Piano hits the wrong note: London's new Central St Giles complex is striking but bereft of joie de vivre

The Central St Giles complex is the Italian architect Renzo Piano's first London building. It may be the brightest new addition to the capital's landscape, but it's far from the best, argues Jay Merrick

In one mighty Technicolor bound into St Giles High Street, sandwiched between Covent Garden and Bloomsbury in central London, the architectural deity Renzo Piano has become the capital's latest blingmeister. The Central St Giles mixed-use scheme is a luridly jolly prequel to his forthcoming Shard tower at London Bridge. Can this shouty polychromatic architecture really be the work of the 72-year-old designer whose museums have become masterful demonstrations of fine-boned modernist decorum?

The great man says he didn't want Central St Giles to take "selfish possession of the site". Piano is referring to the fact that the development is pedestrian-porous at ground level. But when his building covers more than 400,000 square feet and is covered in a Pixar-perfect sheen of 134,000 green, orange, red and yellow glazed terracotta tiles, that is a bizarre claim to make.

Has Piano brought a high-rent hallucination to the northern edge of Covent Garden or has he achieved a coherent architectural intervention? Actually, neither. St Giles High Street, used by the Romans as the main approach to what is now the City of London, then in the Middle Ages as a last halting place for those to be hanged a mile west at Tyburn Tree, has been architecturally Crayola'd. The Angel Inn, where the condemned sipped water, and St Giles-in-the-Fields church are humbled; the only things that offer a sensual counterweight to the new development are the garish hoardings of the Shaftesbury Theatre, announcing its Burn the Floor dance show.

If Piano's buildings don't quite sear the street scene beyond recognition, they do imprint the vista with a bumptious, laser-etched precision. And this sets a planning precedent. Are we going to see a deluge of Pantone buildings by infinitely less talented, novelty-hungry architects and developers who wouldn't know a Bridget Riley painting from a Victor Vasarely colour chart? You know the sort: they default to jazzy façade patterns of coloured metal to bring a touch of vapid class to those parts of our towns and cities where legions of Tiny Tims are waiting to thank them by declaring: "God bless us, every one, for this architectural turkey."

Central St Giles highlights something else. Its arrival, which has been orchestrated carefully, obscures the fact that there are more impressive recent commercial buildings in London whose architecture has stayed under the radar simply because it is less dramatic. They are not show ponies and they set more interesting urban development precedents than Central St Giles. We'll come back to them in a moment.

It's not that Central St Giles isn't significant architecture. On a "future's so bright you have to wear shades" level, these facades are certainly vivacious, and we might even think of them as a kind of strident public art. After all, those tens of thousands of terracotta panels are part of what is described as an architectural "chassis". In other words, they have been appliquéd to the external glass and steel envelopes of the buildings – which makes them an architectural artifice. The trouble is, the glaze of the terracotta imparts a distinctly contradictory metallic aura and, most crucially, the overall effect is neither beautiful enough, nor surreal enough, to be truly remarkable. Despite Piano's care with the layered patterns of the facades, the effect is striking but not resonant. Nothing about these facades lingers in the mind. They are, oddly, bereft of joie de vivre.

But there is a bigger issue. This major conglomeration of buildings, articulated to look like loosely joined blocks, raises big questions about just how far fag-end fillets of the West End can be pumped up architecturally by developers. It is the way Central St Giles has been positioned so carefully that is so depressing. On the tiles: "The colours are a nod to the lively sights and sounds of nearby Soho." This is bunkum. The colours – apparently inspired by album covers seen in local shops – are hardly specific to Soho.

The laundered prose of the scheme's sponsor, Stanhope, is typical of the Orwellian newspeak that is involved in so many big commercial projects. Central St Giles, it murmurs, "brings heart and soul into a forgotten part of central London's urban fabric". Forgotten by whom? And in what way will the impending insertion of Zizzi, Fishworks, Sofra and the grilled Japanese skewers of Bincho into the ground-floor segments of Central St Giles bring heart and soul into the development?

The only thing about Piano's scheme that contributes to its urban context is the way it has established visual and physical links, via its central courtyard, through the site. This space, calmed by dove-grey facades, can be seen through the double-height, glazed ground-floor segments of the building. From St Giles High Street, for example, there is a view straight across the groundplane to Bucknall Street. Piano has also been civil in the way that in the apartment portions of these buildings there is no visible external difference between the top-rent and affordable accommodation.



But if you want a truer architectural beauty, and a frisson of surreality, you must repair to New Bond Street. Here, Eric Parry's brilliant reinvention of a whole block of linked buildings running between New Bond Street and St George Street has given London its most exquisitely fashioned façade, on what is unquestionably a benchmark redevelopment.

If you compare Parry's serpentine faience ceramic façade tiling with Piano's Central St Giles elevations, there is no contest. Parry's ceramics exude artistry and lusciously lucent gradations of colour. This is a complete fusion of architecture and art. Furthermore, though the façade introduces something quite new and faintly startling to New Bond Street it is absolutely at ease with the architecture around it.

Parry's combination of contextual response and meticulously tailored architectural innovation has made him the go-to architect for developers who want unique commercial buildings. His Aldermanbury Square building has the most finely detailed metal façade in the City – he compares it to a David Mellor knife. And the masonry load-bearing structure of his Finsbury Square office building possesses the most precisely cut stone seen in London since the 18th century.

And now, even Parry has serious competition. David Chipperfield's forthcoming office building in the massive King's Cross Central development will bring a compelling mixture of toughness and elegance to the scene: the raw edges of the building's concrete floorplates and beautifully figured cast-iron columns will stand clear of its glass facades – a fusion of the classical and the 19th-century industrial heritage of the site. And in the last two years a much younger architect, Patrick Lynch, has shown the imagination to join these established stars with his highly artful but contextually sensitive design schemes in Victoria Street. This kind of architecture doesn't need marketing hype or Las Vegas dye-jobs.

Renzo Piano's Central St Giles project has put commercial architecture on the media map for the first time in many years – not since Sir James Stirling's No 1 Poultry in the City have we encountered such a wilfully vivid mixed-use building. Yet there is a risk that Central St Giles will convey a false sense of worth by suggesting that the design of so-called rent slabs is all about dramatic, "because you're worth it" architectural implants.

Architects, developers and planners will serve our towns and cities better if they face up to the fact that commercial architecture need not be predicated on glib non-ideas about the hearts and souls of forgotten places. They must instead address what Eric Parry describes so elegantly as "the finesse of the relationship between the mercantile world and very brave architecture". That is the real challenge. And gift-wrapping buildings isn't the answer.

For further reading:

'Piano: Renzo Piano Building Workshop 1966 to Today' by Philip Jodidio (Taschen)

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
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.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...