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Survival and Renewal in London's Paternoster Square

ONE of the great intangible benefits of living in a major city, especially an older one, is often the privilege of being surrounded by an architectural environment of history and character. As commuters, as office workers, as shoppers, no less than as museum-goers or worshipers, we have access to buildings of an architectural distinction we could never dream of affording for our own domestic castles.The landmark buildings of a city orient individuals making their way through private and public space, just as the favorite radio broadcast or other little ceremonies of the morning or evening anchor them in time. This orientation function is enhanced when a building symbolizes some part of the community's values. So it is good news when a landmark becomes more accessible to the public, and all the more so when this happens in a way that promises to restore the landmark's historical context as well. This is what appears likely to happen in Paternoster Square, an area just north of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The bleak concrete postwar reconstruction of a neighborhood left in cinders after the blitz of World War II is, if all goes according to plan, to be replaced by new buildings in the classical manner, of brick and stone - period pieces, so to speak. The new construction is to be set out along an ancient street layout (grid isn't quite the word) going back to the Middle Ages. One of the important goals of the project is to afford clearer views of the cathedral itself from different points around the neighb orhood. It would seem to go without saying that those in the immediate area of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece should actually be able to see the church, but that is not the case. The dome is splendidly visible from many points around London. But the shopping center now standing on Paternoster Square affords some curiously truncated views - of the lower part of the pillars of the north transept, for example. It is as if one had to view the Lincoln Memorial in Washington through a peephole that afforded a glim pse only of Lincoln's knees. That is to change if the plans put forth by the developer, Paternoster Associates, an international consortium, is approved by the City of London authorities. The plans, which were on extended public display earlier in the year, are to go before the planning committee in late November, and the developers are confident that they will be favorably received. There has been considerable public support for the new-old design, and Britain's chief architectural critic, the Prince of Wales, has made encouraging noises. The project, including shops and offices, to be built with private funds on privately owned land, is expected to cost over a quarter billion dollars - the premium building materials to be used will bring the cost up roughly 10 percent over that of modern concrete construction. The whole project is to take three to three and a half years to build, after a demolition process of six to eight months. Earlier demolition work was done - quite effectively - during World War II. Most of the immediate surroundings of the cathedral were leveled. But St. Paul's itself came through the war with only two direct hits. A volunteer squad served night after night after night to protect the church from the incendiary bombs and other ordnance rained down upon it, sweeping them away with brooms. A simple tablet set into the floor near the west entrance reads: "Remember the men and women of Saint Paul's watch, who by the grace of God saved this cathedral from destruction in war, 1939-1945." Talk about understatement. In "In Search of London," H. V. Morton gave a hint of how the cathedral became such a symbol of hope and survival when he wrote, "I remember one Christmas time during the War, when Ludgate Hill and the little streets leading from it had been turned into hell overnight, walking towards St. Paul's, stepping over fire-hoses and picking my way through piles of broken plate-glass.... At the sight of St. Paul's standing unharmed on Ludgate Hill I lifted up my heart in praise and thankfulness. The Wren cathedral, of course, was not the original structure on the site, but was part of an earlier urban renewal program, after the Great Fire of 1666. It's a long way from architectural renderings to construction to having a neighborhood actually lived in. The Pasternoster Square project isn't there yet. But a plan to restore full access to the symbol of London's survival bodes well for the life of the community.

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