London is not the only city where it is not very clear which Turning Point in her urban development is the most striking one. I have choosen the great fire of 1666 which was probably the most destructive event in any european city at the time.

At the end of the 16th century London had a population of around 200.000 and looked like this:

London 1578

The great fire began on 2nd September 1666 and raged for five days. Five sixth of the walled area of the city were destroyed.

London 1667, by John Leake, insert prospect
London 1667, by John Leake, Source:

Some saw an opportunity to transform London, to clear away the overcrowded warren of cobbled streets and narrow alleys that spread the fire and forge a greater, more elegant city from the ashes. One week after the final flames had gone out, King Charles II issued a proclamation promising “a much more beautiful city than is at this time consumed”.

Very soon a couple of architects submitted proposals for the reconstruction of the city and a series of masterplans were produced for London in the aftermath of the great fire,

The great architect Sir Christopher Wren imagined a reconstructed capital full of wide boulevards and grand civic spaces, a city that would rival Paris for Baroque magnificence. Others dreamed of a rational, navigable city – London nailed down to a precise, uniform grid.

Sir Christopher Wren’s plan of London as reproduced by Gwynn. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Writer John Evelyn’s plan for London. Illustration: RIBA

Writer John Evelyn’s design was very similar to Wren’s, if less detailed. Evelyn submitted his work for royal inspection two days after the great architect and followed large parts of Wren’s design. In both cases, a complete overhaul of the areas around Fleet Street and the Royal Exchange would have been required to accommodate huge, rond-point piazzas, and the area along the river Thames would have become one long, public quay.

None of the designs came to pass in the last decades of the 17th century. However, the post-fire plans offer fascinating glimpses of what might have been if London had been set free of its medieval street pattern.

Charles would not dare to implement Wren’s plan or any of the others. Property owners soon asserted their rights and began building again on plots along the lines of the previous medieval street pattern and the King had no intention to get involved in legal battles with London’s wealthy merchants and aldermen.

The king insisted only that the old roads be slightly widened and building standards improved. In 1667 the Rebuilding Act was passed to regulate the heights of new buildings (no more than four storeys) and the kinds of materials used (timber exteriors were banned, for obvious reasons).

As we can see from the map of 1746, the destroyed inner city was rebuild on the same street layout.

London City 1746 – Click to enlarge

But London’s expansion in the decades after the fire towards the west followed the ideas of Wren, Evelyn and colleagues: a rational, navigable city – oriented to a precise, uniform grid.

London 1746 – Click to enlarge
London 1746 with highlighted expansion areas in red – Click to enlarge

When King Henry VIII transferred vast amounts of land from the church, he opened up tracts in both the City and its environs to private development. While change did not take place immediately, within a century modern London could be seen expanding outward to the west of the City.

By the the end of the 17th century London had expanded to be a truly great city and within the West End was the evidence of London becoming an urban model for imposing an Enlightenment sense of order to the chaos of the medieval city.

Covent Garden was London’s first ‚planned‘ development that incorporated a piazza borrowed from Continental European cities and imposed a sense of order on an otherwise unplanned city. Covent Garden established the precedent followed through the next few centuries of a wealthy landowner constructing a square surrounded by a grid street pattern and marketing the development to a wealthy clientele. (John Hepp London as an urban model since 1666, 2015)

Therefore, the Turning Point in Urban Development of London orrured in two stages: at first in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666 as a concept for the destroyed city which did not immediately materialize and second thereafter by applying this very concept to the urban expansion into Covent Garden and the Westend in the following decades.