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.