In the introduction to the latest edition of the Journal of the London Society (available to purchase here), London Society Chairman Peter Murray introduces our new motto.
Over the past year or so the Society has been giving a lot of thought to our purpose and how to explain it. There has, for some time, been a feeling that the Latin motto that has served us well for the past hundred years is in need of modernisation. Antiqua Tegenda, Pulchra Petenda, Futura Colenda
doesn’t do it for a younger generation. Even the rough translation ‘look after the old, seek the beautiful, cultivate the future
' sounds somewhat laboured. What we needed was an ‘elevator pitch’ – a ready and meaningful answer for when someone asks, 'What does the Society do? What is it for?
We didn’t want to change those basic tenets of the Society set out by our founding members, but we did want to bring them up to date. Just as the old Latin motto suggested a respect for the history of the capital in its cultivation of the future, we knew we should respect the Society’s own history as we developed its mission for the 21st century. To do so, we needed to look back at those early days.
The founding fathers
The first ever meeting of the London Society was held on 2 January 1912. The minutes record the gathering together of ‘a few men keenly interested in the artistic development of London and the protection of its beauty and character
', among them such luminaries as architects Sir Aston Webb, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Raymond Unwin, and Arthur Beresford Pite, artist Frank Brangwyn, actor Gerald du Maurier (father of Daphne), newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe and retailer Gordon Selfridge. The primary concern and commitment of the Society was to address the problems of urban development, and it had a broad membership of politicians as well as professionals – architects, planners and engineers. It was not bound to the preservation of the past at the expense of the unfolding future; neither were its purposes purely aesthetic without regard for the social life of the city.
Lord Curzon, then Vice President of the Society, suggested that beauty was key to the Society’s agenda: ‘Our object is to make London beautiful where it is not so already, and to keep it beautiful where it already is.
An early leaflet of the Society describes its objectives as ‘to draw together all lovers of London, whether their interest lies in preserving its old charms or in influencing new developments, and to build up a strong public opinion by means of which Londoners can bring their influence to bear upon matters of artistic, antiquarian and practical interest.
An influential voice
The Society's first major task however was slightly more prosaic if not equally ambitious: to deliver the Development Plan for Greater London
. This was published in 1919, after the First World War, and set out a vision for London’s key arterial roads that was largely implemented over the next two decades. During that period the Society focused on promoting the value of regional planning as well as the replanning of the central part of the city. It also led the discussion about implementation of the Green Belt, first proposing it in its 1919 report as a means of curbing urban sprawl, then championing the idea in public debate. Another seminal London Society publication, published in 1921 and edited by Sir Aston Webb, studied the problems the capital faced at that time and came up with solutions; it was entitled London of the Future
. When Patrick Abercrombie was approached to deliver a new plan for London he made clear that he would only take it on if he was able to follow the course taken by the London Society and work on the Greater London region as a whole. So, in his Greater London Plan 1944, Abercrombie criticised the ‘lamentable failure to realise a need for coordination in planning all around London
' and praised the London Society’s Development Plan as ‘full of guidance for the future
The Society’s history is very similar to that of the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) of New York, whose advocacy has helped to shape the city since its inception in 1893. Some of MAS’s early accomplishments include passing the city’s first zoning laws, contributing to the planning of the city’s subway line, and, like the London Society, promoting the idea of regional planning. So, whilst respecting the past, the London Society has never been a conservation society. It has always taken a balanced view of past, present and future. Both the London Society and MAS are believers in the idea of cities. Both reacted against the lack of planning and the unhealthy environments of 19th century cities, but believed in the benefits of agglomeration when properly designed. Unlike the Town and Country Planning Association, founded just over a decade before us, the London Society did not reject the idea of the dense metropolis. Indeed our support for the Green Belt as a contained area for the development of the city, not only ended sprawl but spurred densification.
Looking to the future
So how do we respect the founding beliefs of the Society and mould them to suit today’s capital? We hold on to the concept that London’s future must be shaped by contemporary culture as well as by its rich and layered history. For centuries one of London’s great strengths has been its ability to adapt to change and to integrate the new with the old, an approach that has been enshrined in the London Plan where response to character and local context is highlighted.
So after much deliberation, we redefined the purpose of the Society as ‘Valuing the past, looking to the future
’ with a strapline that reads: ‘Engaging all Londoners in the debate about design, architecture and planning in the capital
.’ This we felt respected the original aims of our founding fathers, while making them clearer and more comprehensible to a modern audience. Our new motto provides a simple way of describing what we are about and reflects the sentiments set out in the closing words of London of the Future: ‘In the reorganisation of London we cannot stand still, and we ought not to stand still; but we can advance with reverence and see to it that the immemorial spirit of London does not suffer amid the rush and stress of our modern life
To support our aims, why not become a member of the Society? As well as receiving a copy of the Journal each year, you will also get priority booking and discounted tickets for our many events. You will find more information here.