If you don’t like strangers, or creditors, turning up unannounced, you might consider a trip to Europe before 1750-or-so. Back then, Brian Ladd explains, people didn’t really go in for street signs, still less house numbers. You’d be described to outsiders as the chap who lived on, say, Featherhill Road, a little bit after the archway, not too far from the pub. Your local pals could find you in a jiffy, but the taxman would have to do a little detective work. Then everything started to became very orderly. Streets got straighter, urban planners (that execrated breed) were invented, and the chaotic blend of wheeling and dealing, socialising, and almost tripping over the pigs fell into decline. Bit by bit, everything moved inside into neatly labelled boxes. Sure, we vanquished the stink of sewage, but we lost a lot of drama and fun as well.
In his wonderful new book, Ladd asks how and why we made this journey. He adopts a thematic approach, focusing on the period between 1700 and 1900, and making case studies of Berlin, London, Paris, and Vienna. The book opens with a look at the street as workplace. It’s easy to forget how much urban commerce was once conducted in the open air. Dentists would yank out teeth, laundresses would get into a lather, and Paris’s Pont au Change would be aptly named: long ago, it was where money-changers set up their stalls, ever wary of a strong breeze blowing their notes of exchange into the Seine. Then, with the 19th century, the weather-resistant arcades arrived for the toffs and, before too long, we were all headed towards the soulless shopping mall.
Wouldn’t it be nice, instead, to hear a hawker shouting ‘get my fat chickens’ or ‘buy a steel or a tinder box’? Outdoor markets can still be rowdy, of course, but they are rapidly becoming cultural curiosities. And can someone please bring the theatrics back to Paris’s Boulevard du Temple where, in the 18th century, you couldn’t miss the ‘mechanical giants five or twelve feet tall, sea-monsters from the canal de l’Ourcq... dogs that play the trumpet and carp that leap like sheep’.
The changing cityscape was, of course, a serious business. As Ladd explains, it was often about prestige and power. Kings would widen streets just because they could. Extraordinary efforts were made to impose architectural uniformity – just try building a quirky house in one of Berlin’s new streets during the 18th century – and everyone knew that erecting the shiniest, street-facing palazzo was a sure-fire shortcut to social advancement in Florence. A little later, the powers that be were delighted to oversee rejigged cities in which the mob couldn’t set up revolutionary barricades every five minutes.
The clinching change, however, involved transport. Eighteenth-century carriage-fever, then the 1890s bicycle craze, and finally the automobile, sped up our streets. They became, first and foremost, a means of getting from A to B: ‘corridor streets’, as the architect Le Corbusier described them. Oases remained, even in large cities, but for the most part it became more about dodging pot holes than the leisurely, chat-filled passeggiata.
The old streets were also filthy, crime-ridden sinks of poverty and exploitation. Ladd avoids romanticising the past or damning the present, but he offers wise words on the tendency of architectural historians to forget about the people, and of social historians to leave out the buildings. He talks in terms of gradualism, not of epochal moments when changes in streets magically invented absolute monarchy or modernism. Happily, he also reminds us that some things stay the same. People don’t like it when the bigwigs try to alter their streets. Making hawkers or harmless odd-job men illegal on Victorian thoroughfares was regarded as absurd. What next, a scathing broadside asked: a man wouldn’t be allowed to say ‘shine your boots, sir, without being duly licensed by Act of Parliament’. It’s all about the ethos and, hurrah, today’s street-making mavens show some signs of dusting off the positive aspects of the past.