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
A former editor of The Independent on Sunday, Janet Street-Porter is now the paper’s editor-at-large. As a journalist and broadcaster she has had an innovative and groundbreaking career in television, creating programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and LWT, for which she has won a Bafta and the Prix Italia. She is also vice president of the Rambler’s Association.
Friday 11 December 1998
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 We've already seen an out-of-date design for our millennium "experience" down in south-east London.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.
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