Passion tower

Santiago Calatrava is renowned throughout Europe for excitement, beauty and expressiveness. But in cautious Britain the best work he can find is the revamp of a slab-like City office block.
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The Independent Culture
Santiago Calatrava is a brilliant architect and engineer who runs a flourishing and widely respected practice from offices in Paris, Zurich and his native Valencia. A Brunel of our age, he combines a passion for innovative and expert engineering with expressive architectural forms that are never less than exciting and often as beautiful as they are stirring.

His railway station at Lyon-Satalas, which links flights to and from Lyon airport with the SNCF's TGV rail network, took my breath away when I first saw it when brand new two years ago. His Stadelhofen station, Zurich, and Alamillo Bridge, Seville, are lovely things too and, as for Calatrava's presence (or lack of it) in Britain, it remains a great shame that his design for the East London River Crossing (a road bridge taking cross-Channel traffic across the Thames Estuary) was not taken up by the Department of Transport, which insisted upon a particularly dull design when it could have had a thing of choice beauty.

There is no doubting Calatrava's track-record: born at Benimarnet, near Valencia, 1951; studied art, architecture and urban design, Valencia; studied civil engineering, Zurich, (doctorate awarded for research into lightweight structures); set up own practice 1981; numerous awards since; big exhibition at Royal Institute of British Architects, London, 1992; currently working on extension to Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, and new Orient railway station, Lisbon.

His name has often been linked to prestigious building and engineering projects in Britain, but nothing much has happened. Perhaps this is because Calatrava offers passion and adventure when the British seek comfort and security. Whatever the case, Calatrava is finally on his way to Britain with a large-scale project on the drawing board, which, on the surface, appears to be good news.

What is it? A new airport, railway station or exhibition hall, a bridge or brand new office block in London's Docklands or Manchester's reborn city centre? For this is where we should be directing Santiago Calatrava's talent. Sadly, not. Calatrava's first big project in this country is the revamping of a redundant office block in the City of London, a makeover job designed to draw attention to its overlooked charms in much the same way as Elizabeth Hurley, the actress, drew the attention of the press when she stepped out in a Versace dress that took sartorial engineering to the limits of possibility.

Santiago Calatrava, however, is already a star and although using his talent to doll up a City office block might make sense to developers, we should single him out for greater things. This is not to denigrate Wates City, the developer, which could have chosen a worthy hack to redress Britannic Tower; but it may well be that an office refurbishment does not need the structural exuberance of Santiago Calatrava. In fact, there is a strong case for saying that Britannic Tower will be too big for its boots when the new work is completed.

Britannic Tower is the lofty and slab-like BP headquarters designed and built between 1962 and 1967, jostling for attention on the London skyline with the three 412-ft concrete towers of the Barbican next door. At 395- ft tall and broad of beam, it is decidedly monumental, but has never been lovely. An English interpretation of the new wave of commercial skyscrapers more or less invented by the US firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill in the early Fifties (Lever House, Manhattan, 1950-52, was the first and most celebrated of the breed), Britannic Tower was designed by F Milton Cashmore of Joseph and Milton Cashmore, who provided clients with more mass for their cash than any British business corporation would have expected 30 years ago. With a concrete frame clad in a sheath of aluminium, glass and coloured panels, open-plan offices, air-conditioning, a bit of art for the lobby and a classic "windswept plaza" in front, Britannic House (as it was first known) was herald to a new era of transatlantic office blocks in British "central business districts".

Not a building to celebrate then, but Britannic House has a brute honesty - like a Norman castle, a grain silo or Coventry station - with an appeal few people would recognise today.

Certainly it can be argued that Britannic Tower is "totally outdated both in terms of its current appearance and usefulness". The latter is not in doubt: the internal planning of office buildings becomes redundant increasingly quickly. The former, however, is questionable: the bloom of youth is attractive, but its loss is no reason for making the mature redundant. Yes, Britannic Tower needs to be updated in certain ways to make it an efficient fin-de-siecle office block. But what sort of precedent is Wates City setting by seeking to emblazon Calatrava's powerful signature on the face of London?

The temptation for other developers to follow suit will be great, and while there is nothing wrong with having a few ebullient skyscrapers on our city skylines, a few go a very long way. A city composed of too many "signature" buildings would be an overbearing place in which to live and work. And before you say "What about New York?", Manhattan is a city composed of a great number of workaday - if very tall - office buildings, punctuated by few "signature" or "landmark" buildings. In fact nearly every reader of this paper can name most of them - Empire State, Chrysler, World Trade Center. Manhattan's architecture is, in fact, notably sub-fusc, which is why it works so well: we thrill to the "signature" skyscrapers when we see them as we enjoy seeing Concorde parked among a banality of contemporary airliners.

In Calatrava's hands, Britannic Tower is likely to protest too much: an architectural Cinderella wants to become a princess, but we have enough of those, in every sense, already. Wates City should be encouraged for the way in which it has rethought the planning of the skyscraper in its stewardship (or "portfolio", as it would say): integrating shops, cafes and useful services into the street front of the revamped building is a lesson usefully learnt from New York and Chicago; so too is the idea of "leisure facilities" in the basement floors.

Only the addition of "one of the most exclusive and exciting restaurants in London" in the roof-top extension - a free-floating cantilevered structure like a great gaping set of jaws high above the City - sounds hackneyed. We have been promised these many times, from the revolving restaurant on top of the Post Office Tower to the Harvey Nick's restaurant on top of the Oxo Tower on London's South Bank (slathered over embarrassingly by design critics before it opened to less than critical acclaim), to know that height itself is no guarantee of haute-cuisine, or even an enjoyable night out.

Investing so much talent into a City office block that will only become redundant again in 15 years' time is surely a case of over-egging the cake; perhaps the best thing that will come of this questionable venture is that Santiago Calatrava's name will finally be fixed firmly in the minds of those with the power to commission brave new buildings