Doing a square deal

London's Paternoster Square drew praise from the Prince of Wales and bile from Sir Terence Conran. Business is unconvinced. Jay Merrick on why even the best addresses are a hard sell
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The Independent Online

Last autumn, Paternoster Square, the City of London's most important new development since Broadgate in the 1990s, opened for business. And waited for business to become open to it. What could possibly go wrong? Sir William Whitfield, the former surveyor of St Paul's, had produced the site masterplan; it was surrounded by transport-hubs; and it was an obvious demonstration of Ken Livingstone's eternal mantra: world-class architecture for a world-class city.

Last autumn, Paternoster Square, the City of London's most important new development since Broadgate in the 1990s, opened for business. And waited for business to become open to it. What could possibly go wrong? Sir William Whitfield, the former surveyor of St Paul's, had produced the site masterplan; it was surrounded by transport-hubs; and it was an obvious demonstration of Ken Livingstone's eternal mantra: world-class architecture for a world-class city.

An obvious recipe for success, then, involving a dream team of other brand-named corporate architects, including Eric Parry and Richard McCormac - the latter now hard at work on the massive reinvention of the BBC's Portland Place headquarters.

In a generally buoyant economy, Paternoster Square was, to borrow City terms, strongly positioned and ramp-up. An architecturally weighty clutch of buildings - faux-classical colonnades, a new square with a grandiose £1m Corinthian column at its centre - with an atmosphere of almost Thatcherite certainty. This address was not, so to speak, for turning down.

A year on, Paternoster Square - arguably the City's current showpiece demesne - is commercially healthy. It is not yet a completely done deal in real estate or investment terms but, barring another wave of lay-offs in the financial service sector, it probably will be by next summer.

But it's been a sweat. Selling rent-slabs in the City takes a lot of marketing grunt. Even Swiss Re, proud owner of Lord Foster's glinting architectural euphemism at 30 St Mary Axe, remains several storeys short of a full occupancy load. In Paternoster Square's case, the push has included a heavy marketing spend - almost certainly high six figures, though neither the developer, Paternoster Associates, nor its parent company, Mitsubishi Estates, will divulge the actual amount.

It was never going to be easy. The original Paternoster Square, on bomb-damaged land on the north side of St Paul's, was an unfortunate architectural experiment. Until the bulldozers and wrecking balls got to work in 1999, it was a classic example of the pared down, essentially joyless modernist architecture that erupted in cankers all over Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Coming up Ludgate Hill, with St Paul's dead ahead, it seems inconceivable that City regulators could have waved through a development that would well have suited Cold War Minsk or Kiev.

But the assumption in 1967 was quite different. Indeed, the original Paternoster Square, developed by Sir William Holford, was described by Britain's greatest architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, as outstandingly well-conceived, sensible and unobtrusive, "inviting to the local employers, as well as to the tourists". By the 1990s, it seemed nothing more than a bleak concrete-and-glass tundra. Architectural taste and localised urban vibes are significant issues - but not as important as rent-slab profitability. The buildings were functionally obsolete, bad little earners in a rising economy. They had to go.

The history of attempted developments on the site since then makes messy reading (see accompanying report). The brouhaha reached its stickiest moment in 1987 when the Prince of Wales felt compelled to launch a stalking horse into the fray - a young, classically inclined architect called John Simpson. But the Royal Fine Art Commission savaged his offering as "an unpleasant Disneyland". There was an architect-on-architect scuffle, too, when Richard Rogers (whose own ideas for the site were spiked) derided the same scheme as "false and nostalgic".

The architecture contained in the new Paternoster Square development has also had a roughish ride. Sir Terence Conran was appalled at the "classical-lite" demeanour of Juxon House, which screens the development on the St Paul's side. The critical response to the tone-setting building, designed by Whitfield himself, was mixed, though Prince Charles admired it.

And it's easy to be critical: Juxon House, and the new buildings behind it, are essentially unremarkable: mannerly, instantly familiar and, here and there, rather bumptious in the details. But the simple truth is that Whitfield is not Wren; neither was he attempting to be innovative or surprising. He was trying to create a sense of place in the face of implacable commercial imperatives.

He told The Architects' Journal's 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."

Built, and leased as quickly as possible. That's the point. "Whitfield said we needed a piecemeal scheme," explains Christopher Joll, spokesman for Paternoster Associates. "The City wasn't going to respond to monoliths. And it had to connect Cheapside with Ludgate Hill. It had to be a place that was a route to anywhere."

The inference is clear. From the start, Whitfield had a mixed-use development in mind: offices and retail. If Paternoster Square was going to be publicly porous, there had to be consumer offers at ground-floor level. But that wheeled in the catch-22 that, in the early months, made the selling of the square difficult. It was, incidentally, impossible to pre-sell any of the space before the demolition of the old square. Its history of botched attempts to redevelop it meant that nobody believed the Paternoster Associates scheme would be any different.

And there was another burr in the flesh. Most commercial developers, on most sites, would dispense with the built-in retail aspect completely, because business-only rent-slabs are easier to lease. Once the mixed-use route is taken, retailers will shy away from taking units in even the most prestigious developments until a critical mass of office occupation has been reached.

Despite the position, architecture and relative gravitas of the square, Paternoster Associates was forced into heavy advertising and stunts in the piazza: Chinese lion-dancers, jazz concerts, the Jaguar Formula One team's simulators to amuse passing punters.

The result is that, today, the two buildings on the west side of the square, designed by Richard McCormac, have been taken by Goldman Sachs; and the building on the north side by the London Stock Exchange. The third new building, St Martin's Court, was bought from Paternoster Associates by Legal & General, and then leased to Hillier Parker. This means that more than three-quarters of the total 734,000 sq ft of rent-slabs in the development has been leased. The retail roster includes Glow, Noto Sushi, Boots, Youngs Wine Bar, Café Nero, Corney & Barrow, Burley's Sandwich Bar, Brodies Wine Bar, Orange and Scorah Paullo. And even the once-excoriating Conran is present. He may have loathed Juxon House, but that didn't stop him opening the Paternoster Chop House.

Cash is, therefore, flowing. Nevertheless, Christopher Joll emphasises the sticking points that will continue to face many City developers: there is surplus accommodation; service industry employment is certainly picking up, but the strength of this trend remains semi-opaque at best; and the apparent explosion of retail outlets in the City has not yet reached a point of profitable self-containment.

But profitable self-containment is precisely what Andrew Sibbald, managing director of the fast-growing mergers and acquisition company Lexicon has experienced. His business operates from No 1 Paternoster Square, a rather Italianate building designed by Sir William Whitfield as part of an earlier development on the square's eastern boundary.

"We wanted an X-factor," he says, "something about the building that would aid our business." The X in question boiled down to two things: a general aura of extreme privacy in the work areas, and a rather showstopping roof garden with a direct view of the dome of St Paul's. "There's no other building in London with that view." He finds the rest of the architecture in the square generally unremarkable, but admits that it possesses "an understated elegance that's fitting for business, a fresher and cleaner identity".

An identity which has been badly occluded on the southern perimeter of the site. Juxon House has a rather anonymous aura; it doesn't encourage exploration, and the only way into Paternoster Square from this side has been through two skinny cuts. But now this has changed. The Temple Bar entrance to the site, between Juxon House and St Paul's Chapter House, has recently been reopened by the Corporation of London.

This is a significant acid test for Whitfield's concept, and for the profitability of the retail outlets in the square. For the first time, passing pedestrians can get a fairly unimpeded view into the development. They can see the grandiose, gilded fountain, the stone benches, the imposing facades, the retail logos. They may, if the wind is blowing from the north, catch the smell of coffee or roast lamb. And they may be drawn in. If they are, few will have any sense that they are in the clasp of an architectural compromise - and one robust enough to survive what has been one of the bloodiest planning battlegrounds in the City's modern history.

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