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?



12 comments on “The Buildings We Don’t Discuss”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    That’s a really good shot.

  2. SteveB says:

    Interesting you seem to be changing your views on the Shard! I feel the same for what it‘s worth!
    By the by do you know the writer Barry Maitland? Retired Professor of Architecture, his Brock and Kolla series are very traditional procedural whodunnits set in London where architecture plays often a major role. Silvermeadow is faacinating on shopping malls.

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    Love Brock and Kolla series.
    Modern architecture, not so much.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for the heads up, I don’t know this series.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Ballard was, I suspect, a bit of an agent provocateur. ‘Crash’ is an amazing novel, as is one he did about a man getting trapped on a roundabout surrounded by constant traffic – turning an urban landscape into a form of Robinson Crusoe.
    I’m not convinced by his later novels but an earlier short story (1970s?) refers to the fact that all of the astronauts who visited the moon are now dead. To him astronauts were mythic figures, like the knights of the round table and the future was all about how climate change consumed civilisation. His characters weren’t Flash Gordon or Luke Skywalker – they were individuals forced to endure a world that no longer wanted them.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – Ballard’s ‘Trapped on a roundabout’ idea was taken to a beautifully ridiculous extreme by ‘2000 AD’ comic. In ‘Judge Dredd’, the most dreaded prison in Mega City 1 is ‘Devil’s Island’ – a roundabout surrounded on all sides, and several levels, by multi lane motorways, with 24/7 traffic. It’s an open prison, but the chances of dodging high-speed traffic to escape are zero.
    In a similar fashion, many years ago, I saw police in Brighton, holding a load of skinheads (now sans bootlaces) on a traffic island that had railings round it, presumably as they waited for a van to arrive.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Some of the concrete brutalism at it’s best is stunning in a raw form, like the bleak moorland or a windswept cliff in winter. Again when it sits next to a softer sandstone warehouse with its odd Victorian decorations the difference is difficult to ignore. Many of these building are being destroyed, even the best of them, or clad to look like something else.

    On the subject of cladding, the cladding on my blocks is finally being dealt with, over 2 years after Grenfell my block is still unsafe. It will be months before they get to my block. Salford a poor Labour did there blocks years back, Trafford a rich Conservative area is putting up scaffolding at last.


  8. Ian Luck says:

    Loosely connected, this, but… I was just listening to the news on the radio, which mentioned that our current PM, Strewelpelter, had chaired a COBRA meeting about the South Yorkshire floods. COBRA. Sounds exciting, mysterious, a bit SMERSH, SPECTRE, UNCLE, UNIT, WASP, WIN, SHADO. The truth is very British, and rather mundane. COBRA stands for: ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room ‘A” Indeed.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    as any fule reading M. Herrin would know. It really does sound weird, though, when it’s just top brass meeting and yammering on.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – Did you mean Mick Herron? His ‘Jackson Lamb’ books have been some of my favourite recent reads. Any series whose main character’s occasional response to superiors is by acknowledging with flautus, is worth several hours of anyone’s time. The books are well-plotted, thrilling, and, in places, laugh out loud funny. Also, Lamb is easily pictured, as Mick Herron himself reckons he looks like the brilliant actor, Timothy Spall.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Cobra is the nemesis of G.I. Joe. (who became Action Man in the UK).


  12. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Ian, I did mean Mick Herron and I am working my way through his works as well as Charles Stross’ just to keep my brain working. Stross has a very creative mind where vocabulary is concerned. I’ve just finished Neptune’s Brood and will never think about accountancy the same way again.

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