My primary research project focuses on the modern city as a cultural and material phenomenon – specifically London in the early 19th century. Much of the London that still exists today is in fact ‘Romantic’ in the sense that many areas, buildings or monuments find their origin in the early 1800s – these include Regent’s Park and Regent Street; Hyde Park Corner & the Arch on Constitution Hill; Trafalgar Square; the National Gallery; Bloomsbury; the (new) British Museum; and the Royal Opera House. ‘Construction’ enjoyed the spotlight on the stage in the Romantic era. When the German prince, Hermann Puckler-Muskau, visited England for the second time in 1826, he remarked on England’s ‘universal rage for building’, which saw the acceleration of urban development and the advancement of architecture as a trade and profession.
But expansion was not always looked upon favourably. The disappearance of green spaces was one obvious consequence of urban sprawl. George Cruikshank’s popular 1829 print, ‘London Going Out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ (see above) is a well-known critique of the urban developments that were encroaching upon the countryside surrounding London. The print shows an army of robotic bricklayers that have chimney pots for heads and picks and shovels for limbs, advancing towards rural Hampstead, building rows of grim factory-like houses on the way, and forcing trees and haystacks to flee for their lives. One tree cries out ‘Ah, I am mortarly wounded!’ Flying rocks and invasive black smoke also threaten the survival of the rural landscape. Urban sprawl meant not only that green spaces were gradually eroded but that familiar places would be irrevocably changed by these developments. The place that was once familiar is no more; as Baudelaire writes of Paris, ‘Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, helas! que le coeur d’un mortel)’.
Of course, this kind of critique of urban sprawl and nostalgia for the countryside is not new. London remains relatively green, in spite of Cruikshank’s critique/ warning, and the urban developments of London have come to be loved by the people. However, other cities might not be able to say the same. Today’s problem of urbanization is no longer confined to large metropolitan regions such as London, and the army is no longer composed of bricks and mortar, but concrete and steel. Everywhere we see uniform houses being constructed along new roads, skyscrapers reaching ever newer heights, promoting a vision of prosperous, advanced modern world – a vision that is usually consumed voraciously. This is most evident in Asia – a subject for another post. But we must ask ourselves whether such developments, both in terms of the cityscape and social infrastructure, come at a great cost, something of which the Romantics knew only too well.