City Hall – from glass testicle to white elephant

 [First published by OnLondon, 3 November 2020]

 So farewell then, City Hall.

I remember a conversation in early 2000, soon after I started working in the “transition team” that set up the Greater London Authority (GLA). We didn’t have a Mayor of London yet, but – as I explained loudly to someone in a noisy nightclub – I just really, really wanted to work in City Hall, the sloping glass blob by Tower Bridge that has housed the GLA for the past 18 years. On the site of Pickle Herring Street’s warehouses and wharves, looking north to London’s commercial heartland and east to the capital’s future, City Hall would be a very modern HQ for a very modern strategic authority.

While these shiny new headquarters were being built, London’s new Mayor and Assembly spent their first two years in Westminster’s Romney House, a former hotel that had been requisitioned by the government during World War II, and had served as a dumping ground for departmental detritus since then (and has now been converted into flats). Then, after a formal opening on 23 July 2002 by the Queen (“Your new building, which is so clearly based on ideas of openness and accessibility, will provide an exciting forum for Londoners as your debates ebb and flow”), we moved in.

Openness and accessibility may have been part of Foster and Partners’ design (alongside the government’s instruction to keep a cap on the new Authority’s staff numbers), but these features fell from favour in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Risk assessments were quickly undertaken and an awkward metal detector arch installed by the reception desk. The need to pass through this quickly killed off the idea of citizens being able to drift in from the sunken Scoop outside (which looked like it was purpose build for the skateboarders who security guards so assiduously chased away) into the lower ground floor café.

Security also killed off the rather romantic notion of the ramp above the Assembly Chamber, a slighter echo of Berlin’s Reichstag dome (designed by the same architects and completed in 1999), as a vantage point for citizens to watch new civic democracy in action. Not only was this quickly written off as dangerous (on account of angry firefighters, taxi-drivers and pigeon-feed sellers as much as terrorists), but walking on the ramp was so clattery that even GLA officers were banned from it during meetings.

The Chamber itself is a fine lofty room, which has been used in The Apprentice, for politics programmes and in James Bond films. But with the dead air of the ramp above it, the space it occupies is out of all proportion to its use. Monthly questions to the Mayor attract a smattering of journalists and school children, but other committee meetings are rarely that well attended.

And the real debates and decisions do not take place in the Assembly, but in the Mayor of London’s office (and the offices of his advisors) under the sloping glass eaves of the eighth floor. Ken Livingstone, who had derided the designs as a “glass testicle”, insisted on individual offices for his advisors “for all the plotting they need to do”.

Assembly members had individual offices too, but all staff – from the chief executive down – were in open plan desks arranged around the edge of the building, all uniformly grey to avoid any contrast with the bright yellow walls that the architects had chosen for the building’s core, to enhance the night-time profile it projected over the Thames. Meeting rooms with minimal natural light were clustered around the other side of the core, or buried in the even gloomier basement.

But for all its flaws – from leaking panes of glass and draughty entrance lobby, to the hassle of never knowing whether you would be waiting 15 minutes at security – City Hall had a public face: the lower ground floor café offered the opportunity to bump into the Mayor, Assembly members, GLA staffers, borough leaders and anyone else involved in policy in London. London’s Living Room, on the top floor, is a panoramic party venue – surrounded by a balcony with views over Tower Bridge, the City of London, and the sweeping railways and estates of Southwark. And though the building was clunky and cheaply-finished, it did feel like a place of power.

It is hard to argue with the £60m savings that will be realised by moving the GLA to The Crystal, an equally idiosyncratic building in the Royal Docks, or with the potential to accelerate redevelopment of one of East London’s most complex but isolated locations. But it is also hard not to worry that the move will diminish the GLA, making it just a little more marginal to the lives of Londoners.

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