Hole in ground is testament to riches and determination: Jonathan Glancey reports on a 35-year mission to place modern architecture on classic site in the City
Until a few weeks ago it was the site of the pretty Victorian buildings that faced the classical portico of the Mansion House in the City of London. The finest was the turreted, and much-loved, Mappin & Webb building, a Gothic confection designed by the firm of J & J Belcher in 1870.
Lord Palumbo, an ardent collector of modern movement architecture (he buys houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier) has since 1959 nurtured a architectural dream for this City corner, and he inherited such riches from his father Rudolph - who developed many properties - that he has been able to spend 25 years pursuing it.
He was determined to build a bronze and glass office tower designed by the modern movement architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the Mappin & Webb site. He failed. He then was determined to see a brightly coloured postmodern 'Christmas cake' rise on the spot. And after perhaps the most bitter planning struggle London has ever seen, he is succeeding.
Palumbo first went to New York to visit Mies in 1959. He persuaded him to produce a design for the City of London site that was close in style and spirit to the Seagram Building in Manhattan. The Mies scheme, Mansion House Square, was finally delivered to Palumbo in 1969. The architect died that year.
Palumbo's enthusiasm for Mies was not shared by the City of London, which balked him time and time again. Palumbo bought the Victorian buildings along Poultry, but was refused permission to build his Mies tower, known as No 1. A public inquiry put paid to the scheme and even Palumbo's allies in the avant-garde cultural establishment were unable to persuade the City Corporation that Mies was the man for Poultry.
Determined as ever, Palumbo returned to the fray with a fresh design by Stirling Wilford, a curious postmodern scheme that lacked the purity of the Mies tower, but was more likely to win the City over. After a second public inquiry, Palumbo finally won permission to build. What was Mappin & Webb is now a dusty hole in the ground.
A mix of trust fund money and determination has seen Palumbo through to the point where he is developing his first property. He has seen off two public inquiries, two architects and a heritage of historic buildings. He is not a man to go down without a fight.
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