The New Custom House (1)

As readers of my blog will know, I have been following the battle which has been going on about the future development of the Custom House into – how did you guess ? – another luxury hotel.

This morning I was allowed to give evidence to the Planning Inquiry which is currently taking place about the future of the Custom House. Most of the evidence is about the technicalities of planning law. I tried to address the broader issues of the protection of historic architecture as the City develops post-lockdown and what sort of City we want. I am reproducing my submission here:-

CUSTOM HOUSE PLANNING INQUIRY

SUBMISSION OF THIRD-PARTY EVIDENCE BY SIR CHARLES SAUMAREZ SMITH

• I’m grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence to the Inquiry, having been encouraged to do so by the Gentle Author, whose daily blog, Spitalfields Life, has done such a good job in drawing attention to the amount of change and development which is currently going on in East London.  

• I speak as someone who was trained as an architectural historian, writing a PhD. at the Warburg Institute on the architecture of Castle Howard, and who, since retiring from the Royal Academy of Arts as its Secretary and Chief Executive, has taken an increasing interest in issues of urban development.   I live not so far away in East London, so have been watching what has been happening in the fringes of the City with increasing concern at its speed and its lack of regard for the history of the City.

• What I want to do is not so much discuss the merits and demerits — the detailed rights and wrongs — of the two proposals in front of you for the development of the Custom House.   The first, from Cannon Capital Developments, is to turn the majority of the historic building into a commercial development, dominated, like the nearby Trinity House Building, by a big hotel:  the scheme is, as described on the website, ‘hotel-led’.   The second scheme, as put forward by the Georgian Group, is to ensure that there is proper public access to the building, particularly to the Long Room in the centre of the building, as has happened, for example, so successfully at Somerset House not far away, where you have such a successful combination of public and private use, opening up William Chambers’ central courtyard to public enjoyment;  and, indeed, as has happened nearby at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where its Great Hall is now vested in a separate trust, so is much more freely available to public use.

• Instead of looking at the detail of the two schemes, I would like to consider three broad contexts for understanding and looking at what is currently proposed.  

• The first context is the way that access to the River Thames and the riverside more generally has been opened up to the public in the last twenty years:  most obviously and most successfully in the stretch of the river from Tower Bridge to the Royal Festival Hall, where, for example, the conversion of the old industrial power station into Tate Modern has totally transformed that part of London for the better.   We now take this development and its pleasures for granted, as if it has always been there, but I think it needs to be remembered that it was only Mark Fisher and the late Richard Rogers who effectively proposed opening up public access to the river in their book The New London, published in 1991, a proposal which then became public policy.[1]

• So far, the City has not in any way benefitted from a similar change, apart from the straggling Thames Path, which is currently the only way of actually seeing the Custom House — a building of vastly much greater historical interest and significance than Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station.   Those of you who have tried walking the stretch of the Thames Path north of the river from Blackfriars Station to the Tower will have discovered that it is currently not a pleasant experience.   It seems to me that, with a more imaginative and more publicly-oriented scheme which is devoted more than Cannon’s proposal currently is to opening up the Custom House to public access and public use, particularly on the river side, it might be possible to make a significant transformation to the public’s enjoyment of this part of the north side of the river, enabling people — not just tourists, not just guests at a luxury hotel, but city workers — to enjoy the riverbank west of the Tower of London.  

• The last twenty years have seen London change from a city dominated by traffic into one where it is becoming easier to walk and explore;  but not, I reiterate, in the part of the City round the Custom House.   There is a great and historic opportunity to make the Custom House into a public amenity, not just another private hotel.

• The second context is a more obvious one, which is the history of the Custom House and its immense interest and importance as a historic building.   Built immediately adjacent to the site of Christopher Wren’s Custom House, it represents that period of public architecture immediately after the Battle of Waterloo:  a period of grand public buildings, including the National Gallery, University College and the British Museum, which was designed by Robert Smirke, who did the renovation of the Custom House in the 1820s.   I am not going to pretend that David Laing, who designed the New Custom House in 1813, is an architect of equivalent interest and importance to Robert Smirke or William Wilkins.   But, as you will all know, he was trained by Sir John Soane, the greatest architect of this period, and he designed the New Custom House in Soane’s style of very restrained and monumental classicism as first recorded by Sir Albert Richardson in his book Monumental Classic Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland, first published in 1914.[2]

• The third context I want to draw attention to and get you to think about is the world of work.   Of course, none of us quite know what is going to happen in the future to the world of work.   It is fairly obvious that the City is trying as hard as possible to ignore the fact that the pattern of work is changing, partly as a result of the last two years of the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, but not just because of lockdown.   The City has carried on building huge great monolithic skyscrapers at incredible speed, particularly over the last two years, when we have seen 22, Bishopsgate absolutely dominate this part of the City.   But the pattern of work is changing:  becoming more casual, less 9 to 5, less insulated from the surrounding City, as much about meeting people as about sitting in front of a computer screen, perhaps a reversion to the world of the seventeenth-century coffee house.  

• In early November, I visited Oslo, which has opened up its harbour area with the creation of three new public buildings:  an opera house;  a museum devoted to the work of Norway’s greatest artist, Edvard Munch;  and a new public library.   I visited the public library quite early in the morning.   It was already absolutely full of people working on their laptops in small clusters.   If you have visited the British Library recently, much of its activity is outside the reading rooms where the moment the Library opens, large numbers of workers occupy the public spaces, because people now need and want to work on their laptops in public spaces.

• So, having now considered these three broad contexts, I want to look back at what is currently proposed at the Custom House.  

• On the one hand, you have plans for a commercial development by Cannon:  as it is described on their website, the plan is for ‘a hotel-led scheme, with a museum, restaurants, cafes, meeting and event space and spa’.   The plan is essentially for a hotel, equivalent perhaps to the Ned, close to the Bank of England, which in theory is publicly accessible for anyone willing to pay fifty pounds for lunch, but you are greeted by a man in uniform whose job it is to keep the broader public out.  

• On the other hand, you have the proposals by the Georgian Group which are necessarily broader brush and less fully worked out in any detail,   But the general underlying motive behind the Georgian Group’s proposals is abundantly clear:  it is for mixed use — some offices in the east and west wing, but keeping the two great public spaces in the centre open for public access and public use, to be enjoyed by the citizens of this great capital city, as well as by tourists.

• I very much hope that the plans by Cannon will be turned down.


[1] Richard Rogers and Mark Fisher, The New London (London: Penguin Books, 1991).

[2] A.E. Richardson, Monumental Classic Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland (London: B.T. Batsford, 1914).

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