Saturday, 11 February 2012

Dreaming lift shafts on London's skyline

Demolition in central London often reveals something interesting.  Here in Fitzrovia there is a new view of the lift tower of Lyons Israel and Ellis's brutalist 1960s buildings for Central London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster).

Once we could decorate the skyline with spires and towers and cupolas, but today's clients' enforcers, the project managers and 'value engineers', frown on that kind of thing even if the architect has the appetite for them.  Instead we are expected to pile up the roofscape with chillers and suchlike - and then hide them with screens.

Where opportunities for vertical expression present themselves, it is good to grasp them. This is one of great achievements of Richard Rogers / Rogers Stirk Harbour's best buildings, which are up to much the same game as  Lyons Israel and Ellis were - to take things that you can't be told aren't needed, such as stairs and lift shafts and ducts, and play with them to architectural effect.

But this kind of robust expression has fallen out of favour and has tended to be replaced by a thinner kind of 'skin' based aesthetic, which cuts out unnecessary articulation, reducing the surface area to volume ratio of buildings, saving both money and energy in the process, compared with a more complicated alternative.  It would be hard to reverse this trend in an age of austerity (the end condition being that all buildings will be spherical).

But the various paraphernalia of 'green' buildings present new opportunities for articulation - such as the chimneys of Portcullis House, memorably described on completion by the late Sir Philip Powell as resembling 'a smelting plant in Belgium', but now with the passage of time regarded as an ornament, if a rather chunky one, to the Westminster skyline.  Architects may need to work below the radar to turn building into architecture, but this has always been true.

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