Architecture was an early victim of air pollution – and an early protagonist in combating it

The Palace of Westminster, ground zero for Victorian air pollution. Image: Getty.

Impressionist painter Claude Monet was able to see beauty in the swirl of fog encompassing Britain’s Houses of Parliament at the end of the 19th century. Most people regarded it as a very unpleasant inconvenience. Today, Londoners recognise the sources of the city’s current air quality problems: diesel vehicle exhaust and natural gas combustion for heating and cooking. Back in the 19th century, a small group of architects and scientists was just beginning to recognize the fog Monet painted as a threat to people, buildings and the city itself.

Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the current Houses of Parliament were built between 1840 and 1870, after the medieval building was destroyed by fire. The reconstruction was the grandest architectural project of 19th-century Britain. From fierce debates about the style of the building to the installation of new heating and cooling technologies, the project captured the attention of politicians and public alike.

Mysteriously, the stone chosen for the building began to show signs of rapid decay while the building was still under construction. It soon became evident that the cause of that decay was London’s soot-filled air.

Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This embarrassing and expensive turn of events quickly contributed to new ideas about the environmental management of the city. By century’s end the government had passed new laws regulating the air of London, forerunners to contemporary clean air laws. A seemingly solid part of the city – one of its buildings – had enabled a new understanding of its most intangible element: the air.

Architecture and air pollution

My research on the architectural history of the Houses of Parliament reveals the surprising story of a building whose problems helped speed the creation of these new environmental laws.

At the start of the reconstruction, the government commissioned four experts to select stone for the building. The stone’s appearance would have to represent Great Britain’s growing political and industrial power. It also had to be durable enough to last as long as the British Empire. Two prominent geologists of the day, William Smith and Henry de la Beche, joined with a well-known sculptor and the palace’s architect, Charles Barry, to make a recommendation.

Concerned that some buildings weathered faster than others in Britain’s cold, rainy climate, the group went on an extensive tour to quarries and medieval buildings around Britain to gather data for their decision. They based their eventual choice of a magnesium limestone on further chemical analysis by Professor John Frederic Daniell, who predicted that the molecular composition of the limestone would resist weathering.

In the early 1800s architects believed that weathering of buildings was caused by the passage of time and the effects of observable weather like rain or ice. As industrialisation increased, they and other experts began to suspect that additional atmospheric effects also played a role. But the nature of these effects and their causes was not yet understood.

As early as the 17th century, residents and visitors had complained about the atmosphere of London. John Evelyn lamented the “Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse” in Fumifugium, his 1661 treatise on air. With its air filled with smoke from thousands of coal fires and without regularly favorable winds, London was already blackened with soot.

Blackening and corrosion on the Arch of Hadrian in Athens, caused by acid rain. Image: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons.

Its atmospheric conditions only worsened as population and industry grew, adding ever more chimneys to the skyline. In 1816, one Londoner described visitors’ shock at encountering the “dirt and nastiness” of the city’s blackened air. In his 1852 novel “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens included a description of the notorious “London particulars,” the fogs when “streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen.”

By this time, scientists in Great Britain had begun to offer some explanations for the worsening atmosphere and its damaging effect on buildings. Robert Angus Smith performed a series of experiments on rainfall that allowed him to conclude that the atmosphere of industrial Britain contained measurable quantities of sulphuric acid. He concluded that a new phenomenon that he named acid rain corroded the surfaces of buildings, causing their premature decay.

Parliamentary inquiries into the decay of stones at the Houses of Parliament took note of Smith’s scientific conclusions and their implication: the urban atmosphere of the 19th century threatened not only the well-being of people but the physical fabric of cities.

Changing the law

But what was the solution when the economic might of the British empire depended upon the chimneys and boilers of its furnaces? London and other British cities already had one legal instrument relevant to the crisis: nuisance law. Established under medieval common law, a nuisance was simply an activity or a structure on one property that adversely affected another property. Nuisance law dealt with the resolution of such conflicts, typically by ordering the cessation of the nuisance or by recommending the payment of damages.

In the 19th-century city, however, cause and effect could be very distant from one another. If the Houses of Parliament were being damaged by smoke, how could a judge determine which chimney the smoke had come from? Statutory law supplied a different approach with laws that regulated pollution at the source.

Old King Coal and the Fog Demon bring asthma, pneumonia, pleurisy and bronchitis to London; cartoon from the British humor magazine Punch, 1880. Image: Public Domain Review.

Over the latter half of the 19th century, Parliament passed new laws that allowed municipal authorities to set limits on the emission of smoke from factories. The 1853 Metropolitan Smoke Abatement Act imposed the first constraints on the production of smoke in the city of London. The 1875 Public Health Act included provisions for smoke prevention that applied to the entire nation.

Many other social and economic developments during the 19th century contributed to rising awareness of air pollution and to the formulation of environmental laws. But one of the most direct contributions was triggered by the Houses of Parliament. Architecture was an early victim of the effects of industrialisation; but it was an early protagonist in the remedies developed to combat them.The Conversation

Timothy Hyde is associate professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.