Not hip to be square

At last, the City of London's development of Paternoster Square is finished. It's a bland, leaden concoction, says Jay Merrick - and it sets a depressing example for other important projects
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The Independent Online

Paternoster Square, the biggest and most momentous redevelopment in the City of London for more than a decade, is finished. Around its still quiet central plaza are five large buildings - chunky, mostly overstated exercises in instant taste and presence. A "bold" touch of gridded modernism here, a "strikingly elaborate" mix of colours and details there, "artfully" contrived hanging domes in the arcades, a £1m fountain with gilded crown.

The Square Mile's Groundhog Day effect has kicked in yet again: we've seen this droll architectural wallpaper before. No, it's more pernicious than that: we think we have. And we keep seeing it. Well contrived, decent, corporate. But where's the magic, the tangible spirit of place, the grip of it?

This project is the tip of an iceberg to which most of us barely give a second thought, because urban redevelopment is not sexy. There are three other major redevelopments in their late planning stages in the City, and two even bigger makeovers under way at Paddington and King's Cross. Will they merely paper over London's urban cracks, or produce masterplans and buildings that radiate genuinely creative aspirations? The question can be applied to equally significant renaissances in Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool and in several smaller conurbations.

In the meantime, we need a villain; somebody to blame. If Paternoster Square is the essence of the urban commercial placemaking challenge, who deserves the Paddington Bear hard stare? How about Sir William Whitfield, the self-proclaimed aesthete and masterplanner - now retired - who was responsible for organising the layout of the site.

Not much of a chainsaw massacre, that. We need more bodies. This is a key site, remember, covering more than two hectares. We need a feeding frenzy. Solution: eviscerate the various big-name architectural practices that Sir William picked to deliver the new buildings that clasp the central piazza and its hub, a mini-Monument column complete with a water feature that might be more interesting if one could actually see the water flowing down it clearly in the first place.

These are, of course, cheap shots. It isn't that the architecture can't be criticised - it certainly can. But there's something leaden about the exercise, something dreadfully pointless. For the salient point about this redevelopment is that it's a fudge dictated by the requirements of the developer package. As a palette of linked architectural forms - a place - it could be worse. But why, by hook or crook, isn't it better?

The City is a key part of the "World Class London" mantra, a vacuous trigger-phrase that tends to prevent any further thought on the subject, and which might lead the unsuspecting to assume that there is such a thing as world-class architecture - as opposed to, say, "jolly decent architecture". The former, we might assume, can be called in like a surgical air-strike.

That may have been assumed in 1967, when the original Paternoster Square development, on bomb-damaged land on the north side of St Paul's Cathedral, was described by Britain's nonpareil architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, as outstandingly well conceived, sensible and unobtrusive, "inviting to the local employers as well as to the tourists". Today, many would think of it as a sterile modernist tundra.

Very little has changed. What passes for modern "world-class" architecture is almost always unremarkable, barely worth a second glance. And duff architecture means duff place-making. In whole swathes of London, we're everywhere and nowhere, baby, that's where we're at - and not a silver lining in site. This syndrome, and the developers and planners responsible for it, often forces good, and sometimes great, architects to thrash about on barbed hooks baited with rent-slab maximisations and gobbets of fear.

Paternoster Square must, to invoke Dickens, be considered in that boney light. Look at the cast list: apart from Sir William Whitfield, the capellmeister, we find some of the most successful architectural practices in Britain - the usual suspects, the jaded observer might mutter. Their names will not be familiar to the general public, but they are, in their various ways, considerable and highly skilled: MacCormac Jamieson Prichard; Eric Parry; Allies & Morrison; Sheppard Robson; and Sidell Gibson. Major architectural brands, if you like. And if we think of the Paternoster Square redevelopment as top-of-the-table premier-league stuff, Sir William's team is Chelsea, sponsored by Rotring and anybody who sells highly expensive black clothing.

Sir William's key aim was place-making, in the face of implacable commercial imperatives. But this quest only has meaning if a fully engaging, lively spirit of place is the result. It will be months before the new buildings in Paternoster Square are occupied, but it's already clear, despite a brave effort to maximise the size of its piazza, that this is not a magical new addition to the City's fabric. This week, Sir William told The Architects' Journal's eminent commentator, Kenneth Powell: "I set out to do something that was fundable, buildable and lettable. Of course it's a compromise in some respects, but if it weren't, nothing would have been built at all."

The site has baffled waves of masterplanners and architects for 17 years. Sir William's recipe draws a line under past haverings, which have involved some of Britain's most stellar architects. Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Terry Farrell - all binned. In 1987, Prince Charles, in effect the country's best-known architect, launched a stalking-horse into the fray in the form of a young, classically inclined architect called John Simpson. But the Royal Fine Art Commission savaged his offering as "an unpleasant Disneyland". There was architect-on-architect unseemliness, too, when Richard Rogers derided the same scheme as "false and nostalgic".

The public remains dispossessed and uninvolved in these key changes to their urban fabrics. The remodelling of Trafalgar Square in London by Lord Foster may have been slavishly column-inched - but only at the expense of writing about more important tranches of the capital currently in transition. Pedestrianising Pall Mall East, between the square and the National Gallery, and connecting the two by a sweeping flight of steps, was nothing more than a tidy exercise in logic.

A bit more than logic is required elsewhere, notably at two more critical sites in the City, which will pose a severe test to the amalgams of architects, spatial consultants and city planners involved. Minerva is redeveloping the junction of Houndsditch and St Botolph's, with a tower designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. And British Land is delivering a makeover in Leadenhall Street involving a slant-faced skyscraper concocted by Graham Stirk of the Richard Rogers Partnership.

The challenge is about more than landmark buildings and dramatically pierced skylines. These sites must create a sense of place and set new benchmarks in multi-disciplinary urban design - and that's as much to do with groundlines as skylines.

These may seem obvious requirements. But it was only the redevelopment of Broadgate in the late 1980s that re-invented irregular, mixed-use architectural "porosity" in the City. Before then, public space was strictly, and even officiously, regarded as something left over after planning - the acronym SLOP, signifying casual spatial vandalism, became widely used.

Consider the substantial public square at the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe. Give or take a few lunchtime sandwich-eaters sitting on the steps down to the plaza, it's a sterile, discouraging blank where the unique architectural syncopations of the City are lost, wiped clean by witless, cost-cutting redevelopment.

The proposed new building on the site will be a physically dramatic counterweight to Lord Foster's Swiss Re building just across St Mary Axe. However, two much more important things are likely to be achieved: the new tower will not only oversail part of its "footprint" with a publicly-accessible café zone, but the square will be subject to a complete makeover by the spatial consultants Lovejoy.

If this development is to have the kind of 21st-century pulling-power required by City planners intent on maintaining the Square Mile's primacy as a financial nexus, then the site as a whole needs to offer engaging mixtures of sculpted scale and texture. If it fails to interest the bulk of passers-by, what will be the point of it?

Sir Nicholas Grimshaw faces a similar challenge at Houndsditch, where the proposed public domain around the Minerva tower is even bigger than the Leadenhall Street swath, and will require new traffic routing. The tower here - part of it, anyway - will give the City a svelte, gleaming version of New York's Flatiron Building. But, again, how will we experience it? Will it (pace the commentator Simon Jenkins) turn out to be a damnable architectural ghetto-blaster? Or might it create a compelling new place on mysterious old turf? And will it drive another stake into the heart of future developments of the cheapjack, classical-postmodern sort that have so poisoned the City's vistas for the best part of three decades?

The questions come easily enough, but the solutions are tortuous. In a rising property market, urban planning and building design are fraught. "All a planner can do is create mediocrity out of awfulness." That remark comes from Peter Wynne Rees, the City's cultured and thoughtful planning supremo - and he offers it with deliberately mordant irony, for he's at the architecturally-minded heart of changes that could, in the next decade, change the evolving face of the City for the better.

"Eighteen or 20 years ago," he notes, "there were perhaps only six business architects working in the Square Mile. It was all rather boring. In many parts of the City, all one can say is that all the buildings are different. Eighteen years ago, you would mention a building, and people would say, 'Which one is that?' That's the greatest condemnation."

It's now necessary, he insists, to "show concern not only for the quality of architecture, but the spaces in between. We've perhaps done that [historically] at the expense of the quality of these spaces. But we're catching up. You buy into that by learning how to do it." Rees, who has launched two City streetscape improvement initiatives, admits that London remains neophytic in such matters compared with, say, Paris and Barcelona.

The British capital, meanwhile, is awash with zonal makeovers that make window-dressing such as the Trafalgar Square improvement look tourist-trite. The City, Paddington Basin, King's Cross - here are the real challenges: the nuggety, cussed kind in which the relationships between architecture and public space cannot always be solved with a few quick strokes of a designer's pen, a rash of snappy headlines and wood-panelled rooms full of beaming shareholders.