Engineering 90 (December 23, 1910):863-64

In an unsigned article two months earlier this British journal mildly reproved the country's architects for what the author regarded as impractical and superficial approaches to planning. The present essay went much further in commenting on suggestions by architects to modify substantially major engineering proposals for improving traffic movement in London. The author directly attacked the competence of architects as planners and even rejecting the possibility of fruitful cooperative efforts between the two professions in this area. The following scornful passage is typical of the hardening of positions that had developed: "It has often been suggested that architects and engineers should be associated together in the execution of public works, and much may undoubtedly be urged in favour of such a course..... [H]owever...the difficulty still exists of persuading the architect that the bread-and-butter of utility must have precedence over the meringues of art... So long as such views are maintained useful co-ordination in public works between engineer and the architect is impossible."
Architects and engineers, perhaps, inevitably regard the subject of town-planning and of city improvements from opposite standpoints. The engineer considers a new roadway as essentially a fresh artery for traffic, whilst to all appearance the average architect is more concerned in providing the citizen with a picturesque perspective than with lessening the labour by which he earns his daily bread. An ancient bridge, humped like a camel, excites strong, but quite dissimilar, emotions both in the architect and the engineer. To the latter it appeals mainly as an example of how greatly dead and gone constructors were handicapped by their indifferent knowledge of mechanical principles, and by the limited choice they possessed of tools and materials. His soul is saddened by realising the incessant waste of energy required to haul a load up to the crown of such a bridge, merely to lower it again to its original level on the opposite side of the river, and he has little sympathy for such so-called artistic considerations as in practice simply spell obstruction to traffic. Art which demands such sacrifices of essential principles of mechanics and economics must, he feels, be based on inherently unsound foundations; and, indeed, when the problem is considered as a whole, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for an aesthetic sensibility which would not rather see draught animals hauling their loads over even the plainest of level girder-bridges than struggling and panting with them up the heavy inclines adopted by our forefathers, and still considered so picturesque by the traditional school in architecture.

The proposal of the City Corporation to construct a new bridge across the Thames near St. Paul's has demonstrated once more the inability of some architects, with their artistic temperament, to attach due weight to practical business considerations. It is the fashion to sneer at the latter, but Art and Letters would both fare badly did not successful Commerce leave, after the necessities of life are satisfied, a substantial margin for the support of its somewhat affected and braggart sisters. No sooner had the Bridge Estates Committee published particulars of the plans for its new bridge and approaches, the line recommended for which had only been adopted after most careful and thorough investigation by such extremely competent authorities as Mr. Basil Mott and Sir Alexander R. Stenning, than a committee of the Royal Institute of British Architects were, on the instant, ready to offer an alternative scheme, in which the sole points considered were the provision of a good view of St. Paul's and an opportunity for the expenditure of many hundred thousand of pounds in rebuilding along the line of route. Apart from the additional expenditure which would thus be thrust on private parties, the cost of the work to the Corporation would, it turned out, be increased, on the alternative offered, by no less than one million sterling. The route, as suggested, would debouch right on to the southern transept of St. Paul's, so that all north and south bound traffic would have to work its way round the Cathedral, whilst in the original scheme it was afforded a nearly straight lead, past the eastern side of Wren's building, from Great Guildford-street on the south to Goswell-road on the north The new roadway, as proposed by Mr. Mott. will be 80 ft. wide from its commencement in Southwark Bridge-road up to its termination in Cannon-street, and the widening of St. Paul's Churchyard from the latter point to St. Martin's-le-Grand could be effected, should the London County Council consent, at no inordinate expenditure since the buildings to be removed here are not of a specially costly character.

In fact, in laying out the scheme the engineer has had in view the facilitating to the utmost the transport of the average citizen between the north and south sides of the Metropolis, whilst the architects are apparently more concerned to meet the desires of the country cousin and sightseer generally. These form, no doubt, a numerous and important class of the community, but altruistic feelings have not yet been developed to such an extent as to render the Londoner ready to face for the benefit of strangers an initial expenditure of one million sterling, to which must be added the steady loss of time, day in and day out, which would arise from the lesser convenience of the architects' suggestions. On this point the testimony of the police has been to the effect that the control of the traffic would be much more easily provided for on the original scheme.

The subject of town-planning has, indeed, been very much in the air of late, and the Royal Institute of British Architects has not been the only representative of the architectural profession to suggest an alternative to the Corporation's scheme. At a meeting of the Society of Architects, held on December 15 last, Mr. G. A. T. Middleton revived a yet more fantastic proposal. His suggestion is briefly that the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway Company should abandon its present river-crossings and construct a new terminus on the south side of the river at Nelson-square, off the Blackfriars-road. The existing viaducts and the stations on the north side of the river at Cannon-street, Charing Cross, St. Paul's, Ludgate-hill, and Holborn would be turned over to the architect for embellishment, with fine buildings, and thus three new roadways across the Thames would be opened to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. It is very easy to see the advantage of the architect were such a proposal definitely adopted. Indeed, no such opportunity for the exercise of his art has occurred since the destruction wrought by the Great Fire nearly 2 1/2 centuries ago. There would be fine squares, with surrounding buildings, at the present station sites, and the broad viaduct constituting the roadway would, it is hoped, prove as popular to builders as Holborn Viaduct has done. How far the scheme would afford any very substantial relief to existing cross-river traffic is, however, highly problematical. At the present time 110,000 pedestrians and 22,000 vehicles cross London Bridge daily, while the traffic over the Tower Bridge is 12,000 vehicles and 50,000 foot passengers. In the case of London Bridge many of the vehicles are omnibuses, so that perhaps the total passenger traffic may be double the number of pedestrians, or 220,000 in all. In the case of the Tower Bridge, the number of omnibus and cab passengers will probably not very greatly augment the total passenger traffic, which, in round numbers, over the two bridges, is probably under 280,000 per day. Now the three railway bridges which it is proposed to abolish carry across the river 200,000 passengers per day. As in Mr. Middleton's scheme these would still have to find their way across the river, each of the three bridges would by this traffic alone be crowded to fully the same extent as is the Tower Bridge.

The direct cost of the scheme would be very great. The sites to be acquired are very valuable and could be purchased only at a very high price. Even if the railway company got its own valuation for them, it is far from likely that the transaction would be profitable to it. The establishment of a new terminus at Nelson-square would be exceedingly costly, as the viaduct from the existing lines east of London Bridge Station would have to carry at least four tracks, and perhaps six. Further, season-ticket holders would certainly demand a reduction of at least a couple of pounds per annum in the rates they now pay as an offset against the omnibus and tram fares which would then become a necessity. Moreover, Mr. Middleton's scheme fails to take account of the fact that time is often as important as money. Possibly passengers to Charing Cross might not be much affected in this regard, as the double crossing of the river at Cannon-street is the source of much delay, but the enormous daily influx of City men into the latter station would be greatly inconvenienced by having to spend perhaps an additional half hour daily en route to and from their place of business. It should further be noted that, in addition to passenger traffic, there is now also a heavy goods and coal traffic over the railway bridge at St. Paul's. This would have to find its way south of the river by some more devious route, to the enhancement of freight, which would ultimately fall on the consumer.

Indeed, the proposal seems to embody in concrete form every objection that engineers are inclined to urge against architects' schemes for town improvements.

The whole scheme, in short, is simply of a character to appeal to those with grandiose ideas as to the insignificance of time and money, and the all importance of art.

It has often been suggested that architects and engineers should be associated together in the execution of public works, and much may undoubtedly be urged in favour of such a course. The advance of such schemes as are criticised above seems to show, however, that the difficulty still exists of persuading the architect that the bread-and-butter of utility must have precedence over the meringues of art. This obstacle to such an association of the two professions was made very evident at a joint discussion on town-planning, which took place recently between the members of an engineering and of an architectural society. The members of the latter boldly claimed that in town-planning the predominant position belonged to them, and that, at whatever cost, the engineer must construct his roadways, bridges, and sewers in subordination to what they chose to consider the aesthetics of the problem. So long as such views are maintained useful co-ordination in public works between the engineer and the architect is impossible.

Painters tell us that a knowledge of anatomy is indispensable to good portraiture. The skeleton is not in itself a thing of beauty--save, perhaps, from the utilitarian standpoint--but is the all-essential basis of whatever comeliness may exist outside it. In the execution of public works the engineer's part is to provide this fundamental skeleton, leaving to the architect the work of clothing it with a more or less prepossessing exterior. A defective skeleton is undoubtedly a much more serious matter than an external blemish, however unsightly. Nature, in framing the skeleton, has apparently been guided entirely by utilitarian considerations, and the precedent may well be adopted by those concerned in the planning of towns. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: