Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Monday, 30 May 2011
One interesting question from the audience came from Tory MP Peter Bottomley - as is common on such occasions, it was more of a proposition than a question - who suggested that senior EH staff should be taken regularly to Eltham Palace for an awayday, with a view to reflecting on whether a wealthy businessman would be allowed today, as happened there in the 1930s, to revive the remains of an important but decaying medieval palace by grafting on to it an enormous art deco mansion.
The resulting ensemble is now an EH property, which is well worth a visit. The EH website draws you in with talk of '1930s Art Deco decadence' before mentioning the older stuff; whereas the South London Pevsner, from 1983, majors on the medieval parts, and clearly doesn't fully approve of the Art Deco addition, which is by Seely and Paget - evidence of changing tastes, and / or the difference between scholarly and popular interests in the past.
Bottomley's question referred to a view of EH's mindset that many architects who try to do interesting things with old buildings - plenty of whom were there at Apsley House - would subscribe to. EH would, I imagine, protest against the the lazy, cartoon-like dichotomy between tweedy, elbow-patched conservationists who would list anything pre-Beatles, and black polo-necked progressives who would bulldoze the lot. But imaginative responses to what Lewis Mumford called the 'usable past' are still considerably less likely to find favour than safe solutions that frighten no horses, but could never be used in a few decades to bring the visitors in.
Budget cuts at EH may well reduce the chances of an enlightened approach if everything is reduced to a tick box exercise, as is usually the way in the public sector. A better outcome would be for EH to let well alone in cases where projects are in competent hands, and concentrate on things that are actually falling down.
Friday, 13 May 2011
The proposal to demolish two 1980s office buildings at Broadgate in the City of London, and replace them by a new HQ for Swiss Bank UBS, designed by Ken Shuttleworth's practice Make, is making waves in London architectural and development circles. The Twentieth Century Society is lobbying for the existing buildings to be preserved.
In an interview with the Architects' Journal, Shuttleworth is quoted as saying that 'office buildings are commodities not monuments'. This is consistent with what the City of London's head of planning Peter Rees has been saying for years: that the City needs to churn its building stock to suit what businesses need, and that the last thing it needs is to be filled up with new buildings that can't be knocked down when their time is up.
An obvious question is begged by the objections to demolition: if an important business like UBS wants a big new building in the City, where do the objectors suggest that they go? The building stock in central London, out as far as somewhere between zone 1 and zone 2, has ossified to the extent that the number of possible development sites is severely limited. Anything older than the Second World War is now as likely as not to be proclaimed a 'heritage asset' unsuitable for demolition and redevelopment, even if not listed or in a conservation area. Until a couple of years ago, my rule of thumb for the cut-off point was the First World War; from this latest news, it appears the pace is accelerating, and the new age limit may be the First Iraq War.
In practice, the only substantial sites in central London that are unquestionably plausible for large-scale redevelopment are those that have big post-war buildings on them that no one loves. Usually these buildings are bigger than their surroundings already, and development economics suggests a new building bigger than what is there - with the attendant planning difficulties.
Make's proposed building has been likened to 'a piece of kitchen equipment'. Presumably this is meant to be disparaging about its looks, but it is an interesting observation in another regard. It tends to be the very oldest kitchen equipment that is replaced by the new - that sounds like the natural order of things. But with buildings in central London, it has become the other way round - only the newest buildings are allowed to be replaced.
Broadgate is a special place, and a special case - it would be a shame to see some of the original buildings go. But the controversy is symptomatic of the fact that as the pressure for the preservation of old buildings (and their 'settings', and the settings of their settings) has had more and more success, 'conservation creep' has gone too far.
The Barclays Cycle Superhighway is coming soon to an arterial road near you – the example above is at Millbank near Tate Britain.
That Bob Diamond certainly earns his money. Any advertisement more than about half a square metre in size needs planning permission. Any new development that affects the ‘setting of a listed building’ is pored over endlessly and in minute detail by the planners to decide if it is appropriate. But I doubt whether consent of any kind was needed for this scheme, which covers several square miles of premium London highway, no doubt passing through a few conservation areas on the way, with Barclays' corporate colours. Money well spent for them. It might have been worse if it had all been sponsored by Orange, but what happens when Barclays pull the plug? Let’s hope there is a bond covering the cost of scraping it all off.
Sunday, 8 May 2011
It would be great if public money could be spent on sorting out a few of the most outstanding, and most longstanding, examples in time for the Olympics. Here are three suggestions. Each is something that when I moved to London as a student about 30 years ago, I naively assumed was work in progress at that time, since they looked so decrepit then - but in each case, they remain as bad today as they were then.
First, the Hungerford car park on the South Bank. SIXTY YEARS after the Festival of Britain, parts of the site of that great event remains a cat's cradle of public realm confusion - and at its heart the Hungerford car park: in 1951 the Transport Pavilion, but today, after endless squabbles that have got nowhere, a shabby mess and a visual embarrassment at the heart of one of the capital's principal destinations for visitors.
Secondly, the entrance to Highbury and Islington tube station - used by millions every year, now an interchange with the Overground too, at the heart of a lively and prosperous area. The entrance area has the feel and visual quality of the back entrance to something unimportant, with a prefab style station facing a prefab style back elevation of a post office building, the two given a certain coherence by the accumulations of decades of mechanical and electrical equipment installed with maximum thoughtlessness. The sad remains of a single pilaster of the grand Victorian station, seen above to the left of the entrance, offer a poignant reminder that caring about the look of everyday infrastructure used to be more than a minority interest.
Thirdly - the Hogarth roundabout flyover at Chiswick, the west London road network's answer to a Thorpe Park ride, ideally located to impress foreign visitors on their way in from Heathrow. Apparently made of Meccano and roofing felt, it looks like something the Royal Engineers could be half proud of - if they had put it up in a day or two with a view to using it for a week or two. It was built in 1969 as a temporary measure. Presumably someone tightens up the bolts occasionally, but it certainly makes me nervous when I drive over it. Sorting it out has obviously been in the 'too hard' tray on someone's desk for a few decades.
Not all of London can look spiffy, and a big city needs places for tattiness - such as the lower Lea Valley as it was until 2005, when few people went there and businesses unknown to HMRC could carry on in peace and quiet. The places described above are different - they are used or seen by tens of thousands of passers by every day.
A good use of public funds is to lift the look of places by tackling messes in prominent locations like these that can never be sorted out by the private sector. In time for the Olympics please.