This project is an experiment in the creation and dissemination of urban history. It establishes a publicly collaborative website of the highest calibre dedicated to the history of the London East End district of Whitechapel. This website stands as a resource in its own right and also constitutes a base for a printed volume in the Survey of London series.
Begun in the 1890s, the Survey of London was founded with a commitment to the advancement of social equality and solidarity through shared understandings of a common built environment. That commitment is now renewed in this digital initiative which draws on strengths that derive from the Survey's well-established approaches to topographical and architectural history.
Across decades and disparate parts of the metropolis, the Survey of London has developed an inclusive approach to urban history, with social contexts strongly presented as crucial determinants of architecture. Regularly cited for its high academic standards, the series has long presented its comprehensive synoptic accounts of urban fabric in book form, incorporating assessments of demographic, social, industrial and commercial characters based in close investigation of archives and building fabric.
The Whitechapel project is the Survey of London's first initiative from within the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and draws on the pioneering technological and public engagement expertise of UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis.
The map-based website involves the public in research for and the drafting and compiling of the Survey's texts and illustrations. At the same time, the project maintains full commitment to the qualities and standards that have given the Survey its strong reputation for public-service scholarship.
Undertaken in partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, with support from Historic England, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the East London Mosque and Wilton's Music Hall, the Survey of London's engagement with Whitechapel includes plans for newly catalogued archives, exhibitions and events such as walking tours, as well as for the publication of scholarship in journals and, in due course, in a Survey volume. A broadly collaborative approach to understanding the architectural expressions of Whitechapel's rich histories is an appropriate way to illuminate stories of housing, commerce, religion and entertainment, wealth and poverty, dissent, reform and conflict. Immigration is a primary historical fact, embracing over centuries German, Irish, East European Jewish and Bengali settlements.
Whitechapel's history and present circumstances make it an excellent testing ground for the experimental formation of a public history from below with receptivity to both difference and universality in experiences of the built environment. The material that the website hosts ranges from contemporary photographs and records back to early views, maps and architectural drawings, on to newly synthesized archive-based historical accounts of building projects to oral reminiscences. Topography will serve as a gate for the presentation of personal experiences of buildings (housing, schools, places of worship and others) whether positive or negative - articulating changes witnessed, epiphanies had, or travails borne.
Alongside the forces of capitalism, social and ethnic heterogeneity, religious diversity and vernacular energy are all manifest in the area's architecture. The Survey of London is largely about agency in the built environment; the aim now is to search more deeply for evidence of ordinary agency. With support from both academic and local communities, this project will be stimulating for British architectural and social history. No urban historical series has embarked on such a venture. It aims to be exemplary, setting a new standard not only for the future development of the Survey of London but for urban histories across the world.