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.

The bridge and the troubled waters

Originally posted on Public Finance 8 June 2015

The European public procurement directives will probably be quite low on David Cameron’s to-do list as he shuttles to Brussels to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership. But the increasingly irate debates over the Mayor of London’s proposed Garden Bridge are an object lesson in the problems these can cause when political initiative rubs up against technocratic process.

The directives require all public spending over specific levels to be openly tendered, including through the Official Journal of the EU (the \’OJEU\’ that gives the regulations their name). These are intended to ensure transparency and a level playing field across the bloc, but the complexity and length of time taken (OJEU procurements can take six months or longer) have a number of perverse consequences (and there are persistent mutterings that other countries don’t seem to take them quite as seriously as ‘we’ do).

Complying with the regulations involves delay and paperwork, so ‘going over the OJEU threshold’ is something that all public servants try to avoid. One strategy is to try to break down contracts to keep them under the limit. Another is to rely on opaque ‘call off contracts’ or ‘panel arrangements’ where a small number of (usually large) suppliers are assembled on to a panel, among whom individual commissions are divvied up. This creates a closed shop for the period of the panel, and combines with the complexity of the procurement process and a cautious approach to scoring financial risk, to exclude the local small businesses that many politicians have pledged to support.

The problem becomes acute when it comes to big ideas like the Garden Bridge, rather than more run-of-the-mill projects. The theory is that an elected authority carefully develops strategies and policies, and prepares budgets and tender documentation for the projects identified. Following exhaustive planning, consultation and procurement processes, these are commissioned and delivered.

But anyone who has worked in public administration knows, life isn’t quite like that. The man from the ministry (or the Mayor’s office) no longer has a monopoly on wisdom, and probably never did.  Ideas emerge from civil society, from private initiative, from every angle. Politicians grab good ones, and their teams currently have to twist themselves into knots trying to create the process that will lead to the right answer.

The Garden Bridge row is a case in point. Whatever you think of the proposal, recent revelations in the Observer tell a typical story. Joanna Lumley, designer Thomas Heatherwick and others approached the Mayor of London with an idea, Boris liked it, and that idea is now being pushed forward. Between these two points, there was a process that can perhaps most politely be described as ‘messy’ whereby there was a competition, which the Lumley-Heatherwick proposal won. Cue understandable anger from other, disappointed, architects, and negative coverage that the project does not need right now.

But the alternative would have been just as problematic. Other people have proposed garden bridges in London from time to time, but would the Heatherwick design team have put so much work into developing and promoting their proposal if there was a good chance that someone else would have ended up getting the commission?

Open and transparent procurement is an important defence against corruption, kickbacks and simple waste, but the European regulations set technocratic process against political accountability.  Mayors and other politicians will be approached with bright ideas from time to time. Surely they should have political space to judge how bright these are, and to implement them, subject to safeguards and controls – not least, the electorate’s ability to eject politicians who pursue vanity projects?

Rather than going through cosmetic competitions, perhaps the elected leaders of public authorities should be allowed to sign a statement formally exempting a project from open procurement, and setting out their reasons (a similar process is followed for some Freedom of Information exemptions). These exemptions would be published and would be intently scrutinised, by the press and opposition politicians, so political leaders would be reluctant to sign them unless they felt they had a really strong case – a unique idea, a genuine emergency, an economic justification for keeping a contract locally. This certification process could be accompanied by internal or external review of value for money.

The Garden Bridge has been criticised as a vanity project and rouses strong opinions on all sides, but our cities would be poorer if politicians were unable to grab hold of big ideas and help to make them happen. Reforming EU procurement legislation could save an enormous amount of ducking, weaving and bad faith, and allow politicians to decide and be held accountable for how public money is spent.

In the eye of the beholder

Prince Charles\’ letter to the Prime Minister of Qatar, published this week, certainly captures its author\’s voice, veering at times into self-parody. In one faux-tentative passage, the Prince argues that traditional architecture is preferred \”because it enhances all those qualities of neighbourliness, community, human-scale [sic], proportion and, dare I say it, \’old-fashioned\’ beauty.\”

The last word, underlined by hand in the letter, made me think of another man with a forceful personality, strong views on architecture, and a conviction that shallow functionalism in design can marginalise and undervalue beauty. Indeed, when undertaking a commission for the last government, this grandee complained that civil servants persistently tried to censor all mention of \’beauty\’ from his report.

I don\’t think either of them would thank me for the observation, but Prince Charles\’ fellow beauty-seeker is, of course, none other than Richard Rogers, the architect whose Chelsea Barracks scheme the Prince was seeking, successfully as it turned out, to derail.

To the valley below

Balcombe to Haywards Heath is only about two miles as the crow flies. I am not a crow, so this stage of the walk described a lazy s-shape, passing through the Ouse Valley and under the magnificent Ouse Valley Viaduct.

Leaving Balcombe south on the B2036, I escaped from the rattle of the rails down into a wooded valley swarming with pheasants, scurrying indignantly ahead of me, or squawking and rustling from the undergrowth. At the top of the valley, the landscape opened up, with a glimpse of the Viaduct in the distance. I joined the Sussex Ouse Valley Way and turned east towards the Viaduct, which emerged through a landscape that seemed almost unnaturally green in the late summer sun.

The view from the top of the Viaduct is, at any time of year, one of the highlights of the train journey from London to Brighton. Rushing past incongruous Palladian gatehouses and stone balustrades, rail passengers are treated to a panorama of timeless southern English countryside, with old brick farm buildings dotted throughout the wide and well-wooded valley, and the schools buildings of Ardingly College in the background.

Approaching the Viaduct from ground level, you become aware of the strength and grace of the structure. The 37 brick supports are hollow-centred, creating mesmerising patterns as they retreat up the slopes of the valley. Texture and depth is added by the different styles of brick that have been used to patch and maintain the Grade II-listed structure through its 170-year history – according to wikipedia, more than 100 trains a day pass over it.

Beyond the Viaduct, I took a short-cut through River\’s Wood, then rejoined the path, as it led through the pastel-shirted ersatz landscape of Haywards Heath Golf Club. Disorientated by its homgenised sandpits and ornamental tree-planting, I took a wrong turn and ended up on High Beach Lane, which led me into Haywards Heath past suburban villas and McMansions.

When I walked in to the Burrell Arms, opposite the station, I was grateful that I only had time for a quick half-pint. If this pub is not the worst in town, I shudder to think what its competition must be like.

Stats: 5.8 miles, 9.4km, 2 hours

Tales of antique power

Another year, another scheme for redeveloping Battersea Power Station begins to wilt. The site is caught in a double bind. The listed power station (right, photo Tagishsimon) takes up so much space and requires so much investment to keep it safe, let alone equip it for re-occupation, that it is hard to make any scheme make commercial sense at the best of times.

Balancing the books requires a density of development on the rest of the site that cannot be reconciled with its poor public transport accessibility, and the costs of building new infrastructure (the most recent proposals include a spur from the Northern Line) just make marginally viable proposals more fragile still.

You could argue that the only way to bring the site into use would be to demolish the power station. That would be a shame. I have been lucky enough to visit the building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened in 1933, and its interiors are as stunning as its looming form, if not more so. The turbine halls are elegantly tiled, and the control rooms truly magnificent. Crafted wooden fittings are surrounded by decorative wall and ceiling tiles, and bakelite switches are inscribed with the names of substations and districts. This, the interiors say, is a place where something important, and magical, takes place.

The overall impression is one of pride, pride in the modernism and progress that this temple of power once represented, a pride that can also be seen in elaborate Victorian shrines of sanitation, like Bazalgette\’s ornate pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills (left, photo Gordon Joly).

This pride in utilities is something we have lost. As I walked through Redhill a couple of weeks ago, the contrast between the grandeur of the Royal Earlswood Hospital and the shabby incoherence of the East Surrey Hospital could not have been starker. While offices, libraries and civic centres can still win awards, it is almost as if the mundane necessities of power, health and sanitation have become embarassments, to be covered up and smothered, like a burp in polite company.

We are left with tacky trash, rendered all the more conspicuous by its artless attempts to blend in.

Parklife

It\’s hard to get a sense of the scale of London\’s Olympic Park. 270 acres is the size of about 135 football pitches, to use the official journalistic unit of measurement (though, apparently, football pitches also differ in size). This is not one park, but a whole new network of new green spaces in one of the most built up and complex areas of London.

Yesterday, to accompany the announcement of the Park\’s designers, London 2012 issued some material about the character and content of the Park after 2012. The plans are starting to take shape: there will be areas of woodland, open space for events, hills to challenge walkers and cyclists, and a \’One Planet Pavilion\’ to encourage environmental responsibility.

I think the Park will be incredible, but this is the first time that I have ever considered a landscape design to be bossy. This Park is not going to let us alone: it will be telling us to take more exercise, to recycle more, to appreciate native trees, to run, to cycle, to jump, to lose weight. Where\’s the space for more leisurely activities – for lazing, for smoking, for drinking, for kissing? Will the Park tell us to pack a healthier picnic, to watch out for our units, to practice safe sex? I wouldn\’t rule it out.

We can expect more homilies as the 2012 Games draw nearer. The quasi-spiritual wing of the Olympic movement is fluent in the international language of pious eyewash: children are the future, cleanliness is next to godliness, mens sana in corpore sano, we don\’t own the planet we are just borrowing it from our children (or is that Patek Philippe watches?), citius altius fortius, now wash your hands.

It\’s at times like these, to paraphrase the Beck song, that the IOC makes me want to smoke crack.

Underneath the arches

[I wrote this article in spring and have fruitlessly pitched it at all sorts of publications since then. I think the story – one of modernist optimism and arrogance – is fascinating, but I guess that\’s the problem with writing things that you find interesting: will anyone else? Anyway, station architecture seems to be in vogue this week, so here\’s some ambivalent advocacy for one of London\’s least loved landmarks.]

Arriving at Euston Station during the rush hour is a curiously calming experience to anyone used to the chaos of British transport planning. As commuters stream across the concourse or gaze abjectly at the departure boards, the layout of the airy concourse is immediately comprehensible; you can see, in an instant, where everything is.

The triple-height space is bright and naturally lit, with a recessed concrete roof seeming to float above clerestory windows that let daylight flood in. The Station’s design, by British Railways architect RL Moorcroft, was deliberately minimal and monochrome: passengers and advertising hoardings would provide colour; seats were rejected as unnecessary distractions from the business of movement (and as magnets for “layabouts”). While retail kiosks now litter the concourse’s elegant green-grey marble floors, this clarity shines through the clutter.

But there is a strange absence too. The station seems almost embarrassed by grubby presence of trains themselves. Long ramps hurry you through ticket gates, to a low-ceilinged train-shed, whose industrial design and lighting, softened only by a few tentative pot plants, contrasts with the calmness of the concourse. This is not a place for the lingering goodbyes of departing lovers, or for the grimy romance of steam, but a machine for the efficient and hygienic processing of people and goods in an electric age.

This segregation of concourse from trains suggests that the model for Euston was the modernism of airport design, not anything as clunkily old-fashioned as a railway station. In the 1960s, of course, airports were still glamorous places, holding out promises of the exotic, rather than airless boxes stuffed with opportunities for queuing, and humiliation in the name of security. When the station was completed in 1968, Architects Journal made this comparison explicit, criticising the paucity of catering outlets at Euston compared to West London (now Heathrow) Airport, and – more outlandishly – asking why the station still relied on porters, rather than using conveyor belt technology to transfer luggage.

The Station was also criticised for its external spaces, and age has not improved these. There is no sign of thinking outside this glass and steel box, and any fleeting flavour of sixties glamour quickly evaporates. In front of the station, a statue of George Stephenson watches over one of London’s most desolate public spaces. Even on the calmest of days, smokers, street drinkers and commuters are buffeted by gusting winds and mini-cyclones of debris. The black glass and marble office buildings and gallery that create this foul microclimate also contrive, together with desolate planters and kiosks, to hide the station’s façade from the bus station and Euston Road. There may not be many fans of the Euston’s architecture, but making stations invisible does not improve their accessibility to the travelling public.

Things were very different 100 years ago. Euston’s Doric Arch (or propylaeum to be thoroughly correct) stood at the gateway to the Victorian station. It was designed, together with the original buildings, by Philip Hardwick for the London and Birmingham Railway Company and completed in 1838. The station buildings, and in particular the Great Hall designed by Hardwick’s son and completed in 1849, were themselves fine pieces of classical architecture: the current concourse pays sly tribute to the Great Hall’s recessed ceilings and clerestory windows. But it was the 22-metre high Arch that became iconic. It was described by JM Richards, editor of the Architectural Review, as “one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early 19th Century, and the most important – and visually most satisfying – monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered”.

The Victorian station was set further back from Euston Road than its sixties replacement. Bringing the station south, to make room for longer platforms and larger trains, was a crucial element of the re-development plans. Today, architects might have been asked to work round the Arch, to treat it as a non-negotiable ‘given’ in their designs. British Rail does not appear to have given much consideration to this possibility: the Arch would have to go. First of all, it was to be re-located intact, then demolished and rebuilt, and then simply demolished, unless someone could come up with £190,000 (nearly £3 million today) to enable its relocation and reconstruction.

Between 1959 and 1961, appeals from a growing and sometimes improbable coalition – including the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the Victorian and Georgian Societies, Nikolaus Pevsner, Woodrow Wyatt, Tom Driberg, Sir John Betjeman, and Alison and Peter Smithson – fell on deaf ears, as the buck passed from the British Transport Commission (British Rail’s ‘parent company’) to London County Council, and back again. Eventually, in November 1961, Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, received a deputation of protest, but loftily dismissed their arguments. “Concern for such relics,” he said, “will sap national vitality.” Nothing could be done, nothing was, and the Arch was demolished in 1962.

All that remains of the 19th Century Euston today is a pair of gatehouses, inconspicuous alongside the thundering traffic of Euston Road, the destinations engraved on their stone a mute memorial to the height of the steam age. The Doric Arch itself is cheekily commemorated on decorative tiling in Euston Underground Station, and in local street and pub names. In a curious footnote, fragments were found in an East London river in the mid-1990s, and a campaign to rebuild it was launched. But it is hard to see the sense in its resurrection, divorced of context, after a 45-year absence.

But, in some ways, Euston Arch’s destruction has had a more powerful legacy than its retention could ever have achieved. It galvanised and united the heritage movement, drawing it away from the perceived elitism of preserving set-piece churches and palaces, to a more democratic concern with the places – stations, factories and shops – that were part of modern every day life. The apathy, arrogance and evasiveness of the state also prompted new legislation: the 1967 Civic Amenities Act established conservation areas as a more subtle tool than the listing of individual buildings, and the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act made the demolition of listed buildings illegal.

Nobody shed a tear just before Easter, when Network Rail announced the return of the bulldozers to Euston. Nobody is going to start a campaign to preserve the Station as a treasure for the nation. Its charms are too elusive, and its faults too obvious. Aside from which, the strength of London’s commercial property market and the potential of the empty space above the station makes a compelling case for redevelopment. But, long after British Land’s promised “major mixed use development” has been completed, Euston may still be remembered for what it once represented – the dawn of a new electric age of convenience and efficiency – as well as for the cavalier disdain for the past that accompanied that dawn. This was the future once, and this was where that future stopped.