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the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover: Re-presenting the Metropolis: Architecture, urban experience and social life in London, 1800-1840

Book review


Re-presenting the Metropolis: Architecture, urban experience and social life in London, 1800-1840

by Dana Arnold
Ashgate, 2000
ISBN-13: 978-1-84014-232-7; 172 pages, price £60.00

John Marriot

University of East London

Slim though this volume is, the task that Professor Dana Arnold sets herself in its pages is a daunting one. She seeks to map the crucial developments in London's architecture and planning at a time when key sites in the urban environment were transformed into ones that we recognise today with a nostalgic familiarity. The focus is on London's expansion, more specifically, that of the ancient centres of the City to the east, Westminster to the west, and Southwark to the south, and it encompasses all its visible manifestations from the creation of public spaces, new thoroughfares and bridges, to buildings of display including museums, galleries and townhouses.

This is not, however, a conventional chronology of grand projects, or a story of how architectural visions were realised through political and financial machination. To the contrary, Arnold sets out to define a new paradigm. The transformation of the city, she claims, was the product of an urban self consciousness, most evidently that of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. This awareness of the city 'as a complete and living entity' shaped its formation as a constructed artefact, with the result that the transformation of London's spatial form can be presented as an 'emblematic expression of different kinds of identity relating to gender, class and nationhood' at a particular historical moment. The city thus became a representation of the imagined community of an urban bourgeoisie at a time when it was beginning to explore distinctively modern impulses.

Invoking classic studies of the urban condition such as Simmel, Baudelaire, Benjamin and Foucault, Arnold proceeds on a thematic tour of the capital. St Paul's may seem a curious site of embarkation for a journey through the modernizing urban environment, but she argues persuasively that it stood as a symbol not only for the nation but also for renewal after the devastation of 1666. More importantly, St Paul's significance derived from its position within a new visual culture. From its unique vantage point London could be conceived of and seen. This panoramic, panoptical register of the city that sought a totalising vision of the metropolis was not, however, the only one, for in contrast to it stood the more mobile and subjective gaze of the flaneur/euse, operating at street level.

Over time, this street gaze proved the more effective and enduring. As concern mounted over the sheer immeasurability of London's labyrinthine complexity, so the street gaze gained currency as the one better able to bring the urban environment within the scale of human experience. Ultimately, the dislocated and fragmented vision of the flaneur/euse proved unequal to the task, but it accorded well with modernist temper. Writers such as Pierce Egan, De Quincey and Dickens who drew upon these sensibilities were largely responsible for nineteenth-century visions of social life in the metropolis.

In this climate of uncertainty the urban experience was increasingly subject to planning by state bureaucracies working in alliance with commercial and social interests - what Arnold refers to as a kind of modernity. The construction of Regent Street forging a link between the new development of Marylebone (later Regent's) Park and the city centre was one of the first and most significant manifestations of the new rational order applied to west London. The street 'represented the rise of the new bourgeois class' thereby altering the experience of the city. Here was a safe and opulent public space allowing social intercourse of the middle class, and the vicarious strolling of single men. But along the colonnaded passages there lurked the potential for what Lord Glenbervie described as 'damp, obscurity, filth and indecency as no regulation or police will be able to prevent', hinting that beneath the grandeur of planning schemes in the west stalked the ominous presence of the east.

If a single theme informed the aesthetic development of the capital in this period it was that of the nation. In certain important respects the triumphalism evident in many of the grand projects, monuments and buildings represented the assertion of a new collective identity after the final defeat of the French. Indeed, the constant references to Paris in contemporary debates on redevelopment suggest that the rivalry was deep seated. Paris provided the standard that had to be met and surpassed, even if the architectural language was broadly the same. Thus French referents were blatant in the construction of impressive public monuments such as the British Museum, Marble Arch and the Achilles statue of Wellington in Hyde Park, but they were evident too in the new public parks and extravagant squares in the west. Such public displays of national sentiment extended from the external to the internal. As repositories of artefacts and antiquities many institutions and private houses became sites of visual and cultural consumption. Collections held in Thomas Hope's Duchess Street mansion and Sir John Soane's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields were testament to the wealth and expansiveness of a new urban intelligentsia, and served to re-present the world city as a spectacle to a self-congratulatory viewing public.

Overall, Dana Arnold acts as a tour guide to the architecture and urban experience of early nineteenth-century London. Unlike such tours, however, this is not one that follows a neat chronology, nor adheres to an overarching narrative. What tends to prevail is the fragmented and discontinuous nature of this experience. 'What is London?', she asks by way of a conclusion; 'somehow I think my question requires more than one answer ... '.

This book offers an effective challenge to conventional architectural histories emphasising the great and the good, or the operation of particular stylistic vocabularies without reference to wider social and cultural influences. In this respect it does have the potential to offer a new paradigm for an understanding of the urban experience. There is a distinct sense, however, that what Arnold does here is to sketch out the agenda. Covering so much ground in 150 odd pages (many of which contain arresting illustrations) inevitably has its costs. Some of the critical arguments are not developed fully. This is very much work in progress, and we can only hope that she finds the time and energy to return to some of the important themes raised in this book.

Two areas in particular warrant further exploration, namely, the specificities of urban consciousness, and the role of empire. Arnold links redevelopment in this period with the emergence of a bourgeois self-consciousness, and yet the nature of this consciousness remains ill defined. She rightly identifies the role of sight, and to illustrate this focuses on the social relations of looking characteristic of the flaneur and the panopticon, arguing that the former gained ascendancy. The flaneur, however, is a problematic figure, not readily comparable with a member of an assertive urban bourgeoisie. As a man of leisure (in this period it tended to be the man) the flaneur was elite, but he was at the same time out of place. He occupied a liminal space between the bourgeoisie and the crowd, and had an ambivalent relationship to both. It was from his milieu that the early modernist visions of the metropolis emerged. (1) Pierce Egan and George Smeeton were the emblematic figures, although it was left to Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew to create the most abiding impressions of nineteenth-century London.

In fact the urban bourgeoisie were alarmed and disgusted by the crowd. If they had a modern project in the late eighteenth century it was to create public spaces in the metropolis where they could meet with their kind. To do this they had to cleanse, straighten, light and chart suitable thoroughfares, and so overcome the dissembling legacy of the failure to develop the metropolis after the fire. Given enabling legislation and funding, much of this was achieved. More difficult, however, was the removal of human detritus - the swarms of beggars who infested these spaces much to the annoyance and inconvenience of their bourgeois claimants. And then there were the adjacent areas of the gothic unknown, wherein resided amongst congested rookeries and alleys the criminal residuum, ready to prey upon unwary members of the urban bourgeoisie when night fell.

I wonder also about the extent of bourgeois influence. Precisely whose city was London? Given that large swathes of land and property in the city and the west were owned by the crown, the church and the aristocracy was it possible for a financially, socially and politically subordinate class to exert its authority? What role could it take beyond that of contracted developers? It may well be that the main themes of an urban consciousness transcended such barriers, but that is a different argument.

One theme, as we have seen, was that of a collective national identity, evidenced in many of the developments of the period. Indeed, the argument for a coalescence of forces around this theme from the late eighteenth century is a persuasive one. And there is little doubt that France was one of the principal sites against which this identity was secured. But it was not the only one, for the protracted series of wars against its old enemy was not only for European, but for imperial supremacy. The defeat of the French presaged a remarkable period in British history when the so-called second empire was actively constructed. It is perhaps surprising therefore that only passing reference is made to the influence of empire. To take one example, public and private collections of artefacts are seen by Arnold as ostentatious displays of cultural values for domestic consumption in ways redolent of rational street plans and sights of commemoration. But they were rather more than this. The British Museum was above all a repository of materials from ancient civilisations. Here was an imperial archive that demonstrated mastery over the representation and production of knowledges, global and timeless in their reach. (2)

Because of the provisional and exploratory nature of the book it was inevitable that questions would remain unanswered. Perhaps it has something also to do with the period under study, for it was in the early nineteenth century we can detect the faltering, fragmented and uncertain attempts to grasp the totality of a metropolis which ultimately defied classification. In bringing our attention to this Arnold has opened up challenging new lines of inquiry.

  1. Marriott, J.W. (ed.), Unknown London: early modernist visions of the metropolis, 1815-45, Six Vols., Pickering & Chatto (2000). Back to (1)
  2. Richards, T., The Imperial Archive: knowledge and the fantasy of empire, Verso (1993). Back to (2)

February 2002

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