The City in the City by Amy Thomas: archive images of the future City
A new book deeply analyses the architecture & urban fabric of the City of London, the financial heart of the capital city. Architectural historian Amy Thomas covers every inch of the Square Mile in a study that ranges from macro urban planning, through the street & alleys, right down to the detail of desks designed to facilitate the changing needs of workplace interiors. Throughout, Thomas’ rich & clever use of archive images propels the research.

The front cover of Amy Thomas’ new book The City in the City shows the torso of a man leaning over and pointing into an architectural model, his tie dangling between the scale plastic representations of an unbuilt city project. His polka dot tie clashes against the hi-tech modern grid of the proposed architecture, the phallic symbol of the tie itself reminding of gender in both the shaping and managing of finance and the city.

On opening the book, these images continue for thirteen pages before any introductory text, but here the photographs are as if taken in the city itself, with the enormous tie now precariously swinging over Liverpool Street Station, then manoeuvred into place by builders. “It's about an executive leaning into model of Broadgate and the tie being pulled in to the model by these construction workers … taking it into the new ice rink in the centre of Broadgate Circus,” Thomas said to Adrian Forty in conversation at an Architectural Association event to launch the book. The image was commissioned by Peter Davenport Associates to promote the new Broadgate redevelopment, and the images were taken by Brian Griffin who sadly passed away this January.

As well as commercial work such as this, Griffin also produced album cover images and portraits for several 1980s pop acts, including Depeche Mode, R.E.M. and Kate Bush. The images for the City of London play with such pop sensibilities, which is why Thomas was so pleased Griffin let her use them in the book: “What I loved about them is they just capture the absurdity of this moment in in the 1980s, in particular, the polka dot tie as a kind of emblem of this new financial mode.”

The City in the City began as a study of the alleyways of the financial City of London as part of Thomas’ PhD research. “I was so struck by how almost like a film set they are, so fantastical and magical to walk around – you can come off a busy thoroughfare and then you're transported back in time,” Thomas explained. “Through this research into the between spaces,” she continued, “I realised that people like Daniel Defoe had written about them, and they were in the drawings of Hogarth.” Such cultural references saturate it throughout – the title itself is a play on China Miéville’s 2009 political fantasy novel The City & The City – and Thomas’ use of imagery elevates the book beyond most PhD project publications.

After an opening section which sets out the specifics and nuances of the City of London – outlining the vested interests, role of the Corporation, and history of the square mile which sits compressed within the wider London metropolis – Thomas breaks up her study into three parts, considered through a reducing scale. Beginning with Street, all that early research into alleyways richly sets out the urban fabric and how it was shaped by the processes and specifics of British capitalism. The shape of the City is not accidental, and Thomas shows us how policy, politics, and financial systems shaped the urban realm as much if not more than architects and planners of the day.

This is explored by text with real clarity, but also through rich imagery sourced from a wide variety of places with evident pleasure. “The book has a lot of archival images of plans,” Thomas explained, highlighting the “wonderful drawings of Gordon Cullen for its potential reconstruction.” The author clearly enjoyed drawing from artistic archives, also plucking images by George Cruikshank of the bawdy 19th century city right through to delicate photography used by Charles Holden and William Holford in their spatial studies of the City of London.

A recurring visual device Thomas deploys is a grid of frames from films of the city. “I found a lot of really nice promotional films made by the City of London Corporation and what I liked about including these stills is you can see changes in ideas around how the city should be represented and manifested through imagery,” Thomas said at the launch event. She continued, “for example, one from 1970 showing the city as a groovy place where young people could come and walk on pedways, all exciting and forward thinking.”

This idea of the image of the city, both architecturally and through image making, is picked up in the second section which speaks of façades and the changing external appearance of architecture as technology and workplace demands shifted. While the final section of the book scales even smaller, looking at not only the interior of the City’s architecture, but also even the very designs of desks and materials as a method of retaining a sense of tradition while accommodating new processes, IT, and types of worker.

Amy Thomas is Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. She is an architectural historian with research centred on the relationship between financial processes and the built environment. Her current research explores the history of corporate architecture and workplaces, the role played by commercial architects and developers, and the intersection of gender and workplace design. Her forthcoming book with MIT Press focuses on the post-war development of the City of London (London’s financial centre). Amy has published work in journals including The Journal of Architecture, Grey Room and ARCH+, as well as a number of edited volumes.


The City in the City by Amy Thomas is published by MIT Press & available from physical & digital bookshops.
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All images of The City in the City by Amy Thomas © Carlo Zambon

publication date
19 February 2024

Alley, Architectural Association, City of London, City of London Corporation, George Cruikshank, Gordon Cullen, Daniel Defoe, Finance, Adrian Forty, Brian Griffin, Charles Holden, William Holford, William Hogarth, London, MIT Press, Street, Amy Thomas, Tie