Letter from London
Paul Finch, 21 August 2019
The silly season is in full flow.
The surreal political scene in the UK has been the context for a series of controversial/farcical events in the world of architecture. The first was the re-appointment of Professor Sir Roger Scruton, conservative philosopher, as a co-chair of the clumsily named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (let’s call it BeauCo). Only three months earlier he had been sacked for politically incorrect statements he had made in an interview with the left-wing New Statesman magazine. After a social media storm, he was summarily dismissed, without the benefit of an interview with the politician who sacked him, the Secretary of State for housing and local government, James Brokenshire.
Shortly before Teresa May’s forced departure as prime minister, she apologised to Scruton, because it turned out that the controversial interview had been recorded – revealing that the published interview bore little relation to what Sir Roger had actually said, and indeed in some instances suggested he had said the opposite. Brokenshire went further, not only apologising but reappointing the professor, this time as a co-chair. If the minister thought it would save his political career he was mistaken, since he was summarily dismissed by incoming prime minister Boris Johnson.
Boris is a fan of architecture in general, but in particular the sort of grand projet that makes him think he is a Roman emperor. The most obvious example of this is the ‘sculpture’ he commissioned by the great Anish Kapoor to mark the London Olympic Games in 2012. He persuaded the ArcelorMittal steel company to stump up the money for what in fact was a building, complete with lift, café, viewing platform etc. Unfortunately the beauty of the original conception was lost in translation, and the Orbit (quite unnecessary given the prominence and elegance of three major nearby buildings – stadium, aquatics centre and velodrome) became an object of derision. Its sorry history has seen it transformed into a helter skelter – a lingering memory of the bread and circus Olympic experience.
Boris was also a great supporter of the ‘Garden bridge’ project designed by Thomas Heatherwick with Arup as engineers and Dan Pearson providing landscape design. However, despite the opprobrium heaped on him by parts of the media and jealous architects, the reality is that Boris did not invent the project – it was invented by the actress Joanna Lumley, who raised very considerable amounts of money via a charitable trust to deliver the project. Boris loved the idea and committed £40 million of public money to supporting it, only to see its prospects of being built vanish as a result of political opportunism by his successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan. The latter supported the bridge throughout his electoral campaign but dumped the commitment when the political going got tough. So he spent the money but got zero in return.
Back to Boris when he was mayor, and thinking about post-Olympic development: he persuaded the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to commit £170 million to the ‘Olympicopolis’ arts project on a big chunk of the Olympic site. An architectural competition was held, won by a team including allies & Morrison and O’Donnell and Tuomey, to create what is now called ‘East Bank’, a counterpoint to the South Bank arts centre created in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. it will be used by organizations including the London School of Fashion, Saddlers Wells ballet, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Smithsonian. This should be a successful legacy project and Boris can take much of the credit for bringing it about. The Garden Bridge critics don’t talk about it much.
Meanwhile Sadiq Khan goes about his business giving London a reputation for not doing things. In a display of aesthetic macho-posturing, he intervened to block construction of the Foster & Partners ‘Tulip’ viewing tower and education centre, even though it had been given permission by the tough local planning authority, the City Corporation. It was an elected mayor letting the most important area for the British economy know who is really boss.
This creepy attitude was no surprise to those who attended a press conference a couple of years back, on the Greenwich Peninsula next to the O2 dome. The mayor was there to announce/launch/promote a grandiose design by Santiago Calatrava, involving four sloping towers that looked as though they had by picked up from an emerging Chinese city and dropped on London.
Why the mayor backed this project is mysterious. (It involved demolishing the Foster & Partners bus station on the site – does he have something against Norman?) What was even more mysterious, for the journalists who had been conned into attending the event, was the announcement that there was no time for questions, that the mayor would do a photocall but had a busy schedule and would be leaving shortly.
This insulting behaviour now has an appropriate denouement: the developer for the Calatrava design has just announced that it has been scrapped. Again this is no great surprise, since a design for about 100,000 square metres which has to be built in one phase is a kiss of death for rational financing and construction, at least in the UK. No comment from the mayor thus far.
It may be that mayoral attention is focussed on another mega-project in west London, for a lumpen hotel design replacing a 1970s far smaller example by Richard Seifert. While the architects for the new project, Simpson Haugh, are generally excellent designers, the greed of their client in relation to this site has to be seen to be believed. Unsurprisingly, the planning application was rejected by the local planning authority, Kensington & Chelsea – but Sadiq Khan intervened and gave the project permission, enraging local residents, amenity societies and the council itself.
Kensington & Chelsea is now going to court to challenge the mayor’s decision, which is supposedly justified by a pitiful number of affordable housing units being provided as part of the monster hotel. In his instance, it is not a price worth paying.
The butcher occupiers of Smithfield meat market have finally bitten the relocation bullet and are moving out from the historic site and market buildings, the main one having been designed by sir Horace Jones for the City Corporation (he also designed Tower Bridge).
Now the search is on for architects to reinvent what is a wonderful opportunity to complement the major project for the west end of the market, the relocating Museum of London. The brilliant Stanton Williams are heading the competition-winning design team for the project, which is certain to be a world-class venue when completed.
With the emerging Diller Scofidio designs for a concert hall on the nearby site currently occupied by the Museum of London, this part of the capital is buzzing.