Reviewed by: Cathy Ross
Author: Leo Hollis
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Price (RRP): £25
Leo Hollis has organised his history of London around a mere 12 buildings. Given London’s fearsome complexity and size, this might seem a doomed enterprise. But not so.
The history-through-famous-buildings approach is relatively familiar from guidebooks. And many earlier authors have detected in London’s buildings the essence of the city’s soul.
Thomas Burke, writing in 1934, offered a defiantly gritty selection: the shot-tower at Waterloo Bridge, the Angel at Islington, Battersea power station and the view of Cannon Street station from Southwark.
Hollis’s choices fall between Burke and the guidebooks.
His 12 include five fixtures on the tourist circuit (Houses of Parliament, Greenwich Palace, Westminster Abbey, Regent Street and the Victoria Embankment); one iconic skyscraper (The Gherkin); three domestic buildings (Home House in Portman Square, 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields and Keeling House in Bethnal Green); and three buildings no longer visible (the Roman Temple of Mithras, the Tudor Royal Exchange and the original Wembley Stadium from the 1920s).
These places provide Hollis with his structure. They are the “launching point for some of the main themes not just of London but the history of urban life… each building is at the centre of a broad canvas, a panoramic view of the metropolis, and reveals some aspect of the ever-changing art of urban living”.
Does the book deliver? One problem is perhaps that Hollis is trying to do too much. Constructing a panoramic view of London, doing justice to the buildings, and bringing out themes and insights about past and present urban life, is a formidable agenda.
Hollis begins with palaeontology: the metropolis is “a series of layered narratives that need to be explored in the same way the palaeontologist excavates geological strata”. He ends with biology: the buildings are “essential parts of the living metropolis, markers to remind us of how we got here; they are the genetic material with which we will modify the future”.
In between he is more the palaeontologist than the biologist, heading straight for the Royal Exchange’s Tudor foundations and examining those in detail, rather than tracing the Darwinian story of evolution and adaption that has turned today’s Royal Exchange into a high-end shopping centre.
Despite the book’s claims to be more than just a standard period history, it feels a bit like that at times. Nevertheless, this is an enthusiastic work, by an author who plainly relishes the delights of quarrying London’s past in search of treasure.
It raises many stimulating thoughts – not least, the question of which 12 buildings you would choose as the vehicles for telling London’s story.
Dr Cathy Ross is director of collections and learning at the Museum of London