Think you know London? This book will open your eyes

Sunlight reflects off the half-constructed Shard, as seen from south London in 2010
Sunlight reflects off the half-constructed Shard, as seen from south London in 2010 - PA

Good architectural history goes beyond names, and styles, and periods, and learned disquisitions on the provenance of decorative details. Architecture, the most ubiquitous of all the arts, is an expression of patterns of human behaviour: to study it well is to explore the relationship between society and its buildings.

Paul Knox’s London: A History of 300 Years in 25 Buildings is a work of good architectural history. Knox sets out his stall from the beginning, describing the built environment as “economic and social history in material form”, something that is, he rightly claims, broader and richer than “the usual compass of solipsistic academic disciplines”. It is from this multi-disciplinary perspective that he steers a course through three centuries of London architecture, and he does it well.

That isn’t to say that the book is without its idiosyncrasies. In spite of the subtitle, London involves rather more than 25 buildings. Three of those “buildings”, for example, are Bedford Square, the Shaftesbury Park estate in Battersea and the acres of suburban semis of 1930s Amersham, memorably characterised by Osbert Lancaster as “Bypass Variegated”. And Knox leaps right in with the Georgians, thus vaulting over the capital’s more obvious heavy hitters, such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s and Inigo Jones’s Banqueting Hall.

He still manages to cover an awful lot of ground, though, starting with Spencer House in Westminster, designed in 1756 for the future 1st Earl Spencer by William Kent’s protégé John Vardy. But if, after this grand opening, you’re expecting a guide to London’s pomp and palaces, you’re in for a disappointment. A survey of London architecture that includes a warehouse on West India Quay and its role in the Atlantic slave economy, or Bryant and May’s Fairfield Works in Bow, scene of the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, is not a conventional architectural tour. Knox uses his essays to explore social change as exemplified in his choice of buildings. And he does have an agenda: he looks back wistfully to the great days of the London County Council and its successor, the GLC, a time when London had a city-wide planning strategy. He likes planners.

This all makes the book sound rather earnest, but it isn’t. On the contrary, it entertains, informs and educates in equal measure. For one thing, there are plenty of juicy titbits to lighten the tone. The need for a new building to house the Foreign Office, for example – something that had been mooted for decades – was underscored in 1852 when the foreign secretary’s ceiling fell in just after he’d left his desk. Bedford Square, meanwhile, went to great lengths in the 19th century to keep out hoi polloi. Shopkeepers were informed that they would lose the square’s business if they sent their boy to make a delivery. A shopkeeper would only be admitted “if he came himself, lest the tone of the neighbourhood should in any way be lowered”. And, keen to innovate at his eponymous department store, Charles Harrod introduced an early version of an escalator in the 1880s: a conveyor belt, with an attendant waiting with brandy and smelling salts to come to the aid of shoppers who were overcome by the experience.

Harrod's at night; Charles Harrod installed a conveyor belt there in the 1880s
Harrod's at night; Charles Harrod installed a conveyor belt there in the 1880s - Getty

London is split into seven nicely illustrated sections, with a strong emphasis on the Victorians and the 20th century. Knox’s final choice, in a section that includes monuments to architectural hubris such as the 50-storey One Canada Square in Docklands – Europe’s tallest building until it was overtaken by the Shard – is the “landscraper” known as Platform G, King’s Cross. This leviathan of a building, designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, is only 11 storeys high but well over 1,000 feet long; it will be Google’s new British HQ, and house a gym, a multi-lane swimming pool, an indoor basketball court and, on the roof, a running track set amid a series of different garden settings.

“Readers will surely think of their own candidates,” says Knox. And, inevitably, one mutters about the omissions. Where is Somerset House? Holy Trinity Sloane Square? Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool? But that’s half the fun, and besides, Knox’s selection is both unexpected and challenging. From Lambeth Workhouse and the Rochelle Street School in Bethnal Green to Centre Point and the Abbey Road Studios, he offers an alternative view of the capital, one that encompasses social purpose and consumerism, gentility and a gentle gentrification.

The litmus test for a book of this sort is: does the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts? It does. The London that emerges from these pages is flawed, arrogant, guilty – and also vibrant, exciting, in a constant state of flux. Unlike Samuel Johnson, I’ve always thought that if one isn’t tired of London, one must be tired of life. Knox has made me think again.

London: A History of 300 Years in 25 Buildings is published by Yale University Press at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books