Don't look back

The triple towers of the Department of the Environment are widely regarded as eyesores, but the competition for suggestions to replace them has spawned a shortlist rooted in the past. The only way is forward, says Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey
Thursday 24 October 1996 23:02

It was one of the things that made us laugh as schoolchildren: the Department of the Environment was housed in one of the ugliest buildings in London, designed, or so it seemed to us, to destroy the environment as best it could. My opinion has never changed, nor I imagine, yours, and certainly not those of most of the people who work in the infamous three government towers in Marsham Street that dominate views of Westminster Abbey. Even the most stalwart members of the Twentieth Century Society, dedicated to preserving modern British architecture, can only pretend to like the DOE.

While the towers can be seen (should you possess a perverse imagination) as immense abstract sculptures on the London skyline, they are ugly, inefficient and disintegrating, and deserve to go.

Given that 99 per cent of us will agree, how should the Marsham Street towers be replaced? Government ministries no longer need so much space in central London, so here is a chance to give back to the city what the men from the ministries took away a quarter of a century ago.

The triple towers of Marsham Street were designed by the government Board of Works under the direction of Eric Bedford and with Robert Atkinson & Partners between 1963 and 1971. The fact that they look like cultural refugees from 1950s Moscow makes us think them older than they really are.

This week we learned that a 36-year-old Bolognese architect, Gabriele Tagliaventi, has won an ideas competition organised by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, intended as a blueprint for the future of Marsham Street after the towers have gone. Tagliaventi's design replaces Bedford's towers with 10 eight-storey structures of what look like neo- classical children's building blocks. Courtyards, arcades and piazzas are the backdrop to a mixture of offices, shops and homes. And parking spaces for 1,200 cars, which Nicholas Schoon, The Independent's environment correspondent, writing in Tuesday's newspaper, thought rather odd given the fact that DOE, of all government departments, ought to be encouraging a curb on car use; the three Marsham Street towers may be ugly, but they offer shelter for a mere 300 ministerial Daimlers, Rovers and bullet-proof Jags.

This might sound like nit-picking; after all, these are early days and Tagliaventi's scheme, if it ever gets the go-ahead, is likely to be more mature than the drawings revealed by John Gummer at the beginning of this week.

The competition attracted more than 200 international entries and was judged by a 12-strong panel which included John Gummer, Michael Heseltine, Leon Krier, the traditionalist architect and biographer of Hitler's pet architect Albert Speer, and, rather surprisingly, Will Alsop, an architect best known for avant-garde designs. As 72 per cent of the entries were rejected on "technical grounds", it is likely that the sort of designs that might have appealed to more forward-looking sensibilities would have been axed early on.

Nearly all the 11 short-listed teams work in Classical styles and would appeal to Mr Gummer, the Prince of Wales, the Prince's Institute of Architecture and to Liam O'Connor, the bright and charming architect who teaches at the Prince's school and is Mr Gummer's architectural adviser.

That John Gummer and Liam O'Connor are serious about traditional architecture and planning is a good thing; whether this is what we should be pursuing at Marsham Street is a different concern. No matter how much we respect and enjoy the hearts of Tuscan hill towns, and of Parma, say, or Naples or Lecce (the most exquisite of all Baroque towns and a personal favourite), they represent the genius and building traditions of past ages. Of course, we can learn from them. To a large extent the history of architecture and city planning is a continuum and if we do not learn from history we are forever starting out at a cultural Year Zero.

Gabriele Tagliaventi says his scheme is inspired by John Nash's Regent Street (1811-19), which it clearly isn't. If it is, then we should be worried, and so should John Gummer. To build such a street meant the demolition of hundreds of homes and existing businesses. Today, it is a rather sad urban avenue, increasingly littered with bland high street shops, embarrassing and obtrusive "heritage" street furniture (Victorian street lights, that sort of thing), tawdry Christmas lights, choking clouds of traffic and an overall sense of a street that could be great but has gone the way of all shopping streets during 15 years of unashamed deregulation and 15 years of the promotion of leisure as the new religion.

No, Mr Tagliaventi: we do not need another Regent Street. The problem with looking over our shoulders, hoping to see a panacea there that will cure all known urban ills, is that it restricts creative thinking. To assume that new buildings in the city centre ought to be no more than eight storeys high, for example, is unnecessarily restricting. Traditionally, city buildings were no higher than this (save for cathedrals, castles and town halls) because that was the limit people were prepared to walk up stairs. The advent of the lift, more than a century ago, has allowed us to build high into the sky.

This is not to say that we have to build high in Marsham Street, but that there is no reason not to. Views of Westminster Abbey? Sure, but views of famous monuments are often enhanced when juxtaposed with later buildings. Cities cannot and should not be frozen in time. They are living organisms - when they are healthy they grow and renew themselves. One of the signs of a vigorous city is a lot of building work and plenty of traffic.

This is not an argument in favour of more power drills and more cars in our city centres, but a reflection on the fact that a healthy city is a vibrant and, very possibly, a noisy city. It is a great pleasure to walk around an agreeable Italian hill town where time appears to have stopped. If you want that kind of life every day of your life, as opposed to holidays, then pack your vintage Louis Vuitton bags and head for the Tuscan hills.

There are other reservations. One is that for all its apparent concern for history, Tagliaventi's scheme would be an isolated urban fragment: it does not connect to the existing townscape. This matters. It is as much the spaces in between buildings that make a lovable and workable city. I have a feeling that architects who revel in past styles and wish they were alive and working in some unrealistically agreeable version of the 18th century (no cholera, no public executions, no anaesthetic- free surgery, no sewer-free streets) are fixated on buildings and architectural style far more than they are on the nature of the cities such buildings might ideally stand in.

We should think, too, about the sort of urban spaces such a plan might offer. I have a feeling that once we populate Tagliaventi's piazza with heritage street furniture (the City of Westminster is obsessed with this sort of tat), and the usual shops and cafes, it will look much like any pedestrian precinct.

The Gummer initiative is well-meant; it is rare that governments concern themselves with urban design, as the building of the three DOE towers proves. The way forward now is surely just that - forwards, and not back to a past that was never as romantic as it is in etchings, paintings and our Chianti-fuelled imaginationsn

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