London’s Lost Buildings


London has been both lucky and unlucky in its architecture. Lucky because fires and bombs wiped away its slums, forcing governments to renew, and unlucky because town planners destroyed much that was good (in the 1960s more intact buildings were destroyed than were lost in the Blitz). Look, if you will, at this hopelessly drippy bit of CAD, where a tiny handful of people cross a carefully mowed undulating lawn-bridge, and be thankful the Wobbly Bridge was built instead. Setting aside the fact that it would never have worked – sheer numbers would have scoured the grass into dried mud – who are these pedestrians? One man is mowing the grass as if he’s in a suburban backyard, there’s a hag figure seemingly from a Hans Anderson story, possibly a witch in disguise, someone is doing a Paula Radcliffe under a tree and a family appear to be clustered around a Sellotaph, possibly placed there to commemorate a stabbing.

Well, the credit crunch is now putting paid to a lot of new buildings. Richard Rogers’ steel and glass makeover for the South Bank is dead, as is KPF’s depressing Smithfield redesign. The Independent points out that ‘we take the skyline for granted. We see St Paul’s from the top of Fleet Street, framed by a visual cacophony of street signs. We barely glance out of the cab window as we sluice through Parliament Square. Would we notice more if some of London’s ghost buildings had survived?’

As noted below, Lord Peter Palumbo fought to get James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry built in the mid-Nineties. The result was either a radical postmodern design or a bad Miami disco, depending on your taste. 30 years earlier, his sponsorship of a building opposite Mansion House by Mies van der Rohe would have stuck a clone of New York’s Seagram Building just metres away from elegant Palladian buildings. Thank God Le Corbusier didn’t get his hands on London.

Some London lost buildings were impossible from the outset, even for the Victorians. The design for Selfridges Tower in 1918 was hilariously overblown, the pyramid necropolis was gothic creepiness personified and the Great Victorian Way, a glazed pathway with shops, restaurants, elevated roads and a railway would have encircled central London in a kind of steampunk shopping mall.

Recently the American architect Rafael Vinoly’s Battersea power station scheme featured an inhabited 300ft glass chimney rising out of a transparent canopy, but the Mayor has killed that. The V&A Spiral was described as “the Guggenheim in Bilbao turned on its side and then beaten senseless with a hammer”. Its fractal-coated surface was too new for the V&A backers.

There are many great books about London’s lost buildings, including ‘London As It Might Have Been’ and ‘The London We Have Lost’, but it’s interesting to note that as we undergo the so-called East-West Tilt (power rapidly shifting away from the West to the East) few have got to grips with the new in the West, compared to China – it takes a city like Pudong to make places like Los Angeles look like rural backwaters.

5 comments on “London’s Lost Buildings”

  1. Mary says:

    Pudong is amazing. It’s like something from ‘Bladerunner’. It’s clever but somehow scary. Your description of the undulating lawn-bridge cracked me up! There is a sellotaph on the A30 which is five years old and still growing. Some poor soul, on a bike, had an arguement with a tree and the site of this incident is now a permanent shrine.

  2. Mary says:

    Forgot to say…my fond London memories are being allowed free into the the Whispering Gallery; watching the Queen’s gold coronation coach in the Mall; feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and enjoying Kew Gardens for 3d entrance fee. Bryant and I would have much to discuss!

  3. Anne Fernie says:

    There seems to be a headlong rush into this macho-build (bigger, higher, shinier etc)architecture. It all looks amazing but in my experience these structures / cityscapes are utterly user-unfriendly. As a mere human being you feel insignificant and rejected by it all as you wander around the glass and steel corridors that lead to nowhere. These are statements to be admired not cities to be lived in.

  4. Chris Tandy says:

    …and computer-aided design aids and abets this ‘headlong rush into macho-build’. It’s so much easier to create sim-cities, but I would rather trust the architect-designer who wields a pencil rather than a mouse. That way, I feel there is some scope for remembering that cities should be designed around people; not the other way round.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Before this incredible building phase started, how big was Pudong? Did they start all this as a start-up city? If the building is started on empty land you can do what you like, but if you are fitting buildings into occupied space than courtesy demands a certain amount of polite echoing to show you are aware of your context.

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