Piccadilly: home to the Royal Academy of Arts and some of London's most famous architectural landmarks. Close to the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue, the cinemas of Leicester Square, and the exclusive shops of Regent Street, Piccadilly is in the cosmopolitan heartland of London. At the one end is Piccadilly Circus and the Shaftesbury Memorial, better known for Alfred Gilbert's statue of Eros that sits atop the fountain; at the other, one finds the exclusive, Franco-British designed 5-star Ritz Hotel, a renowned institution frequented by celebrities and tourists alike. With the department store Fortnum & Mason somewhere in between, at No. 181, Piccadilly tends to be judged by just a few of its buildings; in fact, the entire street has a very interesting architectural history, which the Royal Academy's exhibition Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture sets out to explain.

The exhibition's curator, Professor Alan Powers, was inspired by the records of a 1933 lecture on Piccadilly by the architect and wit H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, but uses the convenient timespan of 100 years to illustrate the changes in archictecture and its critical reception. The exhibition begins with two architectural elevation diagrams: one contemporary, and one a hundred years old. With just a few exceptions, the buildings are remarkably different – exteriors have been demolished or remodelled, windows have changed, and the purposes of several buildings have been altered. The two main walls of the exhibition show the notable buildings in the order in which they appear on each side of the street, along with Goodhart-Rendel's corresponding elevation drawing, turning the Royal Academy's Architecture Space into a very condensed, miniature Piccadilly. Alongside photographs showing the buildings are commentaries, old and new; whilst the new ones are more descriptive in nature, the old are frequently very tongue-in-cheek.

This is quite a high-brow exhibition, aimed not at passing tourists but at those with a genuine interest in architecture. Some of the descriptions are quite technical – not impossible to understand, but requiring a certain degree of concentration. Together with the accompanying photographs, they show that a street whose buildings might be described as "traditional" by the casual observer are often quite the opposite. Considerable changes began to take effect around 1912, as the true classical style was beginning to give way to American interpretations of classicism and to European influences. 

By 1912, the Ritz had garnered a reputation as the hotel at which to be seen – it served royalty, politicians and socialites. The building appears, quite uniquely for Piccadilly, to resemble an elegant block of Parisian flats (in the Louis XVI style, with a number of floors in the high roof space), the hotel having been designed by the renowned Hôtel Ritz Paris architect Charles Mewès and the British architect Arthur Davis. The trend at the time was to experiment with pastiche architecture – new buildings referencing historical styles – and Piccadilly provides a number of other examples of this.

One such example is the entrance to the Burlington Arcade. The Arcade itself dates from the early 19th century, but the Mannerist façade at its Piccadilly end was added around 100 years later. Elements of classical style – the central frieze, the romanesque arches and the stone busts – are evident, but their proportions are wildly different. In particular, the archway forming the physical entrance is very wide indeed, so much so that it received scathing criticism at the time. Now, of course, few people bat an eyelid at this architectural anomaly; indeed, I would never have noticed the peculiar proportions had it not been for this exhibition. 

The Art Deco style became very desirable, as an architectural form, for a time, and this style was reflected in some highly prominent buildings across London. It was not just used for factories (eg, the Hoover Building in West London) and for residential buildings, but also for commercial ones, as demonstrated by the William Curtis Green-designed Wolseley showroom at 160 Piccadilly (now the grand café-style Wolseley tearooms).

The exhibition also highlights the changes caused by new methods of construction. The advent of steel frames in architecture – which are not particularly obvious in Piccadilly's architecture because masonry covers most of the frontages – meant that architects could experiment with new proportions. Joseph Emberton's 1930s-built Simpsons of Piccadilly building (now a large Waterstone's store) typifies the new, Modernist approach. Looking up, it is not as classic or aesthetically pleasing as some of the older buildings, but its appeal lies in the ground-floor frontage: a door in-between two panes of uninterrupted, curved glass, made possible by a steel frame that was welded rather than joined. Perhaps the most obviously modern additions to Piccadilly are the famous LED advertising displays at Piccadilly Circus (such screens have been in place since the middle of the 20th century, and even before then there were illuminated advertisements), the hoardings hiding façades from the very early 1900s. 

Although Eros to the Ritz might be too dry for some people's tastes, it is a small exhibition which puts together street architecture in a way that has rarely been seen before. It allows viewers to witness the evolution of street architecture along a road which has served, and continues to serve, a broad range of people and purposes. One could, having viewed the exhibition, easily spend an afternoon walking the length of Piccadilly and looking up at the architecture – something which normally goes unnoticed by the hordes of tourists frequenting the area.

Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture, at Royal Academy of ArtsJulia Savage reviews Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture at the Royal Academy.3