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May 12, 2011 / Leo Hollis

New Review – from London Historian Blog

This new book by Leo Hollis, The Stones of London: a history in twelve buildings, is a fresh approach to examining aspects of London’s citiscape and architecture. It shines a fresh light on topics both familiar and unfamiliar. It is by-and-large unjudgemental about the buildings themselves and the men responsible for creating them, rather concentrating on their history. By understanding their history, we can appreciate them better and draw our own conclusions.

Like its subjects, the book is constructed on firm foundations and a solid framework: that of its 12 chapters. These include old friends like Westminster Abbey; and still controversial buildings such as the “Gherkin”.  Each chapter addresses its title subject, but in fact this takes up a fraction of the space. The buildings in question are used as a launch pad to much wider – and in some cases more interesting – associated topics. The chapter on Keeling House teaches us all about how Modernist and so-called “New Brutalist” architecture affected London in the mid to late 20th Century and who were the protagonists: men such as Lubetkin and Lasdun (new to me, but very pleased to be educated). The chapter on Wembley Stadium informs the reader about the rise of suburbia and Metro-land. Yes, 30 St Mary’s Axe gives us the story of the “Gherkin”, but it is mainly about the digital revolution and how that continues to transform the 21C citiscape; and so on.

Another benefit of the format is that you can, as I did, read the chapters in any order you please unless you have a big thing about chronology; each stands as an essay in its own right. The final chapter I read was Regent Street. Of course, the creation of Regent Street, to connect Regents Park in the north with Pall Mall in the south, is comprehensively covered. But what the chapter is really about is the life and work of John Nash, and how he fundamentally transformed what we now call the West End. And what an absorbing story it is. Most lovers of London know a bit about Nash. But to really understand his work, it helps enormously if you understand the man. Unschooled by comparison with some of our great architects, he was driven as much by what he thought could turn a buck as he was concerned about aesthetics, but it didn’t really matter because the results worked out just fine. For us, in any case, if not always for Nash himself at the time.

Other chapters I particularly enjoyed were 19 Princelet Street, which comprehensively covers the story of the Huguenot enclave of silk craftsmen in Spitalfields and which also explains the rise of terraced housing; and the Victorian Embankment which addresses the topic of disease and public health in early-modern London and how one man, the great Joseph Bazalgette, contributed to eradication through his engineering genius.

This book is a most enjoyable read; Leo Hollis is a “writerly” author, by which I mean simultaneously erudite yet unfussy. Like most Londoners themselves, he is unsentimental and pragmatic about our architecture, so for good or for bad, all the buildings and the players get a fair hearing.

The book has a very good index and is illustrated by an eight page colour section in the middle and occasional mono photos and maps within the text.

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