It will quite eclipse Napoleon.
The Prince Regent, commenting on Nash's plan for London in 1811
London has long been a city of two 'ends': the affluent, elegant West End and the gritty, industrious East End. To some extent, this divide came about naturally over time. But early town planning also had a part to play. In particular, the efforts of one man: the brilliant architect, John Nash.
Many of his building may now be gone, but Nash's imprint on London is indelible. He was responsible for transforming Marylebone Park (Henry VIII's old hunting ground) into Regent's Park, and laying out the elegant terraced housing that edges it. He created the long curve of Regent's St, topped and tailed by Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, and, in doing so, established one of Europe's most prestigious shopping areas. He remodelled Buckingham Palace and was the original designer of Trafalgar Square. His genius lies not just in the beauty of his buildings and the grandness of his vision but in the fact that he made it happen at all.
The idea of 'planning' London was nothing new in the Georgian period. After the Great Fire, Christopher Wren had tried, and failed, to impose order on the rebuilding of the capital. But he was thwarted by the jumble of shops and houses that soon sprang up again on the old medieval street plan. By the late Georgian period, London's architecture and layout were conspicuously failing to reflect the city's growing in importance on the world stage. It was increasingly crowded and smelly, with the rich of Mayfair rubbing shoulders with the poor and disreputable of Soho. There was a growing feeling that something had to be done.
The Prince Regent (later George IV) appointed three architects to plan what he called his 'improvements'. The most influential of these was his close friend, Nash, who had made his name in Wales building fine country houses in the 'picturesque' style for wealthy and influential clients.
This apprenticeship served him well in London. His skill at mixing styles, yet making everything sit effortlessly in its setting, suited London's eclectic nature. And his good connections proved invaluable in the shrewd property speculation that was needed to fund the Prince's 'improvements'.
But perhaps the most lasting legacy of Nash's work is the way his grand ceremonial route from St James's Park in the south to Regent's Park in the north cut a slice through London, separating the rich from the poor. This was no accident. Nash himself said he wanted to create a line 'between the streets and squares occupied by Nobility and Gentry' and 'the narrow Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community'.
His original plan was never fully completed. Some parts were built by other architects, adding their own stamp in the process. And even those parts he did complete have struggled to survive: on Regent's St, All Soul's Church is the only Nash original still standing. But his place as London's – if not England's – most influential town planner is impossible to deny.
Did you know?
John Nash's rebuilding of Buckingham Palace was a PR disaster, drawing criticism for its poor detailing and vast budget. Of his original design, only the west wing remains.