Kingsway and Aldwych

At the beginning of the 20th century a new imperial avenue was being carved from the ancient streets of London.

Kingsway at Holborn Station, London

We are often told Paris and London are very different.  Time Out  published infographics comparing the two cities in terms of food, drink, attractions and history. Of course, there’s also the architecture; the influence of Baron Haussmann on the physical fabric of Paris has led to the one of the more obvious differences. In what was described as the “Haussmannization of London” in the journal Planning Perspectives (1), the London County Council at the start of the 20th century embarked on an ambitious urban improvement project to build new streets, straight through slums and alleyways such as Wych Street, in the London district of Holborn. This project led to the creation of  Kingsway and Aldwych .

Innovation

...the street was officially opened by King Edward VII in 1905.

In 31 October 1913,  Building News  (2) reported on the completion of a new building, Imperial House, on Kingsway. It was completed after the street was officially opened by King Edward VII in 1905. On its own Imperial House was not special, indeed its architect Trehearn and Norman designed many more on Kingsway – in 1913 alone their Regent and Windsor Houses were completed – but together with others it formed part of an idea that London could be improved through large-scale planning and architectural harmony through the shared style, height and materials of its buildings. The specifications for Imperial House showed the advances made in construction and building services in the Edwardian period: electric lifts, steel framework, stone cladding and hot water on demand and for heating. Visually Kingsway stood out as one of London’s few boulevards and technologically as having the only underground tunnel in Britain for trams.

Haussmannization of London

International influence

More buildings were to follow until the 1930s when the last plots were built upon. The influence of the Beaux-Arts style and the architecture of the United States could be felt in several prominent buildings. Kingsway terminates in the south at Aldwych in front of the grand façade of Bush House, designed by American architect Harvey Wiley Corbett as the offices and showrooms for American firms. Bush House was built in several phases. The central block, which features a large Neo-Classical portico, was completed first in 1923 and other wings followed until the last in 1935. It was then occupied by the BBC until 2012. Other important buildings, occupied by the representatives of the British Empire, were built nearby. At both ends of Aldwych, where it meets the Strand, are buildings which today continue to house the high commissions of Australia and India in Britain, completed in 1918 and 1927 respectively.

Criticisms

Kodak Building, Kingsway, London, 1910s

Kodak Building, Kingsway, London, 1910s
Architects: Sir John Burnet & Partners
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Despite the progress on creating a wide thoroughfare graced with grand edifices, an article critical of the Kingway-Aldwych scheme appeared in the  Observer  newspaper in August 1913, which was to provoke agreement in both the Architects and Builders Journal  (3) and the Builder  (4).  The Builder ’s responses came in an article titled “The Lost Opportunities of Kingsway”, whilst the Architects' and Builders' Journal said: “throughout there is a painful disregard of scale, as though each building had been designed without reference to its neighbours”. Many of the these  buildings were Classical and Renaissance in character, but it was Sir John Burnet & Partners’ Kodak building (now Grade II listed), with its modern, clean lines and use of glass, which was to gain more approval.

An unbuilt legacy

Unlike with Paris, this Haussmann-style scheme wasn’t repeated in London and the city would retain much of its unplanned character until after the World War II. Kingsway and Aldwych sit alongside projects such as Regent Street and St Paul’s Cathedral as past efforts by some of our greatest architects and planners to impose order on our capital.

Old houses in Wych Street in 1876 (left) and Morning Post Building, now One Aldwych, under construction in 1906. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection Australia House (right) and India House (left), Aldwych, London. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection / RIBA Drawings and Archives Collections Kingsway at Holborn Station, London, in the 1930s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

References (available from the British Architectural Library, RIBA):

  1. Planning perspectives,    “The ‘Haussmannization’ of London?: the planning and construction of Kingsway-Aldwych, 1889-1935”, April 1996, vol. 11, pp. 115-144
  2. Building News  , “Imperial House, Kingsway”, 31 October 1913, vol.105, pp.609-10
  3. Architects’ and Builders’ Journal  , “A criticism of Kingsway and Aldwych”, 27 August 1913, vol.38, pp.209-10
  4. Builder  , “The Lost Opportunities of Kingsway”, 5 September 1913, vol.105, p.239
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