The Buildings We Don’t Discuss
We tend to ignore the things we don’t like. Whenever London is depicted in a tourism brochure, there are photographs of churches and palaces, guards and statues with nary a modern building in sight. A city is defined by its uniqueness, not by another anonymous glass box from Richard Rogers.
The Hilton Hotel at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 (1990) is meant to look like an aircraft hangar, and could only have been built for an airport. Its immense glass façade and white steel hood became much-copied, often badly. It was the writer JG Ballard’s favourite building and he described it thus; ‘Beautifully proportioned, it resembles a cross between a brain surgery hospital and a space station. I am always supremely happy in its vast atrium, and I wait for the day when the whole of London resembles this future classic’.
He also called it, ‘part space-age hangar and part iceberg, the most exhilarating building in the British Isles today, and I hope, a model of what the Thames Valley will one day become.’ This statement alone was enough to cause a mass clutching of pearls across the Thames Valley, an area that prides itself on looking like a bad oil painting of Ye Olde Englande on a Travelodge bedroom wall.
But London is not a nostalgic Harry Potter World. It’s a patchwork of old and new, and often the juxtapositions create beauty.
Ballard’s controversial view of the Hilton feels right the more one thinks about it; it is unique, it suits its purpose and is in the right setting. It does not offer us a false facade to keep English Heritage happy. Spittalfields’ Gentle Author has published a book on this ghastly phenomenon, analysing facadism in London – why it is happening and what it means – accompanied by a gallery of the most notorious examples.
Buildings like the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie have a refreshing vulgarity and are settling into London’s strange skyline, the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral coexisting with the spire of the Shard (taken this morning). You can see the Shard and St Paul’s seemingly melded together, although St Paul’s is much nearer. If we follow Ballard’s architectural rules, what other buildings would we learn to approve of?