Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Modern architecture is rubbish

It regularly gets voted as one of the ugliest buildings in London and has been threatened with demolition for over a year now, but I have a soft spot for the Marco Polo House, otherwise known as the QVC Shopping Channel building. It's an imposing monolith overlooking Battersea Park and sitting next to Battersea Power Station. Designed by Ian Pollard, not actually an architect but a developer, it was built in 1987 when postmodernism was in full swing and brash architectural statements were all the rage.

With the lease on the building ending in July this year, staff of QVC are planning to move to Chiswick Park and there are plans to demolish the glass and marble structure to build, inevitably, blocks of bland, ugly luxury flats. Which look like the architectural equivalent of terraced rice paddies on a hill.

Another postmodern eyesore is No 1 Poultry in the City of London, which came number five in Time Out's poll of London's ten worst buildings a few years back. Like the QVC building, I actually don't mind No 1 Poultry, it's only because the beautiful (and listed) neo-gothic Mappin and Webb building was demolished to make way for it that I feel bitterness towards it and all involved in it (who need to be rounded and shot for crimes against aestheticism). An interesting blog here, though, about its history and rooftop garden.

Beauty and the Beast... Before and after

This is apparently quite a regular occurrence, with councils of course having no regard for architectural beauty and history but only to make a fast buck. Iconic Pimlico school was apparently demolished a few months before it was to be listed. Built between 1967-1970, it was designed by John Bancroft (who died last September) and a fine example of brutalist architecture. In recent years the school had been performing well too, but Westminster council had let the building deteriorate and a friend of mine whose son attending the school, heard rumours of the school falsifying its performance, i.e. stating it was doing worse than it actually was in order to make the academy seem an appealing prospect. Although not always the case, it would have been a lot cheaper to keep the old school and renovate it rather than demolish it to build the academy. But the academy – owned by a venture capitalist with close ties to Tory Party front bench – went ahead and is now a specialist arts college. Just what we need, then, when public spending on the arts is being cut to pieces.

Similarly, according to uban75, Erno Goldfinger's (who designed iconic Trellick Tower) Coronet cinema in the Elephant & Castle was demolished the weekend before it was to get listed. Not that even being listed makes any difference; if the beautiful, listed Mappin and Webb building can get demolished, what hope has a concrete cinema in south London?

A similar fate befell the beautiful Firestone Factory in West London, demolished days before it was to get listed status. At least they kept the front gates. In all these examples, when reported in the news, it starts with the now obligatory phrase, 'despite protests...' It's always a losing battle.

In my daydreams, I often think it would be nice to stop demolishing or building any new buildings for, say, five years, and in that time, preserve, regenerate and convert what we have, ie buildings that have been left empty for years to rot. There is now close to a million empty homes in the UK and over 10% of office space in the City of London has remained empty for years, as well as many vacant government buildings around the country.

Councils allowing luxury apartments to be built all over the place certainly isn't going to solve the housing crisis, not least because (ironically) many of them remain empty, bought as they are by rich Asian and Middle Eastern businessmen as an investment and destined to remain vacant for years, or bought by landlords to rent out at exorbitant rates (still, at least the council get their money, even if they are knocking down important buildings, or even just practical ones, you know, like schools, colleges, hospitals, post offices and pubs). Normal flats for normal families to be able to buy just aren't being built any more. My top ten ugly buildings wouldn't be any of Time Out's top ten, most of which I quite like but, rather, all ten would be modern apartment blocks and all they represent.

Besides, though it does seem as if ubiquitous ugly over-priced apartment blocks are turning up all over London, ruining it bit by bit, in fact only 129,000 homes were built in England in 2010; only 2.8 per cent of which were converted offices. But if all long-term empty office space were converted it would create 250,000 new homes; add that to filling up the million empty homes and you've solved the housing crisis (temporarily) without ruining the country.


Previously on Barnflakes:
Death of the High Street
Postmodern Teapots

1 comment :

James said...

What an excellent building. So much great, little appreciated, stuff has been torn down. This reminds me of the huge monolith of a building on Hopton Street, just of Southwark Street. No idea what it is. Looks mysterious & sinister, and that kind of makes it even better.