Onwards and upwards


Detail of Post Office Tower

Traditionally, English architecture has been obsessed with the horizontal, not the vertical. English Medieval cathedrals spread out rather than up, their great length unparalleled in Europe. Georgian terraces relied on unbroken horizontal lines for effect, and the Victorians, with their commuter trains, spread their cities out into the low-rise suburbs.

After the Second World War, however, British architects finally had the chance to experiment with the vertical. The long-established low skylines of British city-centres were challenged by high-rise offices. Miserable inner cities were broken up by tower-blocks of council flats. Some were well designed; most were not. Usually poorly maintained, they soon became unpopular.    

Of all British cities, London has witnessed some of the best, and worst, high-rise development. The bombing of the Blitz offered new opportunities. In the City of London, Europe’s financial capital, rents were sky high, and so, increasingly, were the buildings. However, many complained: London’s panorama, centred on St Paul’s, would soon be destroyed forever. Yet, after a decade or so of unpopularity, height is firmly back in fashion. Now many ambitious schemes have been or are being built: Canary Wharf’s claim as Britain’s tallest building may soon be lost.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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