Imperial rivalry and the story of Europe’s grand shopping streets
Today, Regent Street is one of the most iconic streets in London, known for imposing neoclassical buildings built along a sweeping curve that houses an international blend of shops and attracts an international blend of customers. Equally famous is Paris’s Rue de Rivoli, a long avenue of shops stretching from the Place de la Concorde into the Marais. In fact, Regent Street and the Rue de Rivoli have an interconnected and surprisingly complex history that dates back two hundred years. Regent Street was developed as a response to the Rue de Rivoli, and the two streets together tell a story of opposing views of urban planning, nationalistic desires for empire, and a deeply personal, if somewhat one-sided, rivalry between Napoleon and George, The Prince Regent (later George IV).
Rue de Rivoli was developed first, beginning in 1801 at the behest of Napoleon, who was seeking a triumphal avenue inspired by ancient Roman promenades. The road was named to commemorate Napoleon’s victory against Italian forces at Rivoli in 1797. From the first, Napoleon intended the new road to be a site of pageantry and patriotic displays, and the Rue de Rivoli was designed to run in a straight line parallel to the Tuileries and the Louvre. This intended route necessitated that existing roads and buildings be demolished, destroying some of the fabric of mediaeval Paris in the process. Although French kings, notably Louis XIV, who originally laid the framework of the Champs Elysees, had envisioned Paris as a monumental city, it was not to French history that Napoleon and his planners looked when designing the Rue de Rivoli. Rather, it was the Rome of the emperors Caesar and Augustus that inspired the new avenue.
The chief architects of the Rue de Rivoli, Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, had travelled to Rome and studied the antiquities of imperial Rome. Along the northern side of the new road, opposite the Louvre and the Tuileries, Percier and Fontaine designed neoclassical-arcaded buildings to regulation heights in order to create a grand perspective down the avenue. The ground floors of the new buildings were intended for shops, but in keeping with the desire for imperial grandeur, butchers, bakers, and tradesmen were forbidden from opening storefronts. Napoleon and his military forces used the road for ceremonials and pageants several times, beginning with the emperor’s coronation in 1804, but Napoleon’s reign was cut short before the Rue de Rivoli could be completed in all its imperial splendour.
In 1811, as work continued on the Rue de Rivoli, the royal Marylebone estate in what was then rural London was returned to crown control after the expiry of the previous lease. The Office of Works planned to develop the estate, and Prince George, who had been named Prince Regent earlier that year due to the incapacity of George III, took a strong interest in the project. A park, which was eventually renamed Regent’s Park, was planned for the northern end of the estate, while a series of terraced houses, villas, and commercial buildings would sweep down to Westminster along a road planned to run from the new park to Carlton House, the Prince Regent’s residence on the Mall.
Prince George also recruited his favourite architect, John Nash, to oversee the project. Nash and the Prince Regent, like Napoleon and his architects, turned to Rome for inspiration. The terrace houses were built in the neoclassical style, and for the commercial portion of the project, Nash took inspiration from the architecture of an icon of imperial Rome: the Colosseum. Unlike Napoleon’s architects, however, Nash was a devotee of the picturesque, an ideal of planning that suggested that new construction should complement the existing environs. As a result, Nash designed the main road of the project, which would become Regent Street, around existing structures in Mayfair and Soho, rather than demolishing them, as had been done for the Rue de Rivoli. As a result, Regent Street was designed on a broad curve.
As on the Rue de Rivoli, Nash designed arcaded buildings for Regent Street, but notably, while the buildings were all designed in the classical style, they were not of uniform construction. In spite of the lack of consistency, Prince George was nevertheless pleased; he was claimed to have remarked ‘It will quite eclipse Napoleon’ when he saw the final plans for Regent Street. As with Napoleon and the Rue de Rivoli, the Prince Regent intended that Regent Street would be a site of grand ceremonial celebrating British imperial might.
At the time of the creation of the Rue de Rivoli and Regent Street, France and Britain were bitter enemies. Both were seeking to create empires through colonisation, statecraft, and trade, and both desired to claim the mantle of the successor to Rome. Architecture was one tangible way in which both nations could implicitly reference the Roman legacy. For the Prince Regent, the heritage of Rome became especially relevant after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815. Although Prince George never participated in military action against the French emperor, he often attempted to portray himself as a military ruler in the vein of previous kings who had led troops in battle, going as far as to commission a portrait of himself at Napoleon’s Table of the Great Commanders, which hung alongside the engineers of the Battle of Waterloo in Windsor Castle’s Waterloo Room. He was also known to claim to have been at the battle, leading a regiment of hussars. For the Prince Regent, the series of building works he commissioned around London, beginning with Regent Street and including perhaps most notably Buckingham Palace, neoclassical architecture was a tool with which to create a visible parallel to past empires, especially Rome. And although neither Regent Street nor the Rue de Rivoli ultimately became the stage for displays of national or military pride as originally intended, the ideas espoused by the planners of the two streets took shape in other areas of London and Paris, especially the Mall and Whitehall in London and the Champs Elysees in Paris. Pioneers of planned architecture in their time, both streets endure and thrive in one of the simpler of their original premises – commerce and shopping, attracting millions of visitors from around the world each year.