We all know what pedestrian overpasses are like. We know the crack addict in a blanket at the end; the abandoned idiot child who like a crab scuttled horribly after me, poor wretch, with his begging bowl on an overpass in Beijing; we know the malevolent winds, the newsprint that wraps itself round your ankle, the smell.
Le Corbusier's programme, supposedly philanthropic, utopian, was not of course based on any democratic or consultative process. The people were not asked what they want. He wrote: "It is the…correct, realistic, exact plan…..this plan has been drawn up well away from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society's victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds"
These visions of perfection are usually set in the future; but we also nurse them about cities in the past; we could call this the Completion Fallacy. How appealing, we might think, by contrast was the London of Canaletto or one hundred years later of Dickens; complete and of a piece. But if we look at Canaletto's Whitehall and the Privy Garden looking North, and look again more carefully we see something quite surprising; one half of this painting is given over to a scrubby and unlandscaped garden, a muddy and untidily maintained Whitehall, scaffolding and hoarding and evidence of demolition where new buildings are going up between Whitehall and King street. In short we are looking at a rather less well-known work by Canaletto: The Whitehall Road Widening Scheme.
Again, Dicken's London; that dark, essentially static city, immobilised by its great and long established institutions? But what is this? In Dombey and Son:
"The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre…Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground;…In short, the yet unfinished Railroad was in progress…"
Topographers, whatever their desire for accuracy, tended to avoid the evidence of change. They would rather replace signs of flux with 'how it is going to be.' In the Ogilby map and panorama of London of 1682 St. Paul's is depicted as finished in a style quite different to its eventual appearance. Perac, in 1577, on the other hand, was quite content to show St. Peters in Rome almost complete but oddly lacking its cupola.