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London City Hall on the bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge | ©  Francisco Conde Sánchez/WikiCommons
London City Hall on the bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge | © Francisco Conde Sánchez/WikiCommons
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London's Architecture: A Mix Of Old And New

Picture of Julianne Cordray
Updated: 14 December 2016
London is a city that continually transforms itself by building on its past. It is an eclectic mix of old and new, traditional and modern, past and present in unexpected ways. Whether in the combination of varied neighbouring buildings or within a building itself, the foundation of London’s past works as a perfect frame for its present.
London City Hall on the bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge | © Francisco Conde Sánchez/WikiCommons
London City Hall on the bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge | © Francisco Conde Sánchez/WikiCommons

Historic icons amongst modern landmarks

This juxtaposition – the collage-like effect of such disparate elements as material, structure, and style – is vividly captured in the image of the iconic Tower Bridge and its immediate surroundings. Moving alongside, on, or around the London icon induces an odd sensation of displacement in time and space. Simultaneity of visual experience is made manifest by the city’s hybrid character, which comprises a view of both historic and modern London. The elaborate ornamentation and symmetry of Tower Bridge – the swoop of the cable from its tower down to the deck – is complimented by and contrasted with the obverse curve of the geometric asymmetry of City Hall. It is a destabilising effect, made further so by the abundance of reflections produced in the glass and steel facade of the building, and those of surrounding buildings. Images of the old are mirrored within the fragmentary surface of the new – as though a view of the past through a kaleidoscope.

Camden Town Market, London | © Blanca Garcia Gil/WikiCommons
Camden Town Market, London | © Blanca Garcia Gil/WikiCommons

Re-envisioning the past through the lens of the present

London’s history is reflected in its present through architecture in other contexts as well. The maintenance and reuse of old buildings to suit new purposes can be witnessed throughout the city. The old Camden Stables now feature as part of the popular vintage shopping destination in Camden Market, where the Horse Hospital – which once cared for horses that pulled canal barges – is the site of the club, Proud Camden, with original stables available for private events. Another Grade II listed building, Chiltern Firehouse, a Gothic building from late 19th century and one of London’s first fire stations, reemerged as a fashionable hotel and restaurant in 2013.

The Clink Hostel Court Room | © Michael Nordmeyer/Flickr
The Clink Hostel Court Room | © Michael Nordmeyer/Flickr

Closed cells repurposed for an open-ended stay

The extent to which such historic sites retain traces of their past and original use varies, initiating different types and degrees of dialogue between past and present. At times it is subverted: as in the use of cells in The Old Police Station, an Edwardian construction currently housing studios and social spaces for art installations and experimental projects. At other times it is employed thematically, as in Clink Hostel. The hostel is housed in a former courthouse, which, from its name to its interior decor, plays on its old use and incorporates original features. Travellers are given the opportunity to spend a night in an old cell and to access the original courtroom converted into an internet lounge.

Listed buildings: preserving London’s past from the inside out

Listed buildings are preserved for their historic and architectural interest. The Horse Hospital retains the interior features of industrial stables and forms a key component of the historic Camden Goods Depot. The specific mode of reuse employed in the Camden Stables and Horse Hospital – as a market for vintage, retro and antique goods, and as a music venue with its own unique history – builds on its architectural past with added reference to another past. A connection to its history is maintained, while embracing the stylish and trendy of the present.

Elements of new and old are integrated and at times not entirely separable. History is acknowledged through its architecture, which simultaneously serves to reframe the contemporary. As one review of the Chiltern Firehouse pointed out, the original surfaces and features that are retained in the building’s interior intermingle with the addition of mirrors placed to give the illusion of infinite space. This infinity, in reference to space and time, resists a single, clearly-defined position by expanding the structural framework visually. Expanded, even as it is held securely in place, it is an inward-looking view; one directed toward the past, reflected in the surfaces of the present.