Creation from Catastrophe

Art Free
4 out of 5 stars
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

In 1666, the Great Fire of London wiped out five sixths of the medieval city. From the ashes, a new kind of capital had to be built. This free exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects examines the curious tabula rasa paradox: that with destruction comes the opportunity for innovation and improvement.

Christopher Wren’s sweeping plans for a new London of piazzas and concentric boulevards (largely quashed by budgetary issues and landowner squabbles) are fascinating, but not nearly as much as the proposals that were rejected outright. Richard Newcourt envisioned a London made of a vast grid system, each block centred by a churchyard: a kind of anachronistic modernist utopia. When Valentine Knight suggested a canal whose toll would finance the project, Charles II – aghast at the idea of profiting from his people’s suffering – had him arrested.

And this is just our city: there are nine other case studies on display in this show. Eager to outdo Wren’s half-measures in London, the Marquis of Pombal’s grandiose visions for post-earthquake Lisbon in the eighteenth century are shaped by an element of one-upmanship. The dazzling illustrations that Daniel Burnham commissioned after Chicago’s 1871 fire essentially hail the era of the skyscraper. But perhaps most affecting of all is the case of Chile’s Constitución, devasted by a tsunami in 2010. The radical architectural group Elemental’s idea of planting a strip of forestland to act as a buffer between the town and the Pacific was approved – but only after many townspeople willingly sacrificed their homes in the clearance process. This may be a show of plans and models but behind the schemes, countless human stories are being told. 

By: Matt Breen


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