Friday, 21 May 2010

The 2 Faces of London

The Chelsea Barracks saga continues as Prince Charles is accused of applying “inappropriate pressure” on the Qatari royal family who had proposed to build contemporary glass and steel apartments.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Prince Charles views of ‘Modern architecture’ are pretty strong. Charles famously described a proposed extension to the National Gallery by legendary architecture Richard Rogers as a Carbuncle. 'What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend’

This current self doubt in what we can achieve is highlighted by a recent scheme proposed by Barratt Homes for Horseferry road in the heart of Westminster. Two schemes have been designed, one in a rather bland modern fashion, the second in a pastiche toy town classical design.

My first thought is why spend all that money on two designs instead of putting that money into one singular contemporary piece of architecture with merit. What we have is two diluted designs that neither excite nor offend.

Head down to Tottenham Court Road and beyond the crashing steel sea of barriers, cranes and general mayhem lays a new Quinlan Terry design in a classical styling. Now I am not the biggest fan of Terry as I believe his work can sometimes lack depth and style, however I do agree that anything to improve this somewhat hideous area of Central London is greatly appreciated.

The design is actually very simplistic for Terry; you might even say it has a touch of elegance to it. A new fear of modern architecture seems to be stemming from Westminster councils irrational fear of anything too contemporary. The result being watered down, non offensive glass boxes that destroy the streetscape and give modern architecture a bag name.

It also seems strange to me that the audiences who support this style of buildings are also the same people who watched an authentic original Victorian building be destroyed on this very site. Where was Prince Charles to stop the demolition?

Of course London is an enormous metropolis where anything goes, and the same should be said for Architecture. Of all the visitors, tourists and Londoners I speak with, immense pleasure is gained from viewing historic castles and palaces juxtaposed with contemporary, 21st century architecture.

London has and always will continue to develop to generate money, it is what it does best, and therefore it is inevitable that buildings will be destroyed and replaced. I just pray that more attention can be spent on preserving the real heritage of the city and its beauty rather than creating modern office space with fantasy facades.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Great Ormond Street : The Friends Garden

On a rather cold but sunny Saturday afternoon in the beginning of May I took a tour of the Great Ormond Street Hospitals new roof garden. Named the Friends Garden, it is the work of Landscape designer Andy Sturgeon.
Amongst the stress and strain of working inside Great Ormond street hospital is hidden a small oasis of calm and relaxation, as if floating slowly over the chimney pots and tower blocks of central London.

After taking the somewhat sanitised (and typically medical) steel lift to the top floor you are instantly greeted by a breeze of fresh air and brightness. A glass conservatory of sorts amplifies the light into the building, really providing a wonderful journey for the senses.
Entering outside you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the sheer calmness and tranquillity of the roof terrace; this is after all Central London, on a busy summer weekend. The streets below filled with angry bus drivers and cappuccino swigging tourists.
Colour plays a key role in uniting this project, from the oranges and blues that can found in the flower beds, to the pastel orange walls and bright Red contemporary garden furniture. Clearly the use of bold colour and details make for a strong identity when cast against the grey, charcoal tone of the city backdrop.
Take a closer look at the detail of the stone work and you will notice the garden is subtly and elegantly tagged with emotive words and phrases. A little investigating later reveals that on July 7th 2005 two much loved employees left for work and never arrived. The tragedy of July 7th bombings and the dignified memorial gives this garden an extra depth and really provides a space for rest and relaxation.

The Vistas from the 7th floor offer a wonderful mix of styles and architecture spanning thousands of years, from the distant London wall, the creaky Victorian town houses,the brutalist structure of Centre Point through to the gleaming glass towers of the Square mile.
It really is great to see that people who dedicate their lives to looking after others finally have a small resting place to chat, catch up, relax, remember lost friends or just eat their lunch.
Roof terraces will inevitably and thankfully become a familiar site over the next 10 years. As land in central and Greater London becomes scarcer and more expensive it is encouraging to see employers and homeowners embracing all space whether that be on a roof on in the garden, and giving a little something back to Mother nature.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Potters Field : New Proposal Review

Surrounded by some of London’s most famous landmarks, including Tower Bridge, City Hall, the Tower of London and the Square Mile, Potters field is a prime location for development.

On Monday 10th of May, I headed down to a public exhibition organised by Berkley home to showcase the latest design plans for the site. I was hopeful that after such a long wait to see the final plans they would be worthy of such a prestigious site.

Way back in December 2010 Squire & Partners released a night time render of their new proposal, it resembled a mini Tate modern, with a black exterior face and colour balconies it was disappointing to say the least. Those who have followed this contentious site will know that the previous design proposal by Ian Ritchie was a series of cylindrical tapering towers with landscaped gardens. This was proposed back in 2003 and won full support from CABE (the Government organisation for Architecture).
2008 and it was clear this design had been dropped even though it had gained planning permission, and still does as the developers were keen to remind me.

My expectations and face immediately dropped when I walked inside to be confronted with a high resolution glossy render of the same design as I had seen a year ago yet in daylight.
The black fa├žade of the residential block has been changed to a light brick work design, the rest of the design remains relatively unchanged. Stepping back to really take in the design it is obvious that every available square foot has been built on. The almost brutalist quality of this design just doesn’t fit well, it tries so hard to be submissive to the Tower Bridge that it actually sits uncomfortably and creates a negative public realm.

When looking around the proposal model, it is worrying to see the amount of sheer blank walls that block direct public access to the proposal and back to the Thames. Cultural space on the river is always warmly welcomed, you only need to look back over the last 15 years to see how much the South Bank and Bankside have transformed thanks to Cultural and Arts facilities.
Disappointingly the new proposal includes a reduction in cultural and retail space that are essential to connecting this project into the fabric of SE1. The genius of the original “darleks” (as they have been dubbed by the media) was their use of height allowing for better public interaction and access. The gardens surrounding the towers were integrated into the park located in-front. Whilst tourists and locals would have been able to walk around each tower and interact with the retail units at the ground level.

The 2010 proposal is applying from planning permission towards the end of May; it will include 3 residential blocks and 1 residential tower containing 3 penthouses. At the exhibition the representatives seemed keen to talk about the cultural space and the light box at the top of the development which similarly to Tabard square in Borough will rotate through a night lighting scheme.

Flashing lights and a cultural space that is hard to find don’t really cut the mustard on a such a vital site. It has all the characteristics of a gated development, impenetrable to tourists and locals. With such history and architecture surrounding the site it was always going to be difficult to design a proposal that pleased and fitted.

Just before I left my feedback I was reminded that the original scheme does have planning permission, and that initial construction works had taken place. Therefore it was highly viable that the original proposal could still be built.

I had to wonder, has this design been made purposely bland and unwelcoming to show the original proposal in a better light to win around public support? Or had the negative comments from local residents resulted in Berkley homes having a lack of confidence in their design and therefore resulting in a compromised, residential block not all to dissimilar from projects currently rising in Bermondsey spa?

One thing is for sure, neither project is perfectly suited for this location but I do respect and warmly welcome the extra public space the Ian Ritchie original proposal included. I hope this current incarnation is denied planning permission, in a World city like London where we have so many gifted architects and creative talent we must be able to come up with something better than this?

*It is also worth having a look at Ian Ritchie’s 1995 proposal for the Royal Opera House to be located on Potters Field.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

London; Can you have Architecture without Politics?

Across the Capital schools, sport centres and even caravans have been transformed into mini sanctuaries for democracy, aka a Polling Station for the election being dubbed “the closest election for a generation”.

Quite rightly all three main party leaders have focused upon on Economy, Education, Crime and Immigration, very little time has as expected been given to the arts, public spending, infrastructure and transport projects.
By now only the last remaining Londoners are strolling down to the Ballot box to place their vote, from 10 o’clock onwards every radio station, television channel, website & blog will be updating you with just what is happening across the Country. When the decision is made and life returns to normality just what effect will a change or continuation of government have on Architecture and the built environment in London?
Unlike New York City where Mayor Bloomberg has control over transport, Mayor Boris Johnson does not. Not one person who considers themselves a Londoner can fail to have missed the mass demolition happening around Tottenham Court Road and Soho. The crumbling art deco facade of the legendary Astoria theatre was demolished last year to make way for a new era of rail travel, Crossrail.
Funding in place, buildings turned to dust, and construction underway does not confirm Crossrail to be speeding Londoners across the capital anytime soon. In the pipeline for over 20 years, this project is mammoth in size and ambition, Labour party under Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone helped move the wheels of progress into motion and Gordon Brown has committed to continuing with Crossrail until completion in 2017 and has allocated full funding in the next budget.
David Cameron on the other hand has not, and will not confirm that should the conservatives come to power. Mayor of London Boris Johnson seems to think differently and has promised to support Crossrail for the good of Londoners. Supporting a project in theory is somewhat catastrophically different to committing to much needed transport infrastructure. Without trying to sound like a spokesperson for Crossrail, it is vital to London’s prosperity in Business, Tourism and improving the basic standard of living. Cancelling Crossrail would not only damage the economy it would create false economy.
Sightlines have also become a tenacious issue in London as David Cameron poses the idea of “protecting” (whatever that means?) the Tower of London and other world UNESCO sites. Further sightlines restrictions ultimately lead to compromised architecture. London is not Manhattan and I for one am thankful that London has its own style, however it is inevitable that to sustain our current lead in world finance that further Skyscrapers will be built. As was seen in the Sixties and Eighties, if companies are unable to build a singular office to house their entire company they will simply move to somewhere that will.
Of course it was under the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher that Canary Wharf first headed for the skies. Shining gorgeously in the sunset the metallic facade of Canary Wharf tower was and still is an iconic Landmark for the strength of business and enterprise in London.
Since 2000 Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has worked hard alongside a team of experts including Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster to raise the bar on contemporary architecture in the Capital, examples include the Gherkin (St Marys Axe), the Shard (London Bridge Tower) and the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square.
Key Cultural projects such as the Tate Modern extension and the new BFI film institute proposed to be built next to the London Eye are key to securing London’s future tourism and cultural status. I fear that cutting key projects like this will return us to a London of the mid eighties, where investment in the built environment declined significantly resulting in damaged streetscapes, no sense of pride and architectural scaring of our City.
Whoever walks up the path to 10 Downing Street on Friday will face an enormous task in reducing the deficit whilst maintaining and continuing to improve upon the standard of living for all, but cutting costs in vital development and infrastructure projects is one loss we cannot afford.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Central Saint Giles : Bright Ideas

Sunshine finally decided to glisten down over London on Saturday afternoon, swarms of shoppers and bargain hunters filled the seven dials in search for the perfect purchase.
They say everything looks better in the Sunshine; London is most defiantly one of those places. Dark alleyways suddenly don’t seem so dark, and bursts of colour appear where only grey tarmac seemed to lay before.
One enormous burst of colourful sunshine can be found at Central Saint Giles; a previously unloved quarter of central London has been destroyed and has emerged larger and brighter than life.

Renzo Piano (Architect for the Shard of Glass) wanted to design a building that “brought heart and soul into a forgotten part of Central London” and soul it defiantly has. An unusual choice of high quality ceramic cladding in Orange, Yellow, Red and Green give this building impact and create a sense of destination.
Shocking tones are a shock to our eyes that are so used to the dusty grey streetscape with only vulgar asphalt road markings and signage to bring any sense of vibrancy. At first I thought what a brave decision Piano had made in brining such an expressive palette together into such a tight space of Covent Garden. That was until I looked around a little closer; Covent Garden is an artist’s palette of colours, tones and textures, from Shop facades that face the seven dials in an array of colours to the trays of fruit and vegetables that sprawl across the pavement.

It is then obviously clear that Pianos design is converting the best of Covent Garden design into 21st century architecture. Peering down Monmouth street you are greeted at the end with a wall of glowing orange tiles that draw you straight down to explore more and in this respect the scheme is a triumph.
Friends of mine who have seen the development have obviously noted its use of bright colour and questioned its longevity. Such daring pieces of architecture will always split and divide, but with the right choice of retail outlets at ground level I believe this could firmly make its mark on London and eventually into the hearts of Londoners as a vibrant shopping destination.
The ground level is still currently being fitted out; however you can already see how the building plays with its surroundings. Piano has created new alleyways somewhat reminiscent of 19th century design whilst including a central piazza that can view and be viewed from the high street.
Covent Garden and the West End is somewhere I would personally defer from building ground scrapers, the rich history of its streets means any development would have to excel in its design not to damage that special atmosphere unique to the West End. For me Central Saint Giles is that scheme. Its proportions are somewhat bulky and oppressive yet Pianos clever use of facade treatment breaks up any monotonous design, whilst new alleyways and public space break up any long sheer blank walls. Retail can too only be a positive addition connecting Covent Garden, St Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road into one continuous shopping experience.

To build such a daring scheme is never easy and it would have been all too familiar to see this design including white render, standard shop frontages, sheer glass curtain walling or a tasteful palette. Actually I am referring directly to the hideous grey prison like block that imposes itself over this colourful district, the Covent Garden Travelodge.
If there were one project that summed up all the bad ideas of “blending in” and not attracting attention with design, this is it. Powder grey plastic cladding whilst trying to be simple only does more to attract attention by creating a stark sheer wall of blandness.

Central Saint Giles will be loved by some and hated by others, but it’s encouraging to see Architects being allowed the freedom in such a central location to try something daring and not conform to the dumbing down designs we have all become so used to. Containing shops, restaurants, apartments and a rooftop park offering sweeping views across London this colourful development is set to be the new face of Covent Garden.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Postman's Park : Londons Oasis.

Walking up St Martin’s Le Grand under the gaze of the towering dome of St Pauls, your eye is immediately drawn to the brutalist structure in the middle of the road encompassed by roaring traffic. The black and white tiles on the facade and grey concrete streets in the sky are part of the Museum of London. Constructed in the seventies, this brutalist roundabout sculpture is well suited to its towering neighbours of the Barbican Estate.

The contrast from St Pauls to the Barbican is somewhat bewildering; it exudes all that is great about London, a city that has constantly reinvented itself to stay ahead and relevant. Whereas most monuments of this scale in distance cities are surrounded by open parks or plazas, the beauty of St Pauls is only emphasised more by its close proximity to a number of architectural periods spanning hundreds of years.

All this architectural wonder can often bemuse some tourists who aren’t quite sure whether to take a photograph and marvel in its wonder, or recoil at the “insensitive” streetscape. As people make up their minds they head down to the Museum of London and often miss what I consider an essential oasis of hidden London.

Postman’s Park, one of the biggest parks in the City of London, is concealed and so too often missed. Lurking behind the church of St Boltophs Aldergate, this secluded spot is almost guaranteed to be quiet with only a scattering of visitors. Stepping inside the iron gates is a surreal experience, the noise and chaos of the outside traffic simply disappears.
Since opening in 1880, the park has grown and now includes two former burial sites and land on which housing was destroyed in Little Britain.
The more time you spend in the park, the more you notice. Memorials and gravestones amongst rose bushes and trees, fountains and statues give this park a real sense of exploration and history. Most notably this park is famous for its memorial to self sacrifice.

The sheltered seating area is covered with a range of different tiles, each one telling the story of human sacrifice in heroic circumstances. Designed to hold 120 truly remarkable memorials, it is possible to lose yourself for an hour or more in the serenity that is cherished by any Londoner.

Postman’s park has become more popular with tourists and visitors since its appearance in the 2004 film ‘Closer’, however it still remains in my opinion one of London’s best kept secrets. The memorial plaques and head stones from the 1800’s really add a sense of escapism and anonymity to this beautiful Central London retreat.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Bermondsey Street : The Towers of London?

London Bridge isn’t so much falling down as it is rising from the ashes to become a new cultural business quarter. After years of neglect and stagnation, plans are finally breathing new life into this central London locale.

On exiting London Bridge station you cannot fail to notice the towering concrete core of the highly acclaimed London Bridge Tower or ‘The Shard of Glass’ as it is most commonly known. The 309 meter, 72 floor tower will become the tallest building in Europe, designed by world renowned architect Renzo Piano and developed by property group Sellar; The Shard aims to be a new symbol of hope for a prosperous post recession London.

SE1 and the surrounding London Bridge Quarter had been identified as a perfect location for key development and regeneration over a decade ago by Southwark council. As with any major project planned for the Capital there are numerous hurdles to face before the first workman can even think of picking up a reflective jacket.

The last quarter of 2008 saw the final destruction of the 100meter Southwark Towers, by 2009 the site was cleared and the Shard’s preparation work could finally begin.
A stone’s throw away from the Shard construction site lays an empty car park surrounded by unwelcoming wire netting and broken gates. This desolate unused space houses one warehouse, complete with smashed windows, peeling paintwork and buckled woodwork.

Wedged between London Bridge station and Bermondsey Street the location benefits from great transport links and cultural entertainment facilities, therefore it was inevitable that this prime location would be proposed for development.
16th of January 2009, the Building Design online release an article stating that Sellar(the developers of the Shard) are proposing to construct 3 towers (named the Three Houses)on the site with varying heights between 100 and 250meters, the later becoming the tallest residential tower in the Country.
Numerous crude mock ups were instantly produced for the use of the national media, none of which have actually been created by Sellar. An officially released scoping report suggests the towers will have rather small footprints which in turn produce a thinner structure; combined with its height this would suggest the towers are designed with real soar.

The quiet year that followed was filled with the inevitable deep recession hold backs, a developer’s nightmare. Submission of plans were delayed and postponed; the three towers appeared to be nothing more than a fantasy project falling foul to the economic crisis.

December 3rd 2009, the Bermondsey Street Christmas festival is well underway; the narrow street filled with the smell of mulled wine and the twinkling of Christmas lights. Above the street at the Wine and Spirit education trust the Bermondsey Street Area partnership are about to sit down with Sellar to hear the latest news on the newly renamed Three Spires.
No actual renders were shown, not even a massing diagram. All that was shown was the effect the third tower would have upon Bermondsey Street; Sellar stated they had redesigned the lower levels with the sloping facade to reduce the designs bulk on street level. The chairman of BSAP seemed to appreciate the new design measures that had been put in place, but with no concrete plans to look at, the audience were still unconvinced.

The Street has a rich heritage of industry and craftsmanship that can be seen through its streetscape of warehouses and museums. When asked if the contentious Warehouse on site was to be included in the final designs, the answer was No.
Conservation has never before been so relevant or important in London; groups like English Heritage have been propelled into the media spot light to ‘fight’ for London’s history. With all the hurdles and struggles faced when planning a new build of this scale in the capital I was surprised that Sellar had not included the Warehouse as a damage mitigation compromise, it was always going to be a contentious issue and one that could have been resolved before it even started.

The next meeting was to be held in January 2010, the new plans for the Three Spires were to be released at the meeting, and there was a high level of anticipation from the locals, the action groups and existing business partners around London Bridge. The plans however... were not released.
Once more the news fell silent, all attention was being focused on the now rising Shard of Glass which at 20 stories high loomed over the deserted Three Spires site. That was until April the 11th 2010; rumours in the architectural world were that new rendered posters had been displayed at the site. Had Sellar just gone ahead and released the plans without a meeting? Surely not...

Posters covered the area from construction site to lamp posts, complete with the official Southwark council logo. One glance at this rather crude render showed that in fact the image produced was just Richard Seiferts 117 meter Centre Point. Unless Sellar had severely cut back the budget on their design department it was clear that this poster had been created to misinform the public about the Three Spires proposal.
A quick call to Sellar confirmed that this poster was most defiantly nothing to do with them, and action would be taken immediately. Southwark council were also not best pleased that someone had used their official logo without use. 2 days later and there are few posters left; although a new poster has appeared, this time an official letter from Southwark council demanding that all posters be removed with immediate effect but court action is taken.

Shiva LTD, a property development company were ironically behind the poster campaign. With offices on Bermondsey Street I can understand why they would have concerns about the impact on the area and the implications it could pose upon their own business. After following this project on various internet forums and statements from Shiva it turns out that once again, this panic and scaremongering to fellow SE1ers is actually a personal phobia of tall buildings and has very little to do with heritage and design merit. The question I keep asking myself is how can you object to a development when you haven’t even seen the design?

You could say that Shiva have just responded directly to the lack of information from Sellar by creating the poster, or they may have posed serious damage to the planning process but undermining the local residents real concerns.
Apparently the campaign has attracted around 100 objections to a “high buildings zone”, but for a Borough with a popular of over 278,000 this all seems insignificant and screams of hypocrisy.
The campaign continues, and we shall wait with baited breathe to see the final designs before they are submitted for planning. It worries me that in this day and age we seem to be judging a design before it has even been designed, basing our views on heights and figures rather than its architectural merits.
London is a cosmopolitan global city, rich in history and life, but we cannot rest on our laurels, for areas to benefit the community and remain prosperous they must embrace the future and adapt to the needs and demands of modern day London. With a well thought out planning process this does not mean sacrificing our history or heritage.
The battle for the Three Spires will continue, as will many further regeneration projects in the area, let’s just hope moving forward the focus is on the Architecture and not repeating the same mistakes.

The only loser will be London.