The City and the King: Architecture and Politics in Restoration London, by Christine Stevenson

Harriet Harriss on an age when ‘form followed fealty’ and politics triumphed over economics

December 5, 2013

“Form follows function,” American architect Louis Sullivan declared. “Form follows finance,” observed architectural historian Carol Willis in her usefully provocative 1995 analysis of skyscraper design. For Christine Stevenson in The City and the King, however, “form follows fealty” – the royal role architecture plays in helping to consolidate political and commercial dominance.

Her book explores the unexpected alliance of Charles II and City financiers in redefining both public and private space in 17th-century London. While one might expect that such an alliance would have been overwhelmingly concerned with private opulence and exclusive excess, the reality was different. The “merry monarch” became instead a great civic monarch, investing in building hospitals and other “public realm” facilities.

This was, however, neither noblesse oblige nor authentic philanthropy. Having dissolved a “troublesome” Parliament, Charles II went to great pains to be a conspicuous commissioner of churches for self-aggrandising ends. This is particularly well illustrated in the construction of Inigo Jones’ Sacred Martyrs West portico of St Paul’s Cathedral, which commentators aptly described as Charles’ “political tool”. Jones ensured that the regally funded portico, which stood apart from the rest of the materiality, was a handsome, distinctive, “shrewd piece of advertising”, as Stevenson notes, and served to attract additional funds to complete the rest of the church. “If buildings are too complex to be subsumed as political statements,” she argues, “their ornament and their mediation are not.”

The importance of the building as a form of political broadcast prompted extravagance, even in less than prosperous times. In essence, politics triumphed over economics in Charles II’s London. This wasn’t limited to new build; many of London’s parishes engaged in huge refurbishment programmes, as did many of their town halls, at a time when the costs of caring for the victims of a series of plague epidemics placed them under huge financial pressure. What Stevenson does most effectively is to provide a rigorous, forensic account not only of the political deals but also of the exhortations, threats and even bloodshed that took place in both the commissioning and execution of her meticulously selected examples.

Modern historians often argue that corporate as well as private construction can be prompted, rather than deterred, by insecurity or instability. While instability turned to catastrophe after the Great Fire of London, a subsequent explosion of reconstruction supports the argument that universal solutions follow universal problems. The sentiment “that ruin is ageless, without familiar landmarks the city is made unrecognisable, taken outside history”, Stevenson suggests, was as pervasive after the Great Fire as it would be after the Blitz. Although we live in a time when few of us have lived through such disasters, these ideas still inform how we choose to reconsider events such as the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York and the debate over how epic tragedies can be best commemorated.

As The City and the King successfully argues that architectural icons are as much political and cultural constructs as aesthetic palimpsests, it is hard not to be reminded of the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same. For many of today’s practising architects, gestures of gratitude, favour and debt – albeit less stained by blood than those detailed here – continue to inform (if not actually define) today’s construction transactions. Not all legacies are iconic; some are simply pathologies.

The City and the King: Architecture and Politics in Restoration London

By Christine Stevenson
Yale University Press, 304pp, £45.00
ISBN 9780300190229
Published September 2013

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