Architecture: The pod's passe and the soap-dish is a dud

Norman Foster and Will Alsop created exciting government buildings in Europe. So why doesn't new Labour want a monument to London's new Mayor, asks Janet Street-Porter

ONCE AGAIN Tony Blair's Government has proved that although they might be great at buzz words and big ideas, they are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

Government after government in this country has failed to understand one basic fact that our French and German neighbours grasped ages ago: nothing places you in the history books better than a great building. All over Europe, cities from Paris to Berlin to Marseilles have important public buildings by cutting-edge architects. Creating a new building for the new Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority was an opportunity for Blair to translate Cool Britannia into a monument for his vision. We've already seen an out-of-date design for our millennium "experience" down in south-east London. Now there is a very strong chance that a building designed in the Twenties, looking like a feeble version of Selfridges or Leeds Town Hall, may be tarted up, decked out in glass ("transparency" being a big buzz word in Government these days) and have a few pods inserted into its guts to provide an Assembly Chamber for our Mayor and his cohorts.

The Minister for London, Nick Raynsford, upset a lot of people by asking the estate agents Knight Frank and Rutley to come up with suitable sites for the Mayor's home. Trouble is, Blair's big idea came with no cash, so a "partnership" (another Labour buzz word) was called for. Basically, developers have proposed buildings or vacant lots and it is developers who have put architects in place, not Raynsford. The developers pay for the building and lease it to the GLA for 15 years. That hardly adds up to a massive vote of confidence in the lifespan of London's new governing body on the part of the Government, does it?

After an exhibition attended by 1,000 people, two locations were chosen. Five hundred and thirty-four questionnaires were filled in and the two finalists are a vacant lot opposite the City of London on the south bank of the Thames, Potter's Fields, and the grandiose, neo-classical Victoria House in Bloomsbury Square.

Norman Foster's sketch design for Potter's Fields is a 10-storey glass sphere that looks like a cross between a Sixties TV set and a soap-dish. Will Alsop of Alsop and Stormer has tinkered with Victoria House, removing three floors and adding a large veneered pod as an Assembly Chamber. The roof would be raised to accommodate the extra office space the scheme needs to be viable to the developer. Both architects have designed stylish government buildings, Foster in Berlin and Alsop in Marseilles. But this ham-fisted exercise, while making financial sense, does them no favours.

Consider Victoria House, sitting on the eastern side of Bloomsbury Square in all its imperialistic glory. Designed by Charles William Long and built between 1925-32, it expresses the paternalism and pretentiousness of an insurance company with an imposing facade decked out with three-storey columns and a pediment. No matter that inside all is marble and fine woods. The message of the architecture is hardly user-friendly and accessible. It doesn't shout fun, community spirit, interactive, multicultural, democratic. It might be listed Grade 2 but in my book it's a second-division building. I know the GLC occupied similar retro premises on the South Bank, but that's irrelevant. Different era, different government. Converting the former offices of the Liverpool and Victoria Friendly Society, no matter how luxurious they might be, is a totally inappropriate solution to the lack of cash and lack of time (it is claimed it would be ready by mid 2000 to coincide with the elections). Asking an architect as bold as Alsop to tart up a pompous relic from another age is like asking Alexander McQueen to redesign all the sleeves in Vivienne Westwood's suits. Ridiculous.

The sheer arrogance of Raynsford's solution is amazing. You'd hardly ask Chris Ofili, this year's Turner Prize winner, to redesign tube trains or Sam Taylor-Wood to do Cherie's passport photos, would you? But politicians, sadly, continue to be visual philistines. Their solutions are dictated by cash and ease of construction rather than any higher aesthetic values. Even their pal Richard Rogers has moaned publicly that the project deserved a proper competition. You can sense the sheer desperation in Alsop's head, just looking at the design. Closing the road in front of the building and sticking glass offices and meeting rooms on legs above it is hardly ground-breaking. He obviously hates the facade of Victoria House so much he's covering it up with screens. As for veneered pods, a "pod" is something that the Archigram group made a lot of in the Sixties, when architects from Nick Grimshaw to Cedric Price came up with sketch designs for living pods, sleeping pods, and service pods in the cities of the future. The "pod" is as passe as the Dome.

Architecture has moved on and is more complex and exciting than the plug- in, disposable culture of yesteryear. More importantly, the shape of a debating chamber for the new body is critical. This is the hub of the building where elected members, the press and the public all come together. Putting wood between two sheets of glass is a textural rather than philosophic solution. As it is, the chamber looks like something that can be dismantled after 25 years when another government tires of the idea, just as Maggie tired of the GLC. Then it will be all too simple to turn Victoria House back into the hotel it was once destined to be.

Bloomsbury Square, it is claimed, will be "revitalised" and become a "ceremonial open space". I worked on the other side of the square for a year and always found it quite a delightful place to eat a sandwich. No, London is already full of buildings like Victoria House, albeit pod- less. What our Mayor needs is a brand new building that reflects our wonderful city, not New Labour's threadbare election promises. And if it is to be a soap-dish, then hold a proper competition first.

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower