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;
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.
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?