London – always vibrant, beautiful and irresistible – has attracted the crowds since its beginning as a Roman city in AD 43. Almost 2,000 years later, its popularity is still on the rise.
▴ London’s busy riverfront
Four years ago I made London my home. Like many immigrants, I came with a dream in a suitcase, a one-way ticket and a brand new oyster card that I never used. I had a mission: to write and illustrate a book in the shape of a city guide for nerd architects, photographers and designers like myself. London welcomed me with open arms. In a week I already had a couple of sketches, some stories worth writing about and a newfound love who, four years later, is still by my side.
My urban explorations come in hand with a camera, a Moleskine and Micron pens. Occasionally, I’ll bring a couple of grey Copics. For me, there are two perceived realities: the objective (which I capture through the lens) and the subjective (which I draw on-site). When I review the material at home, there’s always more in my sketches; in which the subtleties become highlights and details become protagonists.
▴ Natural History Museum in South Kensington designed by Alfred Waterhouse
There’s something dazzling about London. The sensual curves of the river Thames hugging north and south, multiple charming bridges connecting the city and its endless commuters, and the most contrasting buildings – old and new, tall and short, known and secret – all coexisting together. At night, when the city is illuminated, one can’t help to feel fortunate to be part of this architectural feast.
▴ Tower Bridge by Horace Jones (1894)
It comes as no surprise that this bright, fun and beautiful city has attracted worldwide interest. In 2019, a record 80.9 million passengers travelled through Heathrow alone. London has a population of roughly 9 million.
▴ Heathrow Terminal 5 by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (2008)
On average, these visitors stay 4.9 nights in London, according to Visit Britain. Additionally, those travellers who decide to stay longer represent 37% of London’s population, including 24.5% born outside of Europe. And as of April 2020, 13% of the total population in the United Kingdom live in the capital. London’s DNA has always been diversity and its lifeblood international exchange.
▴ Tate Modern by Herzog & de Meuron has attracted 5.9 million visitors in 2018
This leads to the question: Is tourism a bad thing? And – What is exactly a tourist? In Craig Taylor’s book Londoners, he tells the story of people who inhabit the city for a period of time. Some enjoy the greatness of London for a while and then leave it for a better life (a newly formed family perhaps), others come with the idea of a temporary stay (like myself) and stay indefinitely. I can’t help to wonder, would I still be considered a tourist by some?
▴ Leadenhall Market is located on the former site of the original Roman basilica.
Historically, the constant influx of people has played a crucial part in London’s economic and cultural success. In fact, it was founded by Romans, razed by Celts, settled by the Anglo-Saxons, and ruled by Normans. London has never been a purely English city. What would London be without the Jews? Expelled in 1290 during the reign of Edward I and readmitted in 1656 under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Or the Huguenots? The Protestant French weavers who thrived in Shoreditch and brought their silk skills with them. Whilst many artists and poets were born and bred in London – William Blake, J. M. W. Turner and Virginia Woolf to name a few – many key players came from other parts of the country: William Shakespeare, Christopher Wren and Jane Austen amongst many others.
▴ Princelet Street, a former Huguenot master silk weaver’s home
Visitors come and go, and sometimes leave a deep impression in the city that will last for centuries: Paintings, plays, books and buildings – crucial aspects that keep a city thriving, growing and improving. Throughout history, visitors have contributed significantly to London’s well-being. And this is still the case in the present. What would London be without Tate Modern? A successful conversion project designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Or the master plan of Canary Wharf? One of the main financial centres of the United Kingdom and the world, envisioned by American firm SOM (also designers of the Burj Khalifa). Even London’s tallest building (and Europe’s) – the Shard – was designed by a visitor, the Italian Renzo Piano.
▴ The Shard by Renzo Piano
I have to welcome and celebrate all these visitors, for which the city constantly benefits in the long term. And history has taught us the gains of migration through endless examples. I wish more people saw it this way: we need transient crowds as much as we need inhabitants. Cities have a much more intricate economic and social way of developing and more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life for all.
▴ Houses of Parliament, an area that is always crowded
Today, despite suffering from overcrowding, there are a couple of places that depend upon visitors. Oxford Street, Covent Garden and even Westminster wouldn’t be the same without the crowds. Jane Jacobs, famous for ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ argues that density can be a good thing.
‘The sight of people attracts still other people.’
and Jane Jacobs adds
‘If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.’
The combination of both locals and visitors can actually be positive.
‘People with different schedules has meaning to the city and the power to confer the boon of life upon it‘. Jacobs points out that ‘On successful city streets, people must appear at different times’. And indeed this is true for London’s most popular locations: From Westminster to Borough Market, from Soho to Camden Town.
▴ Borough Market by Henry Rose (1851)
Arguably, some places aren’t as vibrant without the crowds. Pall Mall, empty at night, can be a scary sight where Buckingham Palace looks more like a haunted place than an inviting royal home. Interestingly, this vibe is the opposite during day-time events such as the London marathon, when Buckingham Palace’s sight is associated with the exhilaration of the finish line.
▴ Buckingham Palace’s east façade by Aston Webb (1913)
One can argue that tourists in London are everywhere. Airbnb apartments abound not only in Oxford Circus or London Bridge, but also Clapham, Shoreditch and Camden. The tourists who stay in these areas drink the local coffee, enliven the streets and help the nearby businesses pay their rent. In fact, can we actually be sure of being able to distinguish between a tourist and a neighbour? Sometimes it’s not so clear.
▴ Camden Lock, a former industrial area now popular with tourists
Each time one of the shops that distribute my book runs out of copies, I’ll take the opportunity to do the delivery myself. For some glorious reason, I never get tired of visiting the National Theatre, Soho or Oxford Street. The architectural significance of these places is well-known by architects and planners alike. However, for those who have no interest in Brutalism or city planning, these places are equally breathtaking, dramatic and exciting. Nobody needs a degree to understand and enjoy the lively dynamics of these areas. Every time I walk down Waterloo and admire the concrete colossus from the distance, I do so both as a designer and as a citizen. Am I perceived as a tourist when I sit on the bench just opposite to sketch this building once more?
▴ The National Theatre by Denys Lasdun (1976)
Between St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower of London, is the City of London. This oddity of a city within a city, founded by the Romans has more history than Westminster itself. Up to today, it holds its own laws, mayor and police and it’s unquestionably an area of power. The Queen still has to ask for permission to enter. Though thriving financially, nobody lives there any more and it’s deserted on the weekends. If it weren’t for Monument and the much-hated Walkie Talkie, no one would set a foot in the City on a Saturday morning.
▴ St Paul’s Cathedral by Christopher Wren (1711)
My life drawing sessions have taken me out and about in the City. For religious architecture, I always come here. It is a place with a surprising amount of Christopher Wren churches and his life masterpiece: St Paul’s, which he began when he was 34 and finished by the time he was 78. London’s contemporary cluster, also lodged in the City, holds a remarkable number of buildings by Foster + Partners: Bloomberg (2017), The Walbrook Building (2010), Willis Headquarters (2008), The Gherkin (2003) and Moor House (2005). I enjoy strolling around his built world and can’t help to wonder: Does he feel like walking in his personal Legoland around this area?
▴ 30 St Mary Axe by Foster + Partners, affectionally known as The Gherkin
For greenery and perspective, I visit Primrose Hill.
One of the earlier places I visited while doing the research of my book was Columbia Flower Market – quiet during the week and crazy busy on Sundays. One thing I observed was that despite its location (off the beaten track), there were many tourists. Columbia Flower Market began in this former slummy part of Bethnal Green in the early 19th century, an area not far away from the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Columbia Flower Market was, in fact, a handsome structure built in 1869 by philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Her intention was to beautify the area and get people off the streets. Later, upset with the ungrateful locals, the baroness complained in her writings that nobody used the building. Ironically, the merchants preferred to conduct their business in the open air. The market became derelict and was demolished in 1958. The authenticity of the Columbia Flower Market might be one of the factors of its success with both locals and visitors.
▴ Columbia Flower Market takes place every Sunday and it’s popular with locals and tourists alike
Though life after research goes back to normal, I still take delight in pausing and admiring whatever crosses my path. The buzz and activity of Borough Market and its 1851 entrance that once belonged to the Royal Opera House. Or the perfect mixture of people around More London during the Wimbledon season, where the games are streamed in a temporary but huge screen at the Scoop and the excitement is palpable in the atmosphere.
I often detour my journey to stop by Tower Bridge and observe the crowds in front of the Tower of London – not a single sad face in this area. Unsurprisingly, what all these happy places have in common is actually the crowds. They came with thorough urban renewal, thoughtful redesign and the opening up of public spaces.
▴ London City Hall and The Scoop at More London
London means different things to different people. We all interpret reality in different and enriching ways and buildings and places can represent opposite views.
Further to the west, adjacent to Buckingham Palace, we find Green Park, one of London’s busiest parks. A tale about King Charles II explains its name. Apparently, the Queen discovered her husband picking up flowers for another woman and she ordered that every single flower should be cut. Truth is that no formal flower beds can be found in Green Park, but that doesn’t seem to bother the crowds who lie down on the grass to enjoy the shade on a hot summer afternoon. What bothers me personally, is the fact that St James Palace, just behind Green Park, was built on a former leprosy hospital. And Green Park was once its backyard cemetery. You’ll never find me on one of the iconic green and white deckchairs. Again, London has a funny way of meaning different things to different people.
▴ King’s Cross Station extension by John McAslan + Partners (2012)
Another place I’ve been frequenting recently, as it’s always changing, is Granary Square and the Coal Drops area. A former industrial complex servicing the nearby King’s Cross Station has been transformed into a cultural, commercial and residential destination. Coal Drops Yard, designed by Heatherwick Studio in 2014, was the tipping point of a successful transformation. With it, other buildings were restored in 2018, including the Gasholders by WilkinsonEyre and Jonathan Tuckey. Opinion about the conversion of these 1867 structures to 140 luxury apartments is still polarised, as you can imagine.
▴ Coal Drops Yard by Heatherwick Studio (2018)
However, not long ago, this area was a shabby backyard. Back then, only the boldest tourists would risk venturing this far, imagining they were near a plague pit of the 17th century. Now everybody roams the shops, speculates about flat prices and complains about the state of things. The contribution of such developments to the city economy is questionable since gentrification is a problem and the money for such projects comes from foreign and dodgy pockets.
▴ Millennium Bridge by Foster + Partners
Nevertheless, when we analyse these projects – not with a magnifying glass but from a bird’s eye point of view – we become aware that as a whole London is evolving, and for the better. Where once we found substations, we now find world-class museums. Where the riverfront was shut and polluted, it’s now an open space with trees. Where a derelict structure was infested with rats, we now find a refurbished residential block.
A sign of this progress is precisely the crowds. Tourists are a symbol of growth, success and popularity like no other.
▴ Trafalgar Square has been redesigned to favour pedestrians
Londinium, founded by the Romans, has seen the rise and fall of cultures, has embraced the world’s best foods and speaks all languages. Life in London has never been easy. It can be cruel at times, unaffordable to most and scornful to those who pretend to own it. But despite being an epicentre of plagues, misery and other disgraces, London’s popularity has only increased and will continue to do so. Those who spend time in it – regardless of how long – will be inspired, energised and in most cases hungry for more. One thing is for sure – London and people go hand in hand. In the paradox of its existence, crowds will always be a curse and blessing but as long as there are crowds, London will thrive.
Virginia Duran is an architect and urban planner from Madrid, Spain. She is the author of ‘Architectour Guide London’ and the forthcoming book ‘Architectour Guide New York’. Additionally, she publishes free PDF guides on her blog. Her city guides have received 1 million downloads and have been featured in multiple architecture websites across the world.