The only thing I really miss about not working in the West End is no longer being able to have breakfast at the Wolseley: the sense of a strong community; the greeting at the front desk; the discreet hierarchy of the seating arrangements; and the way that Jeremy King would nearly invariably stop by, sensing intuitively exactly how long to engage one, or not, in conversation, always impeccably dressed, just off his scooter. I have always been his greatest admirer and am sad to read that he now has to lock horns with brutish financiers in order to maintain the impeccable calm and orderliness of his various establishments:-
I am often cautious about public campaigns, sceptical that people in authority pay much attention, whatever the requirement of local democracy. I certainly wasn’t aware of anyone in authority paying the remotest attention to the long-running and vigorous campaign to preserve the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where the more the public campaigned, the more Tower Hamlets and Historic England dug in against the campaign, presuming they were right if everyone thought they were wrong.
So, it is with the utmost pleasure and some considerable surprise, that I read that Westminster City Council has reversed its position on gas lighting and are now planning to retain the historic gaslights which are such a feature and have been preserved so long through successive previous campaigns to get rid of them. Bravo ! Bravo not just to the campaigners, but also to the Council for changing its mind !
I normally re-post the monthly articles I write for The Critic on my blog, but I missed the one I wrote for the February issue about Chelsea Barracks when it appeared online, so am now posting it belatedly.
As you will be aware, I have got interested in issues of urban planning and how relatively little public discussion there is about it, even though it affects us all deeply. As it happens, there was a vast controversy round the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks, but there has been very little discussion of the quality of the eventual result, if any. Whatever one thinks of it – I can’t say that I am totally enamoured – it is one of the bigger chunks of new urban development apart from the new city in Vauxhall.
The review by Owen Hatherley of the new book about the Barbican reminds me that I feel that there has been surprisingly little publicity, let alone controversy, about the current competition to redevelop the Barbican.
What exactly is being planned ? It looks to me as if the City authorities are looking for an ‘imaginative’ scheme by a superstar international architect which is almost certain to change its current lowkey and very generous allocation of public space because they want – but don’t need – to get rid of the current requirement for public subsidy.
It is surely better to raise these concerns in advance of the public competition, due to be judged in April following the arrival of the new Chief Executive, rather than leaving it till when some monster new development is announced to great fanfare after the competition has been judged and it may be too late to preserve and protect the Barbican’s currently still intact original character.
Rowan Moore is a bit more negative about the Burrell Collection than I am inclined to be. I don’t really remember it as it was, but it seems that it had become pretty unloved, whereas its renovation has reinvigorated it, added new galleries and opened it up to the public, while remaining pretty faithful to its original character. If its revitalisation means it has lost some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the original design, then I’m not persuaded we should mourn their loss.
Following my statement to the Planning Inquiry yesterday, I have been trying to figure out what it was that made possible the regeneration of the South Bank of the river in the 1990s and what it would need to enable an equivalent regeneration of the North Bank now. The answer seems to be, as so often, a fortunate combination of people, politics and accident. The decision to put Tate Modern into Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station was partly accident, after the trustees had looked at Billingsgate and other possible locations. The idea originally came from Gavin Stamp who was making a television documentary about the power station. But the idea was then seized upon by Fred Manson, who was the Director of Regeneration at Southwark, and by Nick Serota, who had a vision for the wider public and social responsibilities for Tate Modern.
So, the question is, who are their equivalents in the City Planning Department who could engineer a change in policy for the Custom House and its surrounding area ?
The answer is that there is a new Head of Planning in the City called Gwyn Richards, who previously worked in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea as a design and conservation officer.
There could surely be a better and more creative solution than the one currently proposed.
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.
• 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.
• 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.
 Richard Rogers and Mark Fisher, The New London (London: Penguin Books, 1991).
 A.E. Richardson, Monumental Classic Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland (London: B.T. Batsford, 1914).
Inspired by Rowan Moore’s article on recent Oxford architecture, I set off to see some of its new buildings – not straightforward because the Oxford colleges guard their privacy even more than they did pre-COVID.
I have become interested in the question why so much new architecture in London is so bad – cheapskate, standardised, disregarding of its surroundings whereas in Oxford (and Cambridge) so much of it is so good: well-considered, beautifully crafted, sensitive to history and its surroundings. Part of it is money, of course. But not all of it is as highly crafted as the new Wright and Wright library at St. John’s. The new Anniversary Building at St. Hilda’s doesn’t look or feel very expensive – just interesting and with enough irregularity, inflection and ornament to give it character.
I started with the new Alison Brooks building for Exeter College, tucked into Worcester Place, off Walton Street:-
Then, I went to St. Hilda’s, which has in the past suffered from being on a side street off the Cowley roundabout. But Gort Scott have done a very good job of giving the college a public identity with a tower with eye-catching filigree decoration, integrating the existing medley of historic buildings by putting a new building in the middle (‘the third sister’), and opening the college up to its view across the River Cherwell to Christ Church, Magdalen and Merton with a subtly asymmetric glass pavilion by the river.
And the view to the Radcliffe Camera and University Church:-
Finally, I was generously given a whistlestop tour of the new St. John’s Library, which is hard to photograph, not least because it was drizzling, but felt beautifully well considered, joining the historic library up to the new library through what had been a book store and providing a variety of different reading spaces in a building whose external façades weren’t allowed windows on either side. Amazingly high quality craft woodwork, the quality of detailing one doesn’t often see:-
I had never previously paid attention to the Danby Gate, carved by Nicholas Stone as the ornamental entrance to the Botanical Garden, established in 1621 by Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby:-
I like the view of Magdalen over the box:-
Alison and Peter Smithson did a Garden Building at St. Hilda’s, in between the Economist Building and Robin Hood Gardens:-
And I liked the organ in the University Church under wraps:-
I was in Glasgow to see the revitalised Burrell Collection, which opens on March 29th.
You’ll have to wait for my considered view till the April issue of The Critic, but I can show some images.
The first view from the park:-
The old entrance which was regarded as too ecclesiastical:-
The long glass enfilade leading to the café at the end:-
Some works of art are displayed in galleries which look out onto the woodland beyond:-
I had totally forgotten it from the 1980s, but very strongly recommend seeing it.