Tag Archives: architecture

The absence of architecture

Community Garden, Lower East Side flickr.com/neatnessdotcom

Community Garden, Lower East Side flickr.com/neatnessdotcom

Nothing is better about contemporary London architecture than a lack of it. After the demolition of the Swiss Centre on Leicester Square, a beautiful rectangle opened up – eating dim sum in Joy King Lau we could look across the void to Whitcomb Street and see the jumble of mismatched adjoining buildings and balcony bars. The breathing space lasted barely a breath: now another soulless behemoth of a hotel is being assembled, consuming the space, chewing out the sky.

Meanwhile, the multicoloured slab-sides of Renzo Piano’s new Central St Giles development (the kind of building that makes you wonder if Al Qaeda does requests) are a grim reminder that the governing principle of urban architecture isn’t any kind of plastic artistry, but rather the brutal economics of floor space measured in square metres. It’s clear that we can’t hope for any more good buildings: the best we can hope for is that they demolish the awful ones we already have.

In Walthamstow, the site of a failed shopping development has been paved over and a few desultory benches added: the cheapest possible form of public space, a skatepark for empty crisp packets. On Oxford Street, Land Securities, developers of proposed flats on the site of the old Park House have run into trouble and want to turn the wasteland into a temporary corporate hospitality venue for film parties and reality TV shows. At least some are campaigning to turn the Middlesex Hospital site into community allotments. Better by far would be the kind of community gardens that the residents of New York’s Lower East Side have been developing since the 1970s. Community gardens don’t just provide for diversity, playgrounds and public art, but through their membership require intelligent and collective decision-making about the shared use of green space. London could do with some more of that, and a bit more demolition, too.


Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.


Were you ever bullied in a toilet at school, or was it something you only saw on Grange Hill? At the Westminster Academy at the Naim Dangoor Centre, which opened last year on the Harrow Road, the toilets have been designed by architects specifically to counter bullying: individual cubicles with floor-to-ceiling partitions come off a corridor with exits at both ends, making it difficult to trap or harass another kid out of sight of teachers.

Such is the level of thought that goes into the basic fabric of an Academy School. Westminster, which took its first students last year, replacing half of the North Westminster Community School (recently celebrated by the Serpentine), is open on Open House weekend. L and K opt to be shown round by a pair of enthusiastic students, while P, who has a school to build himself, and I go for the architectural tour, led by Susan Le Good of AHMM, the architects currently shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling prize for their work on the building.

It’s quite spectacular, both inside and out. Layered in rising terracotta greens and yellows on the outside, on the inside gallery floors rise around a central atrium, with a single narrow staircase linking top floor to bottom. Many of the walls are bare concrete, both to save budget on coverings, and for its thermal properties, keeping the building at an even temperature. Sound is deadened by wood wool boards and curious little acoustic baffles hanging from the ceiling everywhere, colour-coordinated with the citrus theme. The sun coming in through the atrium’s ceiling is tempered by an array of rectangular angled boards, in fact no more than painted door blanks.

Hemmed between the Harrow Road and the Westway, the building is a self-contained box: windows don’t open, keeping noise and pollution out. Air is circulated mechanically below the raised floors. Almost everything about the building is self-consciously ‘inspirational’: emblazoned on the outside walls of classrooms are quotes from everyone from Nelson Mandela to Khalil Gibran (the Academy’s prospectus opens with a quote from Malcolm X, though it’s not the one about chickens coming home to roost). On the third floor, a window gallery hosts a semi-permanent exhibition of Naoki Honjo‘s large format tilt-shift photographs of Tokyo.

The school’s curriculum and ethos is oriented around some kind of idea of global business. On one level, it seems like a totally appropriate vision for a school in which English is not the first language of 89% of the students. Transparent windows are overlaid with iconised skylines of other ‘global cities’; the back wall of the cafeteria shouts the names of a global menu, from ackee & saltfish to sushi. It’s slightly more sinister that the central atrium is known as ‘the marketplace’, and another set of windows carries a bizarre alphabetical list of financial trading terms like ‘hedge fund’ and ‘vulture capital’, as if to be uncritically learned by rote. Merits and gold stars have been replaced by Vivo Miles, a smart card identity and rewards system (the keen student guides were getting fifty apiece for their extracurricular participation). The equation of the world with world markets seems like a particularly pernicious bit of Blatcherite ideology, though Susan assures us that the kids learn the normal curriculum. I refrain from asking whether with their concentration on the global economy the kids have been upset by the credit crunch.

I also wonder (aloud), how much of the architectural thought that went into the school concentrated on the monitoring and control of students, creating an environment where nothing is unseen. It’s not just for the kids, either: there’s minimal staffroom space for the teachers, who eat and socialise with students. Another tour participant, a teacher involved in the early planning stages of the building says that on the contrary it’s all about making the students feel safe in school, a place where they haven’t always felt secure. And despite the physically and socially sealed box of the school (no leaving at lunchtime), the entrance is at least welcoming, without barriers or cardswipes. The other half of North Westminster was absorbed by the Paddington Academy. From the outside it certainly looks more like a prison than a school, and it wasn’t open for Open House.

And who is Naim Dangoor? He’s the self-proclaimed Babylonian Exilarch, ex coca-cola magnate and self-appointed leader of Iraqi jews in Britain, moved to educational philanthropy for the refuge England offered him when the pre-Saddam Ba’ath party purged Iraqi jewry. The Dangoor family stepped in to support the Academy, when the original sponsors, Chelsfield (who proposed the whole global business thing, so you can hold your stereotypes right there) dropped out.

They get a lot of bang for their sponsorship buck: Academy sponsorship involves putting up a couple of million quid, about ten percent of the capital budget, for the build itself (DCSF or whatever it’s called this week, supplies the rest in public money), and no ongoing revenue funding for maintenance, equipment teachers etc. In return, you get naming rights in perpetuity (the building is built to last fifty or more years), and the power of appointment to the school’s governing body.

The Dangoor family are members of the congregation of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, also open for Open House this weekend. It’s a Sephardi synagogue, an extension of the Bevis Marks synagogue (the oldest in England, established not long after Cromwell’s readmission of jews to England), opened in 1896 for a jewish community moving away from the East End at the same time as thousands of Ashkenazi fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe were arriving. In comparison to the more modest places of worship being established on the outskirts of the City, Lauderdale Road has an understated kind of grandeur, with a white-banded red brick exterior, brown marble columns inside and Moorish-domed ark. A cheerful man plays us choral music from iTunes on his laptop and explains the continual, social nature of a typical three-hour Saturday service at the synagogue.

I think it’ll be a while before I feel like queuing up outside the Bank of England or Lloyds of London again: sometimes just-down-the-road is the best bit of Open House.