When Big Architects Get Big Ideas



I’ve always disliked Richard Rogers (not the composer, the architect). Although I know the purpose is for their interiors to be sightline-free, I still think Paris’s garish Pompidou Centre is an eyesore, and I hate London’s gasworks-like Lloyds building. Both have exteriors that look like Ferraris made for the Middle Eastern market have been carelessly smashed into in graceful old areas. Rogers was seen as a healthy modernist antidote to neo-classical timidity, but with passing time his buildings appear increasingly crass, stations of the cross leading to a tower-block London devoid of any indigenous style.

Rogers was defeated in his plan to rebuild a quiet corner of London that just happened to be in a highly visible spot. Coin Street was an inconsequential neighbourhood in Waterloo, and suddenly found itself at the heart of a war between big business and local concerns. Rogers wanted to fill it with tower blocks. His developers announced plans to build Europe’s tallest hotel and put over a million square feet of office space on the site, but for once a highly organised local campaign beat the developers and created a low-rise housing cooperative, in a hugely successful social housing project for Londoners on lower incomes that has become a symbol of sustained success.

Here’s what Rogers had planned;

Coin St

And here’s what the community developers achieved;


I’ve been watching Jay Foreman’s excellent series on Unfinished London, and he’s been pointing out some of the projects that never saw completion. For example, there’s still no easy way to cross London by car, despite many failed projects to create traffic flow. I’ve been finding my way across the capital via every conceivable route all my life, and still can’t find how to avoid bottlenecks in Camden or Rotherhithe.

‘London As It Might Have Been’ by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde is also a terrific volume of aborted plans and grand ideas, some of which are stunning, others which thankfully failed (there’s a particularly awful blueprint of Norman Foster’s glass dome for Hammersmith which is even worse than what they’ve currently got) and Foreman’s YouTube partworks bring the story up to date here.


More hilarious is the plan for an airport at King’s Cross which would have allowed a concrete cartwheel of runways over the buildings, drenching the air with fuel fumes and dropping the odd plane into the street. At least the architect did concede that aircraft might need better brakes. In columns passim I’ve been looking at the changing face of Soho, but here’s a plan that would really have removed it once and for all, a concrete mall to replace the entire neighbourhood.

So Long Soho

It’s easy to be horrified by looking at these plans with hindsight, but you have to consider how London developed, via Romans, Tudors and Victorians who never thought of the city as a whole, but built each area piecemeal. The effects of wars made us less respectful to those buildings which should have been kept and many were pulled down simply because they had sustained slight damage, such as cracks which could easily have been repaired.

Architecture is typically considered the province of machismo, but Elizabeth, Duchess of Rutland, was a fine Regency architect who conceived grand plans for Hyde Park Corner, including a beautiful palace. Perhaps London would not now be losing its human scale if more female architects were involved?


9 comments on “When Big Architects Get Big Ideas”

  1. Vivienne says:

    The combination of wartime destruction and steel frame techniques didn’t help and there probably wasn’t a conservation concept at the relevant time: life was just pretty difficult for most. I know my parents didn’t like or value Victorian buildings, as they had grown up in them when they were dark and dirty. It’s hard to remember just how dirty London was, but the intricacies made it difficult to keep clean. The clean lines of 1930s modern type buildings was appealing, particularly for women who had to do the cleaning without servants. So no one cared and there wasn’t really anything/anyone who was overseeing the planning…. The developers had their way.

  2. snowy says:

    Perhaps only of interest to those within walking/tube distance.

    Bar Italia on Frith Street are selling ‘Save Soho’ badges as part of the campaign.


    There is a link of that page to the campaign

    Of slightly wider interest, [and even on topic, for a change!], might be a book that I came across earlier in the week.

    Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City
    by Anna Minton

    From the blurb:

    Britain’s streets have been transformed by the construction of new property – but it’s owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV. Have these gleaming business districts, mega malls, gated developments – even the Olympic Park – led to ‘regeneration’, or have they intensified social divisions and made us more fearful of each other?

    Anna Minton’s acclaimed polemic, now updated to cover the UK property collapse and London’s controversial Olympic Park, shows us the face of Britain today. It reveals the untested – and unwanted – urban planning that is changing not only our cities, but the nature of public space, of citizenship and of trust.

  3. Robert-Adam Mundhenk says:

    I have enjoyed his books for years and have just discovered his blog. Yee Gads! Mr. Fowler becomes more and more impressive does he not?

  4. Vivienne says:

    Will probably buy Ground Control, but, alas, think it will be preaching to the converted.

  5. admin says:

    There’s a new development on this idea, Snowy – the new buildings opposite me have key worker flats on the ground floor, but the expensive flats have a garden on the fifth floor, free from the sightlines of the grubby Poors down below!

  6. snowy says:

    OK you’ve piqued my interest, but given you have windows on four sides? it doesn’t narrow it down much. 🙂

    Normally they would try to wangle the ground floor as retail or food/drink, posh up top and fill the middle bits that have no views or only the stunning vista of the bins, with affordable/key worker hutches.

    But that said there have always been levels reflecting status*, you will doubtless have seen or even visited somebody in one of the old basement flats. The sort with a short flight of stairs down from pavement level to the front door, where the only light comes from a front window, which is half obscured by the stairs. ‘Sketch’ has one to the right of the entrance.

    [There were/are two levels meaner than that, basements whose only light filters down through glass bricks set into the pavement and those with no natural light at all, designed as cellars but rented none the less.]

    What was new to me in the last few years was the ‘shed people’, councils have been finding sheds, garages and even old coal/coke bunkers rigged out with, I was going to say bunkbeds, but they are more like shelves. Packed so tight that even the designers of Japanese ‘Cube Hotels’ think it’s a bit off.

    [*The bit jammed on at the end.
    The trend for penthouses and living way above the street was started by Otis the elevator king, before then the situation was the inverse. living on the ground floors saved the effort of climbing flights and flights of stairs and commanded a premium. The higher floors were the homes of the poorer tenents.]

  7. Helen Martin says:

    When elevators were installed did the owners up the rents of the upper floors? They’d never lower the rents of the lower ones, of course.

  8. snowy says:

    From memory and sort of joining up the dots from various sources:

    The short-ish answer is they were fitted initially only in new buildings and the rich migrated to the new up-market properties, leaving the old buildings behind. The landlords could then subdivide the old suites into many much smaller flats to recover the lost rental income.

    Once the problem of the stairs had ‘disappeared’ the well-off could move away from the noise and smells at ground level, [it coincided with the increasing use of noisy motor vehicles and their great clouds of exhaust fumes.]

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Makes perfect sense, Snowy.

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