The Custom House (3)

Rather fascinatingly, the Bermuda-based owners of the scheme to develop the historic Custom House as (another) luxury hotel have withdrawn their proposals before going to the City’s planning committee. This is presumably because they had been told that they would be turned down, so they are no doubt adapting the plans to make them more acceptable.

I hope this might indicate a change of heart on the part of the City post-COVID, acknowledging that a programme of aggressive new development may not, after all, be the best strategy to retain the City’s prestige as a great financial centre and it may, instead, require re-thinking in relation to changing patterns of work. My own view is that it would be worth them re-thinking the area round the Tower, including the Custom House; they should pay more attention to the surviving historic fabric; and they should think how to make the City a better environment to walk round, instead of trying to turn it into Hong Kong.

Remember the hedge fund managers long ago moved out. Many banks went to Canary Wharf. They can’t want the City to become an environment of empty tower blocks.


Oslo (3)

As well as spending a great deal of time enjoying and exploring the different floors of the new Munch Museum (you will have to await my full verdict for the December issue of the Burlington Magazine), I also explored more of the old town.

I walked past what I think is the Cental Post Office building in Tollbugata, but can’t find much about its history other than the fact that construction began in 1906, was completed in 1924 and it ceased to be a post office in 2004:-

The Magistrat Gaarden:-

What seem to be barracks:-

And out on the coast the Akershus Fortress, a medieval palace converted into a seventeenth-century palace:-


Oslo (2)

I thought I would begin by exploring the new parts of the City which are being constructed very elaborately after the closure of the working docks.

There is a huge and very elaborate new public library, the Deichman Library, opened in June 2020, not perhaps very prepossessing from outside, but spectacularly spacious inside, with escalators taking one upwards, more public working space than somewhere for books:-

Next, I walked up the roof of Snøhetta’s opera house, which seems to have been popular and successful, opened in 2008, a bit like a public ski slope:-

Then, the new Munch museum looms into view, bending its top, as if subservient to the Snøhetta building. I think I will reserve judgment on it until I have seen more of it. It’s had a pretty troubled history, the product of a competition in 2008, nearly axed in 2011, designed by Juan Herreros, a Spanish architect, in an appropriately industrial style, opening tomorrow:-

It gave me an irresistible urge to go and see the old Munch Museum, now closed, which opened in 1963 next door to the botanical gardens. I can’t say I mourn its closure. It doesn’t look to me to have had a great deal to recommend it – a low-rise, single story which opened in 1963. But at least I was able to explore the surrounding area of Tøyen and walk through the gardens:-


Oslo (1)

I can’t say that it’s the perfect introduction to Oslo because it’s cold and very damp with snow on the ground in the countryside. My first impressions ? Easy to walk, not much traffic, the late nineteenth-century heart of the city still reasonably intact, low-rise and green. I saw some of the grand new building on the docks, but am hoping for better weather tomorrow. Meanwhile, I was able to admire the cathedral, with its bronze doors of 1938:-

And its adjacent neo-Romanesque Basarhallen, designed by Christian Heinrich Grosch in the 1850s as butcher shops:-

Nice art nouveau detailing on the Norges Bank building just behind the Architecture Museum (completed 1906):-


The Tulip Tower

I see that the Tulip Tower is being talked up in the hope that Michael Gove will overturn most of the advice that he has been given and grant permission for the construction of the Tulip Tower, which would become the tallest tower in the City, a grand symbol of its vanity and ostentation.

It seems an odd project because it’s essentially just a tower with restaurants and a viewing platform – in other words, a latter-day reincarnation of the Post Office Tower whose revolving restaurant has been closed for the last forty five years as a security risk.

Also, it looks much less like a tulip than a prominent piece of male anatomy, which is somehow appropriate as a monument to the current generation of City Fathers.


The rituals of travel

I got an email last week asking if I would like to go to Oslo to review the new Munch Museum. Of course ! What could he nicer ! Except that I have nearly forgotten what it’s like to travel in an aeroplane, having not been near one for nearly two years, so am horribly out of practice with the rituals of travel – getting up at dawn, the button going on my trousers just as I was saying goodbye, the long trip out by the District and Piccadilly lines (my ex-PA disapproved of the Heathrow Express), the fact that my braces always show up as a security risk, trying to buy handkerchiefs at Terminal 2. It’s quite like old times, apart from the rising COVID rates.


The Custom House (2)

The Gentle Author has drawn attention to the fact that the Custom House – a fine, but very austere public building facing onto the Thames just by the Tower – is due to be turned, like the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, into a luxury hotel by its owners, an offshore company based in Bermuda.

He treads lightly over the oddity that HMRC, the previous owners of the building, transferred ownership to an offshore company in Bermuda long ago, on condition that they remained in the building for twenty years.

It’s not an easy building to convert and it is in a tricky location, but could surely be turned into something a bit more interesting and imaginative than another hotel. But it’s difficult for anyone to make proposals because of the overseas ownership. It was a clever way for HMRC to do it, because it avoids public scrutiny and because those who were responsible for it will by now have retired – perhaps in Bermuda themselves.


Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones

There is a very good interview with Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones in this month’s RIBA Journal, which gives a sense of their respective personalities (see below).   Considering how much important work they have done, particularly in central London – the Royal Opera House, the Ondaatje Wing at the NPG, the opening up of the Somerset House courtyard and King’s Place, not to forget the Saïd Business School in Oxford – I often feel that their work has not been as much studied or appreciated as it deserves, partly because they set up in partnership relatively late, partly because the Royal Opera House is very sensitive to its scale and relationship to its surroundings and partly because, in different ways, they were both influenced by the change in attitude towards history and modernism during the 1970s, as indeed was Jim Stirling, but this doesn’t seem to have affected his fame and reputation. I worked with them very closely at the NPG and subsequently at the National Gallery. I still regard them as the nicest and best of architects – a good double act, both of them working together on both projects, although they tended to work not quite so closely thereafter. I particularly like the photograph of them in 1973 as young, hippy idealists, which they partly remain.


Stirling Prize 2021 (2)

An interesting choice of winner for this year’s Stirling Prize: good that the Town House, commissioned by Kingston University, acts at the intersection of town and gown; good that the prize has been won by Grafton Architects, intelligent, lowkey Irish architects. The Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield may have been a bit too obvious. One faintly wonders if the jury were really able to see the Windermere Jetty Museum in situ. My own limited experience of architectural juries is that one can’t help but be influenced by the way a project is presented by its client and by the quality of construction, which doesn’t show up in photographs. So, the bookies got it wrong.