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.