The shortest route from A to B; or an elegant, if truncated, echo of the past
Traffic, traffic, traffic
Primarily and, in the eyes of most persons (especially of the official order) secondarily and thirdly too, a new street is a channel between houses for the purpose of giving greater accommodation to traffic, and shortening the distance from place to place.
In a new city, notably in the USA, it is a matter of common acceptance that streets should be straight and in general at right angles to each other. The Americans lay out cities as we and the French laid out gardens in the 16th and 17th century, in symmetrical plots with straight alleys at right angles to one another; and if we now had the opportunity of laying out a city ab initio, the probability is that we should do the same …
An essential difference between a new street made through an old city and an original street as left in the first growth or laying out of the city, is that the former is no longer a mere hiatus or passage-way left between building plots. It has a kind of positive entity; it is a new feature introduced into the city. In the case of old streets the land built on was the important element and determined the line of the street, which, as just now observed, was merely the necessary space between the buildings.
But when a new street is introduced into an old city or an old quarter of a city, it is the street itself that becomes the primary and defining element.
Shaftesbury Avenue is a notorious example of this. It cuts in its own way through everything. When it was first laid out, before any of the new buildings now flanking it were erected, this fact was almost ludicrously obvious. The railed-in plots, waiting to be taken up by "building owners" were of all kinds of irregular shapes, suggesting anything but a consideration for the convenience of the builders.
At a recent meeting of an artistic society well known to fame but which keeps its meetings technically private (a privacy we shall certainly respect) it was argued by more than one speaker, in discussing this subject, that new streets ought to be made on the lines of the old ones, by way of keeping up the historical landmarks of the city.
This means, of course, that the old street, found inadequate to the modern traffic, should simply be widened by rebuilding the houses further back from the old frontage line.
There is a fascination about the idea, and there are cases in which it might be acted upon without disadvantage, but they cannot often occur. Still, it is an idea in some cases worth bearing in mind. It would avoid the entire obliteration of the ancient features of a city that renders it difficult even to conjecture what was the former appearance and arrangements of some parts of Paris and London.