Time to call off this camp pantomime
Paternoster Square, at the north side of St Paul's, is under threat of being smothered in the vulgar fancy dress of Post-Modern Classicism. Jonathan Glancey calls for an open competition to decide the site's future
Monday 08 January 1996
Early this year, the City of London will decide on the area's future, which, since the early Sixties, has been little short of purgatorial, blighted with lacklustre office blocks. Will the City opt for a Prince of Wales-approved Neo-classical development, conjured up five years ago and shelved until now, or will it opt to bring new life and new architecture to Paternoster Square?
Until the blitz, St Paul's was surrounded by a delightfully ramshackle miasma of houses, offices, coffee houses, bookshops and workshops that afforded the cathedral an appropriately down-nave architectural congregation.
This natural, harmonious and romantic relationship between Church, books and buildings was destroyed by incendiary bombs. After Hitler was defeated, a decision, wisely or unwisely was made to rebuild the Paternoster neighbourhood in Modern guise. The new buildings, although clad in the same Portland stone as Wren used to raise the walls of St Paul's, were school of Bauhaus, straight up and down, free from all decoration and designed as if to please the austere sensibilities of Sir Stafford Cripps and the immediate postwar socialist governments of Major Attlee. The old street pattern was abandoned as the brave new Paternoster Square was raised above the old pavements. Here were no books, dining or boarding rooms, but an austerity of Fifties- style urban plazas. Not even a token sculpture by the assured Elizabeth Frink could bring heart and soul to this Orwellian vision of the new London. Age wearied the new Paternoster Square. Never great architecture, nor inspired urban planning, it deserved to be succeeded, and as soon as commercially and politically possible.
That chance arose five years ago when it seemed as if a political and self-congratulatory collusion between the City of London, property developers, and the Prince of Wales would cause the imminent demolition of the Fifties' office blocks and plaza to the north of St Paul's and their replacement with a pantomime of Post-Modern Classical offices garbed in voluminous and vulgar fancy dress. Architects keen to be seen doing the right and regal thing (including Thomas Beeby from Chicago, and Terry Farrell and John Simpson from London) devised a concatenation of commercial kitsch that was hard to stomach.
The Prince of Wales gushed in support of these architectural ugly sisters, Japanese developers promised the wherewithal, toadying "critics" with an eye to professional advancement provided a fawning public relations angle, and, for a moment, it looked as if St Paul's was about to be not so much disfigured as outfaced by a monstrous, princely carbuncle. The developers flannelled on about how their New York- and Chicago-style pseudo- classical towers would recall memories of old Paternoster Row. Yet this was nonsense. The capacious new buildings were temples to Mammon, not a house, nor a flat, let alone a bookshop among them.
Michael Manser, past President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, produced convincing drawings in this newspaper to demonstrate how the princely designs would not just be in bad taste, but would, literally, overshadow St Paul's. Many of you wrote to voice your concern. Since then, architecture is no longer considered such an important issue in the press, which is particularly convenient for the backers of the Paternoster Square scheme for whom the Independent was a thorn in the side. With the press now muted, the bombastic proposal to smother the north side of St Paul's cathedral in fatuous and embarrassingly clad office blocks is advantageously back in the running.
Michael Cassidy, chief planning officer for the City of London, however, is, after much consultation, considering whether or not the City should back this retrogressive and bullying proposal. The time between now and Easter is important.
The fate of St Paul's cathedral and its surroundings, l,000 years in the making, should surely not go unheeded. We can still confront the City of London with alternatives. Only by making your voice heard and making clear that you think such an issue still matters do we have a chance to oppose the philistines at the altar of God.
St Paul's and its precincts deserve a lot better than the threat of being smothered in cumbersome and camp office blocks. The City of London may do well to reconsider the threatened development and to call for an open competition to decide what we want from this historic site before we begin to commission architects.
As you have over the sale of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, let us know how you would like to see the north side of St Paul's cathedral developed. Write to: Jonathan Glancey, the Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 2DL.
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