While it is hard to find plausible champions of superstores and motorways, Stuart Lipton is the nearest thing we have to a patron saint among property developers. Perhaps the word saint is not quite the right choice for this big, 52-year old north London, middle-class Jewish boy made good in estate agency and property deals, yet Lipton has been prepared to risk fortunes to turn hard-nosed and unpopular property development into intelligent and well-made architecture. He has not always succeeded, but few others have tried.
In the late Eighties, Lipton growled around London in a blood- red Ferrari, commuting from his home in St John's Wood to his Mayfair office (he has never liked to build more than a 40-minute drive from central London). And, until the property market collapsed at the tail end of that decade, he was as feted by architects in want of a commission as Prince Charles is by the latest litter of architectural poodles.
So wowed was the architectural profession by Lipton's unexpected largesse, it made him an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and he became the first developer to sit on the august committee of the Royal Fine Art Commission. He is also a Trustee of the Architecture Foundation and has been much involved with the Royal Academy, National Gallery and the South Bank.
His greatest successes are Stockley Park (400-acres of lushly landscaped hi-tech offices by architects like Foster, Rogers, Ian Ritchie and Eric Parry on what was wasteland beside Heathrow Airport) and Broadgate, London's very own Rockefeller Center - down to the popular ice rink - built alongside Liverpool Street station.
Yet, to the public, the property developer remains a shadowy figure. If we have any image at all, it is one of a profiteer in a big suit, demolishing Georgian terraces and building cynical office blocks and brash shopping malls in their place. We imagine the developer inhabiting an underworld of funny handshakes, local politicians in need of a holiday and dodgy contractors: a kind of T Dan Smith crossed with Ronnie Kray, sponsoring avant- garde art while spawning monsters.
Stuart Lipton has worked hard to belie this image. 'We're not innocents,' he says. 'What we're about is creating places, creating an environment which is interesting, safe, pleasing and which will create value and profit.' By 'we' Lipton means not every developer - most remain unreconstructed - but the companies he has run since 1971 when, aged 29, he set up Sterling Land with Geoffrey Wilson, with pounds 2m of his own making.
Over the next 20 years he went on, through spectacular successes and failures, to become the first plausible successor to Thomas Cubitt, the great 19th-century builder. To Cubitt we owe much of the best of Regency and early Victorian London: Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Pimlico. Like Lipton, Cubitt chose only the best architects - among them Smirke, Hardwick and Basevi. So too did John Nash, who planned and created the magnificent sequence of parkland, streets and buildings that ran from Regent's Park to Waterloo Place. But, where Nash was shoddy and corrupt, Cubitt was robust and clean. Lipton follows Cubitt.
Unusually for a developer, he kept one step ahead of the building industry - and most architects - by investigating at first hand the latest construction techniques. Travelling extensively in the USA, miniature camera in hand, he saw for himself how the Americans have built so big, so quickly, so profitably and so well. He met Gerry Hines, the big-shot Houston developer, and Harold Schiff, the Chicago construction expert. From them, he learnt just how outmoded British office blocks had become. He brought American know-how to Britain and began to invest in a new-generation of high-quality speculative buildings on a huge scale in preparation for the boom expected when the Stock Market was deregulated.
There were mistakes on the way. The mirror-glass office he built at 250 Euston Road is flashy; the conversion of the former East India Company headquarters in Cutler's Garden, on the eastern fringe of the City of London, brash; and Victoria Plaza - the gleaming offices straddling Victoria Station - over-the- top. The first spot-on building Lipton developed was One Finsbury Square. Designed by the late Peter Foggo (then of Arup Associates), this clever commercial reinterpretation of the great Victorian glasshouses at Kew Gardens, raised the standard of office block design in Britain almost overnight.
Broadgate followed (in partnership with Godfrey Bradman), 29 acres of broad-shouldered, air-conditioned, deep-plan office blocks complete with shops, bars, a plethora of public art, brasseries, gyms and an ice-skating rink. A bit on the bulky side, perhaps, and too much heavy-duty marble and brass, but where else in Britain can you find spec-built offices of this calibre?
Doubtless, the appearance of Broadgate will soften over the years as Lipton himself appears to have mellowed. It seems only a few years ago when architects and critics spoke of meeting Lipton as if he were Lorenzo the Magnificent. Impatient, passionate and carrying a very big stick (while talking very quietly), Lipton was far from being everyone's friend. A shy boy at Berkhamsted School, he disliked games and was not known for mixing. He left school at 17. Perhaps he has had a lot to prove since.
Certainly, Lipton stretched himself as far as the market and the banks would allow him to: Broadgate and Stockley Park were followed by Ludgate Circus. While making other plans - for a business park on the site of the former London Transport bus works at Chiswick, west London, and major redevelopments of the South Bank and King's Cross - the titanic building works required at Ludgate Circus began to take their toll on Lipton's Stanhope Properties. What developer in pursuit of a fast- buck would have dreamt up a scheme to demolish the railway bridge that had crossed in front of St Paul's Cathedral for the past century, sink the trains 40ft below ground and attempt to pay for this act of civic largesse with expensive American-designed office blocks?
Despite an influx of capital in 1988 from the Reichmann Brothers - the ill-fated Canadian developers of Canary Wharf - Stanhope's fortunes plunged as the property boom went out with a whisper.
Although the banks have extended credit to Lipton and he will rise again, a third of his company was bought last month by John Ritblat's British Land. This is a hard blow for Lipton. Ritblat wants control of Broadgate and Ludgate Circus (both offer reliable mid- to long-term profits) and yet British Land has never taken creative risks. Safe and steady, it collects rather than creates. Stuart Lipton, on the other hand, has been willing to take vast risks. In doing so, he has shown that the developer can radically improve a nation's building industry and create commercial architecture of real value. Until Lipton, office schemes have been mostly the preserve of safe developers in pursuit of short-term or easy profits - and British architects, and the cities they have designed for, have suffered badly as a result. They will again unless the likes of Stuart Lipton can cast off their loans and perform fresh commercial miracles.
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