Friday, 13 May 2011

Broadgate recycled

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.


  1. A very sensible analysis. The Rothschild building at the back of Mansion House by OMA makes an interesting comparison. The original building would certainly have been heavily listed today, but wasn't when it was replaced by a rather good Fitzroy Robinson 1960s building. That was also, arguably, worth listing, but has been replaced by a much taller building which broke every rule in the Mansion House conservation area guidelines in the City Corporation local plan. But there are traditions which are not simply about buildings, one of which is to accommodate financial institutions which make the City, and indeed the national economy, tick. On those grounds alone one must have sympathy for the UBS headquarters proposal.
    Paul Finch

  2. Ever since I was introduced to London as a student in the 80’s I always looked upon the office building as a re-cycleable commodity – a object that can be re-skinned or replaced to respond to changing demands (or, dare i say it!) changing tastes.

    They are giant pieces of product design : shapable skins that are formed from three simple elements; Core:Plan:Skin. Everything else in the crafting of their design is to do with context!

    They should be replaced or updated when obsolete. This is the natural way of the city, any city.

    Nic Sampson
    ESA architects

  3. Malcolm Fraser26 May 2011 at 10:45

    Paul, are these really the “… financial institutions which make the City, and indeed the national economy, tick”? …. or are they those whose towering hubris have brought it to its knees; but who still require us to take the world’s glass, steel and marble, that we have so recently extracted from the earth and assembled here for them, and demolish it into a landfill site and start again, all to prove how deeply cowed we are by their Worshipfulness? And, is Make’s proposal not the most aggressively-ugly thing you have seen?

  4. Regardless of any view on the individual merits of the buildings by Foggo and others that it comprises, the composition of Broadgate, it's scale, intimacy, grain and character all add up to make something successful and with quite a strong sense of place.

    If it is accepted, that the design, appearance and character of a building are a significant contributors to the quality of urban places, then it is difficult to see how Make's building is designed to contribute, compliment, improve or enhance the quality and qualities of the place.

    The architecture appears primarliy to respond to the functions required, of many deep floor plates, floor area etc. With out many or any concessions to townscape and the context of broadgate as a place. Whether the concept for it's aesthetic as a 'machine for making money' is worthwhile, is i suppose a matter of opinion but what is questionable, is whether Make have even delivered on that? it appears to be rather more a vault than a machine!

    It isn't actually a question of whether the exisiting buildings are too good to be demolished rather than whether the proposed one good enough to join the party.

    Neil Deely