Will Wiles thinks behind the facade
London’s turbo-charged reconstruction of itself can at times make the city feel like an ever-increasing mass of building. At other times, the old place feels quite ghostly and empty.
For years now, the Crossrail works at Tottenham Court Road have given the eastern end of Oxford Street some unexpected new views. The derrieres of Soho and Denmark Street, normally little seen, have been on display to the world, a blush-inducing crowd of rickety fire escapes, bustles upon bustles, drainpipes and ungentrified brick. Across the road, a couple of ornate Victorian shop-fronts stand supported only by an external steel prosthesis – wafer-thin survivals on a block half torn away. Ignore, for a moment, the seething mass of humanity, and the place offers a few momentary hints of a ruined and abandoned London, a fantasy out of Richard Jefferies or JG Ballard.
The completion of Crossrail is coming, and these gaps will at last be filled in. But new gaps are always opening up. Just two minutes away in St Giles, near Renzo Piano’s Fisher Price exercise in placemangling, a Victorian mansion block on Bloomsbury High Street – once home to an unusual cluster of Korean restaurants – is now no more than a facade. Sadly, the planning deal that obliged developers to keep this street frontage is unlikely to extend to the original soot encrusting it – a quite fabulous example of disappearing urban patina, which always strongly suggests the building behind was simply crammed with creaking floorboards, nicotine-stained wallpaper and John Le Carre spooks having elliptical conversations. Alas, there is no building behind, not any more. What’s that? Just something in my eye. Probably soot.
Retaining the same few shreds of stucco over and over leaves us with an architect’s version of the ‘Sugababes paradox’
More lonely faces can be found on the City fringe. The most startling is that of the Fruit and Wool Exchange beside Spitalfields Market. This very substantial 1920s office block has been reduced to its facade as part of a £200 million redevelopment, and temporarily trussed in black plastic. Part modern art, part macabre, part Christo, part Laura Palmer. Nearby the atmospheric warehouse district of Norton Folgate is soon to go the same way, a few retained frontages partially disguising the usual deep-plan retail/office scheme. In the west of the city, the ‘Nash’ crescent that connects Portland Place with Regent’s Park is being rebuilt again behind fragments of retained facade – most of which dates to the 1960s, the original having been destroyed in the Blitz.
Retaining the same few shreds of stucco over and over as construction methods and floor plans change leaves us with an architect’s version of the ‘Ship of Theseus’ or ‘Sugababes paradox’ – if you change all the parts of something, one by one, is it still the original object? And what goes for individual buildings goes for cities as a whole. Facade retention is loathed by many conservationists as a mockery, scorned by many modern architects as a dishonest ploy, and generally regarded as a cynical compromise based on a childishly crude understanding of what makes buildings, streets and cities. Was the specialness of Norton Folgate entirely tied up in the beauty of its utilitarian facades? No, of course not, it was a far more nebulous quality, hard to capture, easy to disperse forever. Here and elsewhere, the conservation battle is really a sign that something has already disappeared . They merely decide the shape of mausoleum – glass box or preservationist theme park.
A deeper question is what happens next. Some of these retained facades are terribly special, stripped of the uses that sustained them and the districts around them. Are they just interim arrangements to wean us off the Victorian streetscape, destined to be torn down in the next redevelopment? Perhaps they’ll be the only part to be changed – some time in the reign of William V or George VII we’ll wonder why all this brick and plaster is cluttering up a perfectly good frame … Urban priorities can look downright perverse when viewed from the distance of a generation. Because they are often perverse at the time.
Will Wiles is a journalist and author
We have been spoiled for shocking facade missteps – most memorably the student housing on Caledonian Road that won Building Design magazine’s Carbuncle Cup in 2013, in which the windows of the drab new block fail to line up with the openings left in the retained brick frontage, resulting in an absolute dog’s dinner. Are the good examples, by their nature, invisible? They need not be – like the marvellous Edwin Cooper archway stitched into Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building. No compromises there.