Today is the one hundred and sixth anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which “ranks as one of the most significant earthquakes of all time”. One of the iconic images of the city is this:
Taken in May 1906 by George R. Lawrence, the photograph is from a large celluloid-plate film camera, which itself was suspended from a train of kites stabilised by a set of booms- what Lawrence called a “captive airship”.
Lawrence sold prints of this photograph for $125- not less than $3000* in 2010 dollars. He made “at least $15,000” from this one photograph. If you want a closer look, the USGS has a zoomable, reduced-contrast version.
Unsurprisingly, as the centenary came around six years ago, there were attempts to reproduce the iconic shot; two, in fact. The Drachen Foundation, which works with kite photographers, enlisted Scott Haefner and the USGS to take a panorama, flown with a similar kite airship method to Lawrence’s image:
Another group, led by Ron Klein, used a replica camera of the same size and type, but mounted in a helicopter. (As the kite group notes, FAA regulations limit their altitude to 500 feet, while Lawrence’s original was taken from somewhere around 1000 feet, although some sources say it was even higher).
Unsurprisingly, a great deal has changed in the hundred years between the two- the sksyscrapers, the bridges, and Sutro Tower being obvious. On the other hand, while the harbour has changed, the feel of the Embarcadero is remarkably similar.
In any case, these are all fascinating, not just for the depiction of the city, but for the technology - both in terms of aviation and of cameras - involved.
* in purchasing power- more on comparing old currency values at Measuring Worth.
To make it easier for people to help find the four images I can’t identify from Eric Ulrich’s Thirty Five Images Of Space Helmet Reflections, I’ve posted the cut up images that I made to paste into visual search engines.
If you can identify any of them, please image reply, or mention either @blech or @paulmison on Twitter. I’d love to know what they were.
Update: it looks like #2 and #4 are from Battlestar Galactica, but I still don’t have an image link for either. Anyone?
First things first: for anyone who ends up here hoping for archeology, I’m not talking about the Roman wall, or the medieval one built almost entirely along the same path. No, I’m talking about the post-war development along the (new) road of the same name, just south of the Barbican.
The Blitz during the second world war hit Cripplegate hard, and there wasn’t much left beyond the street plan. As such, the area was a prime candidate for redevelopment, and the far south of the site was made into a dual carriageway, called Route 11 in the plans drawn up soon after the war, but named London Wall once it was constructed.
By 1960 the road was complete, and commercial development was stirring. As the excellent Post War Buildings site notes, as with the later Barbican development, the influence of modernists was strong:
The roadway ‘Route 11’was central to the expression of the ‘Martin-Mealand’ scheme as built. Six towers of identical proportion, sit at equal distance from one another at 45 degrees to the street on a raised pedestrian deck with lower slab blocks at right angles. It was a monumental scheme and owed much to Le Corbusier’s 1933 ‘La Ville Radieuse’ in its geometric vision. It was characterised by generous public spaces and the complete segregation of traffic and pedestrian flows of circulation.
Constructed between 1955 and 1977, the scheme - influenced by cities such as Stockholm, which already had podium-based towers and segregated walkways - must have been a real change from some of the heavy, masonry-based, soot-blackened buildings that surrounded it in the City.
When Michelangelo Antonioni wanted to show Thomas, the photographer played by David Hemmings, in modernist surroundings in the 1966 film Blowup, he had him drive eastbound down London Wall, with those new towers flanking either side of the road, and the pedestrian bridges clearly visible (along with a sign highlighting the newness of the dual carriageway). Within another ten years, the scheme would finally be complete, with the Museum of London sitting where the “car park” sign is in the photograph, and the last of the podium towers - Bastion Tower - rising above it. Another few years would see the completion of the Barbican, joined at the hip - well, high level walkways - to London Wall and hence the City south of it.
What should have been a plan and an area the city was proud of, though, turned sour. Unlike the Barbican to the north, which rapidly found a niche as a spot for city living, the London Wall towers were never quite loved the same way. Before they could age enough to get listed, the buildings - as has happened more recently to Mondial House, 20 Fenchurch Street, and Drapers Gardens - fell out of commercial favour. Built in an age before pervasive air conditioning and computing, they didn’t survive long when deregulation hit.
City Tower was refurbished (along with a recladding in blue glass) as early as 1986, but the biggest blow was in 1988, when demolition started on Lee House, the nearest of the towers in the image above. It was replaced by Alban Gate, a postmodern structure that retained the highwalks from the original scheme, but little else. In spanning the road, it blocked the sightlines that were one of the best features of the 1950s plan, and it also took up far more of the floor plan than the tower it replaced - another massive change between the earlier plans and the more commercially focussed post-1990 developments.
Within the last ten years, all but one of the original towers along the road itself have either been reclad, demolished, or are due to be replaced within years. The one holdout is Bastion Tower - now known simply as 140 London Wall - at the far eastern end, above the Museum.
As Post War Buildings notes when talking about the doomed St Alphage House,
The plans mimic the pattern of development elsewhere on London Wall, where cladding, reconstruction and decking over has been advancing for years. The emerging architectural arrangement has destroyed forever the architectural unity of the scheme and produced a series of graceless structures all competing for attention.
I’m sure the new buildings make a lot more financial sense than the old ones did, and that plenty of people are making money from them (the execrable Alban Gate was the second most valuable asset owned by Simon Halabi when his property empire collapsed). However, I very much regret never getting the chance to properly see the muted, but coherent, scheme as built. In a way, I see its casual destruction as more shocking than the loss of some of London’s Georgian and Victorian terraces. After all, there are plenty that remain, but London Wall was the only place of its kind in the city, and I mourn its passing.