In my roles as Master of the Company and as Chairman of New London Architecture I was kindly invited to be the guest of honour at the Annual Dinner of the City’s Planning and Transportation. The event was held in Guildhall Library and attended by all the great and the good of the planning, transport and development world in the Square Mile. It was a splendid opportunity to raise the profile of the company while commenting on a number of key issues that face the capital today.
In his speech, Michael Welbank, Chairman of P&TC, launched the ‘Battle for Bank’ – a plan to remove all vehicles except buses from Bank Junction and restore it to its traditional role as a major public space in the Square Mile.
Following this splendid speech this is what I said:
“Chairman, Aldermen, Master, Ladies and Gentlemen
When I was a student New York and the US were seen as leaders in the field of office design, but when I started working in the City in the early 80s there was a marked shift. The heady days of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram, SOM’s Lever, or the Ford Foundation had faded, New York was losing its preeminence in the office market.
The Lloyd’s building was taking shape on Leadenhall – a building whose floorplan of clear open spaces was served by cores on the periphery, which also generated the distinctive external form of the historic home of the insurance market. The flexible floor layout designed as a response to occupier needs, a building that could respond to changing technology – marked a real change in the quality of the office environment in the City.
Stuart Lipton, Broadgate and research by Frank Duffy and DEGW changed all that – responding to user needs and making places between the buildings that people wanted to use. They radically boosted the speed and efficiency of construction whilst bringing to the speculative office market a level of architectural ambition and finesse previously seen only in high-end bespoke developments.
The buildings borrowed much from the states – ‘air rights’ development, ‘fast track’ and ‘shell-and-core’ construction, the ‘groundscraper’ with deep-plan trading floors. The popular public spaces – borrowed from the Rockefeller Centre were forerunners of the changing nature of the City with people eating, drinking and relaxing.
We took these and we improved on them.
Today we have a wide range of office buildings in the City which are best in class by global standards. When the British Council for Offices visited New York for their Annual Conference in 2007 it was clear to all that London had learned from New York and surpassed it in the quality of its space and construction.
The Eastern cluster, the grouping of 30 St Mary Axe, Leadenhall Building, Lloyds, W R Berkley and Willis is an exceptional enclave of superb office buildings that you will find anywhere in the world.
While there are suggestions that there are too many icons and that a period where calm is called for, we should not lose this distinctive character of City towers. They create a wonderful collection of chess pieces, distinctive buildings that reflect the variety and pragmatism of London’s environment, forms that respond to the tight grain of the complex street pattern. Of course chess pieces respond to a level of planning policy of their own, the pawns, castles and knights are the lower fringes, getting taller as you approach the centre of the arrangements – with the King as the pinnacle.
I am a great fan of well designed, well located tall buildings and believe that buildings like 30 St Mary Axe and The Shard have changed public attitudes to tall buildings. Indeed when we organised an exhibition at New London Architecture on tall buildings which included the results of the survey that found that there are some 263 building over 20 storeys in the pipeline, we found that visitors to the exhibition, particularly younger ones, were as concerned about new towers obscuring their views of The Gherkin as they were about views of St Paul’s cathedral.
I mention this because it reflect the ability of not just the buildings to adapt to the needs of the users but also the planning system to respond to changing economic circumstances and methods of working. In London we eschew the dirigiste planning of the continent, and the zoning of the States. Our pragmatic, common law, discursive system an flexible system is very different.
The urban knitting that your Committee has to carry out is full of fascination. The City is the old town, citta vecchio, altstadt – which in most European cities is a protected and preserved tourist centre – here it is the CBD. The world’s financial capital operating out of a 15th century street plan!
It is this relationship of ancient and modern in the City that is so fascinating and which is key to its distinctiveness as a place.
This is what attracted me to an involvement in the Livery – although the Architects’ is a modern company, started in 1984 by Stuart Murphy, the predecessor of Peter Rees as Chief Planning Office – it forms part of a unique governance system that dates back 800 years.
Next year marks the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London and my theme of the year as Master will be the concept of “Rebuilding London”. The rebuilding after the Fire – a failure of visionary planning but a victory for pragmatism and responsiveness that has been a key element in the planning of London every since.
Rebuilding after the Blitz: it seems to me that one of the benefits of the many rather grim buildings of the post war era was that their lack of any redeeming architectural features meant they garnered no support for their retention and could be demolished to make way for buildings more fit for purpose.
It is interesting to note that the Draft Proposals for Post War Reconstruction of 1944 said “Whatever the surface destruction – the City can in no circumstances be regarded as a blank plan of which the pencil of a planner can freely or fancifully travel.” Echoing the response of many in the City to Wren’s renaissance plan following the great fire. The ‘fanciful’ schemes like the Barbican and Paternoster happened when the Labour Government, Patrick Abercrombie and William Holford pressed for more modern interventions. Hub and permeability.of Barbican
After the IRA bombs and the fascinating long term impact of the ring of steel which amazingly mimicked both the Roman and Medieval walls. The resultant reduction in traffic movement not only had improvements in air pollution it lead the debate about improved public space and our use of streets, not just in the Square Mile but across the capital.
The Livery companies are one of the triumvirate of city governance – of Corporation, Business and Livery and as Master I hope we will play a role in debating the architecture of the City, promoting best practice through our awards and promoting London as a global design hub through the Lord Mayor’s role as a commercial ambassador. This year we re-launched the Company’s Architectural Awards as The City Building of the Year. This was won by The Leadenhall Building an exemplar contextual design which is already a recognisable piece of chess set.
We want to work with the City Property Association and City Architecture Forum to do this, supported by the City Centre – what was once known as the City Marketing Suite – where the NLA is working with the City Surveyor’s department in improving accessibility to the exhibition space, the scale model of the city. We want to make it centre of discussion of the changing City – to make the City Centre the NLA of the City.
It is ideally located to do so, it’s lecture space enjoys an phenomenal juxtaposition – on one side is the Roman Amphitheatre dating back to AD 70 on the other is the Pipers’ Model illustrating the splendour of 21st century Square Mile.
‘Square Mile’ – actually 1.12 sq miles: it’s a medieval city where people walked, pushed carts or rode a horse if they were lucky. The ring of steel moved things on, and I commend the Corporation as continues to pursue enlightened policies of better public space. The Sculpture in the City programme is great! The news about the improvement of Bank Junction is wonderful. We will support you in the ‘Battle of Bank’.
Architects, office owners and developers could do more to support these improvement of the city scape by taking a look at their ground floors – often big, bland, very elegant but adding little to the vitality or the experience of street. Let’s have more lobbies that respond to the street scene and create active frontages. The public space beneath the Leadenhall Building is a game changer, the proposals for 22 Bishopsgate also address this issue “Not another faceless marble lobby!” they proclaim.
But most importantly the development includes parking for some 1,900 bicycles and will be consolidating all deliveries to the building. This commendable and something all owners should be doing. The Crown Estate succeeded in reducing van movements in Regent Street by some 80 per cent through consolidation. As small deliveries proliferate and van numbers increase, much of it because of the internet, it is essential that this is a serious element in the next iteration of the London.
The City is a wonderful example for the rest of London as a champion of active travel – the coordination of public transport systems with strategies for walking and cycling. It reduces congestion, improves air quality, makes better places and is healthier.
These are issues that need to be digested by the candidates for Mayors and in the creation in the next generation of the London plan – and they can learn much from the work of your Committee Mr Chairman. The pressures of growth on London are severe, the impact of global investment, the reduction in local authority staffing, make it harder and harder to hold onto the fundamental tenets of good city making. While London’s benefits from a flexible planning system in its ability to adapt to the fast-changing world, we need some stronger tools with which to ensure we are building the sort of city we want. The Corporation’s work on creating a 3D computer generated model of the City into which new developments can be inserted is ground breaking planning and is something City Hall should emulate with all possible haste. Such a tool would also allow the clumsy View Management Mechanisms to be better more sensitively formulated and applied. While protecting views is to be commended the impact of cliffs of buildings generated as a result has negative impact at a local level.
Chairman and Members of the Planning and Transportation Committee I thank you on behalf of the guests. You are the Grand Masters in this great chess game. I look forward to your next moves. Thank you for your splendid hospitality, and may I wish upon you the innovative thinking of Bobby Fischer, the political will of Gary Kasparov, the universality of Boris Spassky and the strategic genius of all of them!”