The Custom House

I have been tipped off that there is a big issue with the Custom House, a historically very significant, but relatively unfamiliar building on the Thames just west of the Tower of London, which is easily accessible on foot from the Tower, but pretty cut off from the rest of the City by Lower Thames Street, which, as a traffic-clogged dual carriageway, does not exactly encourage exploration of the river frontage – in effect, its public value was destroyed by 1960s road planning.

The current building, which is impressive in a low-key neoclassical way, was put up in 1813, designed by David Laing, a pupil of John Soane. He had been appointed Surveyor to the Customs in 1810, responsible also for a new customs house in Plymouth. Not surprisingly, its most prominent façade is towards the river, with a central block reconstructed by Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum and a fellow student of Soane: a building of obvious historic importance in terms of the relationship of the City to river trade, responsible historically for the collection of customs on goods imported from all over the world.

The building has been used until this year by HM Customs and Revenue, but was sold twenty years ago by Gordon Brown when Chancellor to Mapeley, a property company based in Bermuda – an unusual transaction for a puritanical Scot, transferring a major public building to the private sector. It is now in the process of being sold and being developed – you guessed it – as a hotel, as if London post-COVID has an unlimited appetite for luxury hotels, instead of being made available, like Somerset House, for improved public use. It’s presumably just a convenient way of offloading its upkeep to the private sector.

The city planning committee are about to consider the plans (20/00631/FULMAJ). Do we trust them to do the right thing and consider more imaginative proposals ?

London has long needed a proper Museum of Photography. And a Museum of Fashion. We need things to lure foreign tourists back to London. And the pattern of work is changing. The City needs to think imaginatively and creatively about its future.

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