London's physical look was transformed in the 20th century. At the beginning of the century London's tallest building was St Paul's Cathedral, built in 1701, and 365 ft. high. By the end of the century the tallest was the tower at Canary Wharf in Docklands, built in 1991 and 800 ft. high. London had acquired a new jagged skyline of high-rise skyscrapers and tower blocks.
New construction technologies made taller buildings possible during the 20th century. Building by means of a steel frame skeleton became a widely used construction method in the first quarter of the century. It not only enabled buildings to get taller, but also to increase in bulk. Thanks to steel framing, the streets of central London took on a new, large scale in the years between the wars. Shops became department stores: office blocks became large corporate headquarters: cinemas became glamorous picture palaces. Regent Street and much of Oxford Street was completely rebuilt during the 1920s. Many of the new buildings expressed the new architectural spirit of the 20th century, which looked to the skyscrapers and large blocks of American cities for their inspiration. Broadcasting House built for the BBC in 1929 is a good example.
he trend towards even greater heights and greater bulk continued after the second world war. The 1960s brought science-fiction structures and a new skyline. In 1966 the Post Office Tower became London's highest structure at 580 ft. but within ten years this was topped by the National Westminster Tower at 600 ft. Steel-framed, glass-fronted office blocks thrust their way into the streetscapes of central London. Away from the centre an inner-city motorway swooped through west London sweeping away swathes of old terrace housing in its path. Much of inner London was wrenched into a new shape as massive tower blocks, housing estates and pedestrian shopping precincts brought a new scale of buildings to neighbourhoods that traditionally had been low-rise.
Some people thought these new futuristic buildings took away London's distinctive sense of place. As the tower blocks rose, so the building conservation movement gathered strength. Several battles between property developers and conservationists took place during the 1960s and 1970s. Covent Garden Market was saved from destruction in 1973 by determined community activists. Piccadilly Circus and south Soho also survived, despite several abortive redevelopment schemes. On the South Bank the Coin Street Action Group began a long battle against a 'Berlin Wall' of office buildings proposed for the riverside. Elsewhere the developers had their way. In the Euston Road the property tycoon Joe Levy created a canyon of high-rise office blocks, sweeping away the old Victorian Euston station and its famous classical arch.
Two areas in London developed particularly futuristic cityscapes. In Croydon over 50 office blocks were built between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s, providing 5 million square foot of office space and jobs for 3,000 people. New shopping centres, multi-story car parks, ring roads and fly-overs allowed Croydon to promote itself as 'the most consistently modern-looking area in the whole of England'.
The City of London also acquired a new cityscape as the financial industry came to dominate its economic activity. Tall towers combined with the district's historic street pattern to create a unique and highly-concentrated visual mixture of old and new. On the City's northern edge, the bomb-damaged Barbican area was rebuilt from scratch as a modernistic city quarter. The Barbican incorporated all the latest thinking about urban living, which at the time meant pedestrian walkways, underground car parks and concrete everywhere.
Whatever the building styles, the single most important element in changing the look and feel of London's cityscape in the 20th century was the motorcar. In 1900 London traffic congestion meant horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians. Motor cars were rare sights. By the end of the century Londoners owned over 2 million cars and 72,000 motor scooters or mopeds. The capital's road space was full at all times of the day and streets were dominated by the 20th century street furniture that motor vehicles had made necessary. Traffic lights, yellow lines, parking meters, road signs and zebra crossings all made their first appearance in London's streets during the 20th century.
Despite a century of road widening and traffic control measures, London ended the 20th century with acute traffic congestion and punitive parking restrictions. By the 1990s the average traffic speed in central London during the rush hour was 10 mph, not that different from traffic speeds at the start of the century. Some wondered whether it was time for a congestion charge.
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