It may be more Star Trek Borg cube in Lego, but Will Wiles defies the critics and knows why he likes HOK's Royal London Hospital
Coming back from Norwich, where I had been visiting an exhibition about megastructures at Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre, the train passed close to my home in Stepney. I see those trains every day but am rarely on them, and piqued by the (to me) topsy-turvy view, I tried and failed to pick out my block of flats, lost in London’s boundless jumble. But one building did stand out, helping me get my bearings. It always stands out: the immense blue and grey hulk of the Royal London Hospital, designed by HOK and completed in 2012.
It’s not a pretty building, more a Star Trek Borg cube in Lego. Its tremendous bulk is more suggestive of heavy industry than human care, even without the utilitarian blue cladding – it better resembles a nuclear power plant or a server farm than the sprawling 19th century buildings it succeeded. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment savaged its design when it first appeared in 2004, calling it a failure that repeated the mistakes of the 1960s. ’What looks new and modish now may look dated even by the time the building is finished, let alone decades later,’ Cabe wrote to Tower Hamlets council, the planning authority. ‘We believe that buildings have a duty to represent more enduring qualities.’
Well, it proved more enduring than Cabe, and it has some remarkable qualities that have won it a place in my heart. It’s not an architectural appreciation, not really. (Eventually the next generation of bright young things may start arguing that some of these PFI beasts are good, actually, but today is not that day.) Nor is it strictly to do with the fact that both of my children were born there, although that has made me put aside any knee-jerk ‘ugh’ disregard and properly look at the place, which is always a worthwhile thing to do with a building.
My appreciation of the Royal London is rooted in nothing more sophisticated than its sheer size
Fundamentally, my appreciation of the Royal London is rooted in nothing more sophisticated than its sheer size. ‘Higher than the handsomest hotel/The lucent comb shows up for miles’ Philip Larkin wrote of the similarly unmissable Royal Infirmary in Hull. He called that modernist slab by YRM a ‘clean-sliced cliff’, and the Royal London is likewise more terrain than architecture – a neighbourhood mountain, continually reminding you of its existence, easy to pick out from afar.
Closer up, its bulk creates curious illusions. The design comprises two towers of 17 storeys each, but both are so broad as to appear squat, and the overall proportions are those of a smaller building. Therefore, at mid range – for instance on our street, which points directly at it – it seems to be far closer than it really is, and less vast. But walk in its direction, and it does not seem to get closer, only bigger and bigger. A similar state is described by the philosopher Edmund Burke in his description of the sublime, summarised here by Rosalind Williams: ‘When an object is both simple and vast… the eye cannot rest. The image is always the same and seems to have no bounds. The eye is therefore cast into a state of tension, and the mind experiences the state of sublimity.’ Burke called this the ‘artificial infinite’.
The Royal London is also forcibly connected to its wider surroundings by a bit of futurist dash. It is topped by the helipad of the London Air Ambulance, and the urgent comings and goings of the helicopter regularly draw the eye towards the giant on the skyline. My (non-religious) wife confesses to an urge to genuflect when the air ambulance hurtles over, and it has an unmistakeable seriousness of purpose, like the maroon used to summon lifeboat crew.
On a neighbourhood level, this big dumb object functions like Bruno Taut’s concept of the ‘stadtkrone’ or city crown, an artificial peak as urban focal point – appropriately, the old Royal London buildings at its foot are being converted into a town hall for the borough. Maybe every place could use a megastructural helicopter roost. It’s also a reminder that buildings are a bit like people – you can’t choose the ones you end up liking most.
But what’s it like on the inside? I can speak only for the ninth-floor maternity unit, which is clean, spacious and brightly lit, mostly by artificial means. But the size of the building does encroach, the labyrinth of corridors and lift cores that connect you to the front door, that sense of unbearably complicated services pressing in from all sides … As a distraction, the views of London are absolutely exquisite, worthy of the ‘handsomest hotel’. It’s a good view of Whitechapel, too, but with the nagging sense that something big is missing.