As part of the process of a Guild Apprentice becoming a Guildman, each is required to write an essay on an aspect of the City of London or of the Guild which may be of interest to members. Below is that from Apprentice Stacy Snook.


The Square Mile: An Architectural History of the City of London

The City of London, specifically the small local authority residing in the centre of the larger metropolitan area of London, has a rich and tumultuous history ranging from the initial development by 1st century Romans to the present day. Even though the City is only a tiny part of London – it is roughly one square mile in area – it remains a notable and influential part of the metropolis in terms of finance and commerce. As a result of its long history, the City is not characterised by any particular architectural style, having accumulated and lost buildings over time.

Originally the site was little more than a trading post set alongside the River Thames until AD43 when the Romans established the small town of Londinium. Approximately two decades later Londinium was destroyed during the rebellion of Queen Boudica and her Iceni tribe, which offered the opportunity for the victorious Roman army to rebuild the city as a planned settlement- resulting in massive prosperity and growth. By the end of the century, the city was the largest in Roman controlled Britain.

Following the Roman Empire’s decline and collapse the city suffered, with trading moving to neighbouring cities, and the Roman-built buildings began to fall into disrepair and abandonment. A few of these buildings survive (albeit in rather ruined form) today: there exist elements of the London Wall (a defensive wall built around the town by the Romans), the London Mithraeum (the ruins of an underground temple to the god Mithras) and the remains of an amphitheatre beneath the Guildhall.

The city existed, in a rather abandoned state, for several more centuries until the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, specifically the Kingdoms of Essex, Mercia and Wessex, between whom it changed hands regularly. When Alfred the Great – a celebrated Wessexian King and first King of the Anglo-Saxons – took control of the city after recapturing it from the Viking invaders (who controlled a large region of Britain, mainly in the north-west), he rebuilt it, developing the Thames and redesigning the plans of the city.

There were several fires in the city during the medieval period, the most famous of which was the Great Fire of London in 1666. Believed to have started in the bakery of Thomas Farriner, it spread to encompass around eighty percent of the city in just two days. The original St. Paul’s Cathedral, a stone structure presumably safe from the fire, had been covered in scaffolding for restoration. This scaffolding caught fire, causing the lead of the roof to melt and the dry papers and bindings stored in the crypts below to be ignited, and ultimately the structure was destroyed in a spectacular fashion. This fire, as well as many others before it, is one of the reasons that a lot of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval architecture is not visible in the city, compared to others founded or developed during those periods; these disasters caused the city to be repeatedly demolished and rebuilt, each time using a more modern design.

After the Great Fire of 1666, a number of plans were proposed to remodel the City as a metropolis of grand squares with planned street blocks and wide boulevards, however these plans rarely came to fruition and the medieval street pattern re-emerged. Within days of the fire being extinguished, property owners began the rapid rebuilding and it soon became apparent that there was limited scope for reimagining the City.

St. Paul’s Cathedral – one of the most famous structures in London, if not Britain – was rebuilt after the fire by Christopher Wren, none other than the man who was leading the redevelopment of the original during the time of the fire. The structure was completed in 1708, however the cathedral was consecrated a few years earlier. While the modern public view the structure with much acclaim, the original opinion of local residents varied, with some adoring the new structure and others claiming it was too unfamiliar in design.

The new cathedral survived to the present day, unlike many other structures in the City. While there were no fires or natural disasters of any sort extensive enough to damage buildings, the breakout of World War Two, and in particular the Blitz that fell upon the city during the 1940s, resulted in massive damage. One instance of bombing that fell upon the night of the 29th of December resulted in so much destruction that it became known as the “Second Great Fire of London”; over a hundred thousand incendiaries were dropped upon the city and ignited vast swathes of the city, killing 160 civilians. Many buildings such as churches and Livery halls were destroyed during the Blitz, however St. Paul’s Cathedral, through the effort of firefighters and volunteers, was kept from setting ablaze.

Despite the loss of major landmarks through history, many famous structures still remain which draw tourism to the City and add to the varied architectural cityscape. These include St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, which has existed in some form or another since the 12th Century, the Bank of England, The Tower of London and the Old Bailey. The Tower of London, one of the castles built by William the Conqueror to keep control over the City’s residents, does not actually lie within the square mile area of the City, but a little to the south-east. The greatest survival of the City is the 15th-century Guildhall, which was damaged in the Great Fire and to an even greater extent in the Blitz; the medieval building now remains as an expression of the City’s rich history.

There have been numerous high-rise additions to the City in the modern era, received with a mix of public and critical acclaim and criticism. The current tallest tower is the Heron Tower, sitting 230 meters high, making it the third tallest tower in London. The second tallest is the 122 Leadenhall Building, a 50-story building (225 meters in height) nicknamed ‘The Cheese Grater’ due to its tapering on one side (one of the reasons behind this is to preserve views of St. Paul’s Cathedral, according to the architect behind it, Richard Rogers).

Some of the more irregular and eye-catching designs are buildings such as 30 St Mary Axe, or ‘The Gherkin’, named as such due to its irregular shape and appearance. This shape has led to the structure being easily recognizable and one of the most widely known of all structures in the City.

Another example is the recently constructed 20 Fenchurch Street, also known as the ‘Walkie-Talkie’. It received the Carbuncle Cup in 2015 (an award to the ugliest building constructed in the last year), and has resulted in numerous complaints and criticisms, for instance the angled glass windows focussed the light of the sun onto the street below, raising the temperatures at some locations up to 91 °C, melting bodywork on the cars below!

There are also numerous more skyscrapers being designed and constructed for the City today, mostly to replace older structures. An example of one of these buildings is the Scalpel, for once an official name of a structure rather than a nickname, which will replace numerous smaller buildings.

The City is under constant redevelopment and architectural change, especially due to the limited space within the boundary of the City. New structures are constantly being built to replace the older or less energy efficient buildings before them, while care is also being given by the City of London Corporation to ensure that older landmarks are maintained and not negatively affected by the new designs around them.



Michael Hall (2011). The City of London: Architectural Tradition & Innovation in the Square Mile. London: Thames & Hudson

Alec Forshaw (2013). New City: Contemporary Architecture in the City of London. London: Merrell Publishers Ltd

David Nash Ford. (2013). Roman London. Available: Last accessed 1st Sept. 2017.


David Ross. (2015). Roman London. Available: Last accessed 1st Sept. 2017.


Flora Roumpani and Polly Hudson. (2014). The evolution of London: the city’s near-2,000 year history mapped. Available: Last accessed 1st Sept. 2017.



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