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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Friday, 30 December 2016

Thought for 2017: Give us Gagarin rocket apartments and super-tall towers of crystal rather than squat lumps of blandness

OK so it is a RPBW impression, but you can see
how the now abondoned project for a Paddington
Skyscraper might have echoed the luminous
elegance of the Shard at London Bridge.
Photo: Piano
Of course as an old buffer I'd rather London looked and felt like it did in 1976: dirty, scruffy, smelly, semi-derelict, cheap.

But as that ain't going to happen, I'd rather all the new developments were as interesting and elegant as the recently-dropped proposal for another Renzo Piano tower, this one at Paddington Station.

The so called Paddington Pole was removed from planning consultation by the developers after a well orchestrated protest and a big public outcry. It would have been like a second Shard, in even more stark contrast to its surroundings, and therefore, to my eye, less offensive than what is likely to emerge as the compromise: a massive, but much shorter, "floating cube" that will still jut up into the skyline.

This seems to be  a continuation of the Prince Charles effect. Get enough posh and influential people to protest and you can batter the planning committees, etc, into submission.

Sadly, the result is usually something duller, less brave, and much blander than the original design - eg,  the bits around St Pauls, One Poultry, the Sainsbury Wing National Gallery extension (a truly ghastly place which makes visiting this once great gallery a dismal experience);  and Chelsea Barracks - where the Prince's view of architecture holds sway. There's a good piece in AJ explaining precisely this eventuality.

This is exactly what has emerged at Paddington. Instead of a crazy, slender, sparkling 800 foot pole, this bit of London will get a gigantic glass cube, which looks very much like a big version of everything else built in cities all round the planet in recent years, and actually reminds me of nothing more than the cheap looking new US Embassy in Nine Elms. This 14-storey cube is also designed by Renzo Piano, but as you can tell from the awful green and orange plastic-look slabs near St Giles, he's just as capable of turning out cheap and nasty stuff as the next architect.

Here's what we'll get instead: a 14-storey glass and steel cube that looks
like something designed for a business park somewhere down the M4...

Given the lumpen blandness of so much stuff going up now, don't you just long for some crazy, high quality but imaginative buildings, such as the proposed 'Soviet Space Rocket' aka Gagarin Square tower, in Southwark?

This was a really mad sci-fi look 30-storey building that would have changed Southwark Street completely, had it not already been ruined very thoroughly by all that stuff that's arrived next to Tate Modern, not to mention the Shard and co at the Eastern end. In fact this outlandish tower was ruled out in 2015, to be replaced by something much blander.

Personally, what is most offensive about all these buildings - tall, short, ugly, beautiful - is that they are being built for people with upwards of a million to spend on a flat they probably won't even live in. How odd that in the 60s and 70s the only people who lived - or even wanted to live - above 20 storeys in central London were council tenants. Now most of those great towers of Barbican and elsewhere, built with public money to give everyone a decent place to live,  have been privatised. Those are tall towers, so is Trellick. Trellick is near Paddington. Many who used to hate it now think it's a great experiment in vertical living. That Paddington Pole, with a visionary council behind it, could have been a continuation of that experiment.

Impression of the 30 storey Gagarin tower designed for
Southwark Street, but kicked out by planners last year. 
A lot of the best anti-tall towers stuff is coming from the Skyline Campaign, which seems to be a global pressure group pulling together lots of local protests. While much of its activity seems well justified, it also seems to forget that any new building - especially a large building like St Paul's or  the neo-gothic mass of St Pancras - ruins somebody else's view.

No point crying over London's ruined skyline - that milk was spilled many decades ago. Really, some dear rich people's view of St Paul's through a telescope from Richmond Park has been desecrated by a large residential tower in Stratford? Oh dear! Oh calumny. Those poor dear Richmond residents. What about the residents of the Patmore estate in Battersea who used to have a nice view across the river. Now all they see are the steel skeletons of yuppie towers, as their windows are shaken and their lungs filled with grit by the passing of hundreds of trucks bringing cement and steel to the site, every day for the past three years?

We're fighting the same battle but from totally different perspectives. You can like tall buildings, and want more of them, without being a capitalist baby-eating property developer.

Every time someone creates a good new viewing point, they destroy many other people's view.

The people who built the Shard have changed almost everyone's view of London. But they have also given us all something new and interesting to look at, a new landmark that we can claim a bit of. I've said it before, and I stick to it: the Shard is a better building than London deserves. It is a perfect new landmark for this dirty old city in the mud, and the way it shines out on a changeable day, visible from almost every zone 2 or 3 high street, gives everyone an immediate sense of location, like GPS only better.

Of course the Paddington conservation lobby are now protesting against the bulky cube, for which they are in part responsible. Of course they want to keep their nice bits of W2 just as they are. Which is just as bonkers as me wanting London to be as dirty and dangerous and cheap as it was in 1976.

We can't always get what we want, thank god.

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