The Great London Fire of 1666 lived up to its name. Sparked by a baker in Pudding Lane, the conflagration burned as much as two-thirds of the medieval city to the ground in just three days. Nearly 13,200 wooden homes were torched, along with the Royal Exchange and scores of public buildings. According to Charles Hind, the chief curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the tragic blaze was helped by the city's crowded streets and unfettered construction; aged structures leaned so far over the roadways below, neighbors from across the street could lean out their windows and shake hands.
"London was a mess, and the Great Fire did London a favor sweeping away the old dirty city," he says.
In the aftermath of the fire, the question facing King Charles II was, what comes next? A series of plans submitted just days after the last embers were extinguished, now on display as part of the Creation from Catastrophe exhibit at the RIBA, offer an intriguing counterfactual take on London's streetscape, and a look at the nascent art and science of city planning. The proposals, especially Sir Christopher Wren's radical reworking on the great city, would have introduced a more rational grid to London's famously irregular streets. As part of an exhibit that looks at how architecture responds to disaster, it's also a sobering reminder of how utopian schemes often fall prey to everyday economic realities.
Presented to the king just days after the fire had been contained, the five plans offered progressively more advanced ideas on how to straighten the medieval streetscape of London. The layout submitted by Sir Christopher Wren, the esteemed British architect, gained the most attention and would have been the most impressive. Inspired in part by a visit to Paris the year before, Wren would have radically altered the city's current layout, introducing a series of grand boulevards and grids as well as streets of varying width, depending on their importance. It totally ignored the historic street plan, says Hind, which ultimately was its downfall.
The fire, which occurred in September, came at the worst possible time for the country, and any ambitious city planning efforts. England was at war with the Dutch, and winter was looming. Charles II, who needed the economy to rebound immediately, didn't have the time or budget for an extensive redesign. Others feared the complex land ownership issues and legal tussles that would have resulted from a large-scale redesign. Within a week or so, locals had already started rebuilding.
The end result of the flurry of proposal and ideas, while not as progressive and utopian as those discussed, moved the city forward in a pragmatic fashion. A new building code, the Rebuilding Act, was adopted, which improved sanitation and drainage, forbade timber homes, and widened the streets. New, standardized construction led to the development of the Georgian style of home construction, and the city rebounded rather quickly.
"It's not a failure of nerve, it was ultimately a more a pragmatic reaction to a very current problem of accommodation and business," says Hind. "Virtually all the houses were rebuilt in five years."
Centuries later, Wren's unrealized plan doesn't have the notoriety or, say, Baron Haussmann's beautiful designs for Paris, or Burnham's ordered and logical layout of Chicago, but it was an early imagining of how a grid could bring order to a city. Wren's plan potentially would have created a healthier city, as many have argued, and the orderly plans that appeared in many cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Lisbon, demonstrated that the concept was ahead of its time. It also potentially would have created a more stratified city, while ignoring the character and history of the capital's piecemeal growth and development.
London would continue to wrestle with the issue of better organization over the centuries, according to Hind, even though the grid system never quite appealed to English tastes. A desire for more order and better cross-town transportation would lead to improvements such as Regent Street in the 19th century, and the Strand. It wasn't until the aftermath of WWII that many of these ideas were more fully developed.
"It was the ideas around his plan, rather than the plan itself, that made a difference," says Hind.