Framing London’s greatest urban space

Think of London, one immediately thinks of its river. Viewed from above, it runs right through the heart of the capital, its curvilinear shape synonymous with London. From the pageants captured by Canaletto to the setting of UNESCO Heritage sites such as the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London, the river has been central to London’s story. Yet today, as London experiences one of its most exciting periods of growth and development, the river’s character may merit protection as a great urban space.

Writing in Historic England’s most recent Conservation Bulletin, Graham Morrison calls for a new approach to how we deal with the river as a spatial concept. It should be seen as the asset that it is – a natural feature that has been shaped by human settlement.

A former commissioner for Historic England, Graham writes, ‘…the river should be listed – perhaps from Tower Bridge to Putney Bridge. Such designation would place much more responsibility with Historic England. But in the absence of that safeguard, or perhaps parallel to it, a river authority could be established. The authority would have a remit to conserve the river’s history and ensure that all new development understood and reinforced its character. It would fill a yawning gap in the armoury of London’s conservation’.

Instead of worrying about the impact of individual buildings, the entire riverfront could be seen as an urban composition that defines London’s spatial identity. Buildings, tall or short, new or old, can help to frame a space that sits right at the city’s heart.

Speaking to The Sunday Times on 3rd April, Graham said, ‘Your jaw drops when you walk into St Mark’s Square or the Grand Canal in Venice – you don’t remember the individual palazzos but everybody remembers the space. Central Park [in New York] would not exist but for the buildings – the buildings make the space. The River [Thames] is the same – without Somerset House, the Houses of Parliament, the Inns of Court, you wouldn’t notice the space.’


A link to Graham’s article in Conservation Bulletin can be found here.