Royal Exchange is opposite, with a similar Corinthian-style façade.
Twentieth century architecture
There are fantastic instances of twentieth century design scattered around London. Several stations on the northern stretch of the Piccadilly Line deserve attention. Arnos Grove, Wood Green and Bounds Green were designed in a European style very typical of the 1930s, influenced by French architect Le Corbusier. The buildings are circular, with flat roofs, resembling drums.

Brutalism, inexplicably popular among town planners between the 50s and 70s, gave us the Barbican Centre. Though now a much-loved arts centre, it is still deemed an eyesore by many. The Trellick Tower, a high rise council block near Notting Hill, is an even clearer example, however gentrification has transformed this grim, concrete construction into desirable property.

The spectacularly ornate Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple in Neasden is a Hindu place of worship, the first of its kind in Europe. It needed the work of 1,500 craftsmen and took three years to be completed, opening in 1995; the inside is suitable lavish, with intricately carved marble pillars and motives of gods adorning the walls.

When it was finished in 1991, triangular-topped Canary Wharf was London’s tallest building. It is so-called because when the dock was in operation the majority of imports received were from the Canary Islands. Another fixture of the skyline is 30 St. Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin, which attracted criticism at first due to its phallic shape, but Londoners soon became accustomed to Norman Foster’s 180 metre-high creation. Being made out of 24,000 square metres of glass means it’s eco-friendly (there’s plenty of natural light), and has a gleaming exterior.

The Shard, when finished, will be London’s tallest building. At 317 metres it will also be the tallest building in Western Europe, but it’s only a matter of time before a taller, greener, more extravagant construction takes its place.

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