Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture

  • Either-way case

    On Wednesday more details of the proposed new City of London Law Courts building, police headquarters and commercial block by Eric Parry Architects were released on the consultation website, including photo-realistic CGI imagery, diagrams and text. Though undeniably welcome, additional information seems to have been provided only to the trade press and as in July’s announcement - covered further down on this page - questions are prompted as often as they are answered for anyone seeking to meaningfully assess this major new scheme.

    Its central element, the new courthouse, is still poorly illuminated. Just four CGIs have been provided, two of which match the viewpoints chosen for the drawings (probably by Parry himself) published in July. A third is encountered as a thumbnail illustration to the sustainability section before being seen at full size only on the feedback page; the last is merely a night-time version of the same picture. There is a ground floor plan of all three buildings and the associated landscaping and street furniture (note the line of bollards along Fleet Street, just as I predicted 18 months ago), and a new drawn aerial view of the scheme from the west. Renaming what was called the Fleet Street Estate project ‘the Salisbury Square Development’ suggests a change of emphasis that may explain these presentational decisions and other findings, as I’ll discuss.

    The extent of building losses along Salisbury Court on the eastern edge of the site is now evident; both number 8 and 1 Salisbury Square on the south east corner will go. A “new public house” will be installed within the listed 2-7 Salisbury Court with an outdoor terrace stepping down to the square. This will be remodelled and, it is said, enlarged although without dimensions it’s impossible to tell, especially as Salisbury Court itself will be re-laid as a shared surface to blur the distinction between square, pavement and road. Flora will be dispersed rather than focussed as July’s “new public green”.

    The east-west pedestrian routes between the new buildings are set out, although the axial perfection implied by the paving design is curious given the doorway of 2-7 Salisbury Court is not actually aligned with it and the spire and nave of St Bride’s. More seriously, the new commercial block will touch its pre-existing neighbour to the south of the square, whilst no replacement for the current (albeit blocked) passageway beneath the building it will replace is shown. These decisions – both of which I cautioned against in 2019 – run counter to an avowed wish to open up what was termed an “impermeable” site, and may imply a change in the target tenant. Indeed, all references to the commercial block having a retail component and encouraging movement toward the Thames have been removed from the website.

    What, then, of the new buildings themselves?

    The courthouse does, as I noted in July, strongly echo the massing of the Reuters building next door, particularly at its upper levels. Lutyens’ masterpiece is clad in Portland stone and the court, too, will be sheathed in limestone. It will have “a substantial civic presence on Fleet Street”, the description asserts, though as it is seen only obliquely, cropped or at a distance in all of the images, this claim is virtually impossible to judge. The principal façade is somewhat facetted in plan, a gesture that emphasises the entrance, but it will have minimal articulation. Neither responds to the location. The overwhelming majority of buildings facing Fleet Street do so with flat frontages and most of these are highly modelled even if limited by the conventions of their era. As the courthouse is already dramatically wider than any other building on the street, this must be a concern. How, too, the building will be a “contemporary reworking of the historic civic buildings that pepper the Square Mile”, given the above and when no examples of that very wide chronological and stylistic spread of predecessors are cited, is also uncertain.

    We are told that “public art at the base of the building will be commissioned and used to create a truly civic space”, but not how, whether this is inside or out nor to what degree it will be integrated with the architecture. True, there intriguing depressions visible in the granite plinth reminiscent of the great circular windows carved from polished black stone in the former Coutts bank building at nearby 188-190 Fleet Street (Anderson, Forster & Wilcox, 1963-7) as well as passages of what might be carving between the windows on an upper floor, but no other clues.

    It’s worth noting that ‘civic’ is defined on the consultation website as a place with connections and art rather than one with inherent quality in its buildings. And repeating that, two years ago, the City announced this as the City’s “second iconic courthouse after the Old Bailey”. On the admittedly scant evidence supplied to date, it is difficult to agree with either statement.

    At the rear (the south elevation), the oriels that I identified in my summer post are also confirmed and multiplied across the façade, giving a pleasantly Mid-Century feel recalling St George’s Hotel, Portland Place, London or Deans Court and Cumberland House, Crown Square, Manchester. Reference to “A large public entrance foyer” that will include a “processional” staircase validates the rest of my analysis of that same drawing, though in the CGI equivalent its curvature – if any there is – is much less pronounced. In stating that this stair’s presence will be “reflecting both the history and the importance of the building’s function” there is again no real substance, not least as few courthouses actually have such a stair.

    There is an awkward reference to “the different courts – each jurisdiction with its own design requirements”. Justice system insiders will know that ‘jurisdiction’ in this context refers to the criminal, civil, family and tribunal arms of the law, and they do as I explained before have varying physical requirements within a building. With not a single interior image available, however, the exact impact on this design is not known, though the crown court hearing room option mentioned in 2019 but omitted in the summer is now firmly back in play.

    There is confusion about the number of courtrooms it will contain – 18 is mentioned on the website, but 20 in the trade press – and it is a surprise to read that underground parking will be permitted, as this was banned in the 1990s’ court design guide. That it will be “resilient” is comforting and hopefully addressed my points about cyber security (it would be ironic if not, given the stated focus of the complex on this crime).

    Moving to the City of London Police headquarters, the primary material here will weathering steel, broadly as I divined. Its surface oxidises on exposure to moisture but then stabilises, providing protection against further corrosion and its own finish. Usage here is justified by its “distinctive colour” that “complements the brick of the neighbouring listed building”, as well as notions of longevity. It is though tempting to speculate whether it also alludes to cell bars or even the oversized chains that once decorated the front of Newgate Gaol, located where the Old Bailey is today. Vertical planted ‘bays’ bring interest to the public alleys, as is becoming common in such developments.

    It is far larger than initially suggested, with ten or eleven floors above ground depending on how they are counted that include a roof terrace and a greened hamper level that probably screens plant. Three additional storeys in the basement will no doubt house the reported firearms range, vehicle parking and custodial suite, not to mention the usefully imprecise “specialist spaces”. Also picked up from the media is the only structural contribution highlighted – a 24-metre clear span at ground floor to give a more visually clean lobby, though I wonder about the security aspects of this when considered in conjunction with a pedestrian alleyway immediately outside, not a great deal of ‘stand-off’ from Whitefriars Street to the west and the apparent lack of bollards or other hostile vehicle mitigation covering the approach from the square to the east. Slightly disingenuously, it would seem, a greened area off of Whitefriars Street that appears to be part of the public realm on the plan (which item is titled as such) is in fact overhung by the building’s upper floors and adjacent to the secure van dock entry.

    Finally, the commercial block. Glimpsed in one of the images it will be shorter than the police building though with its own roof terrace and a façade “formed of panels of pressed unglazed terracotta, above a precast concrete base of a similar tone to the steel of the police headquarters.” Also emerging as a wider trend, it and the rest of the scheme will benefit from a ‘consolidated servicing’ hub located outside of the City of London.

    That, then, is the plan as you and I can see it today. Feedback on July’s initial concepts has influenced the plans, apparently, and further comments are encouraged at this second stage before a planning application is submitted “later this year”. That being so, the lack of explicit details for the courthouse is even more puzzling, but taken together with the imagery bias toward the square and the other changes mentioned it is obvious that that central open space is now driving the scheme, almost to the exclusion of the rest and at least as far as the public consultation in concerned. Is this a welcome realignment that addresses the lack of public space in the City, especially in light of Covid-19? Perhaps. Might it reflect a certain nervousness at the security aspects of the project, or commercial concerns? Again, maybe.

    For now, the last word is that of the developers: “If a consent is granted, our intention is to start on site in towards [sic] the end of 2021.” But when the planning application that seeks that consent is filed, it will be yours and mine.





  • A breath of fresh air in the City of London? 55 Gracechurch Street

    Another day, another new office tower for the City of London. Or so it appeared when 55 Gracechurch Street was announced last week. But after reading the design and access statement it became clear that this was something different; a legible arrangement of unpretentious elements with more than a nod to the past, an open-air public garden positioned for interest and intimate linkage to pre-existing alleys and courts with ideas to enhance them for the future. Each of these has been considered with unusual care.

    On a site mid-way along a street block of Gracechurch Street, Fletcher Priest Architects proposes to insert a 32-storey tower atop a 6-storey podium, behind a new façade infilling the gap left by removal of the existing building. One street over to the east stands 20 Fenchurch Street, the Walkie Talkie, but what is intended for 55 Gracechurch Street is no wilfully-facetted competitor. Instead its tower will appear as two simple, conjoined boxes – one for the office floorplates and the other for the service core. Each is treated differently to emphasize this reading. The new building is aligned with its site, which faces west and is much deeper than it is wide. This means the axis of the tower is perpendicular to the Walkie Talkie, with its taller, rear service core providing a visual ‘step’ down from it.

    This massing arrangement clearly echoes the corporate Modernism that emerged in the United States after the last war and which took the principles of the International Style and applied them to the office tower. Although the pioneers – Portland’s Equitable Building (1948) and New York’s Lever House (1952) – still placed lifts, staircases and toilets inside a single rectilinear floorplan, within a decade the desire for more efficient use of space saw this service core pushed out of the office area. It formed a ‘bustle’ or projection to the rear of the Seagram building (1958), also in New York, but just a year later had become fully detached at Crown Zellerbach, San Francisco; it was this model that was adopted in Britain for the prestigious CIS building (1962) in Manchester. In the new scheme, too, the small detail of glazed top storeys with visible structures within recall the openwork ‘hampers’ common to the summits of many London towers of the post-war period. By following these paths for its tower at 55 Gracechurch Street, Fletcher Priest Architects shows a restraint that is welcome in today’s often aggressively-architectured Square Mile.

    A podium is to contain communal and amenity space for start-ups and maturing companies, places for “recreation and interaction” and retail units including those fitting the concept of ‘Exchange’, for example the fabrication of online orders and personalisation. It will have on its roof a landscaped public terrace, on two levels connected by a ‘green’ or living wall. Quite how – or indeed whether – this semi-accessible approach will work is an open question; the closest equivalent will be the lower levels of 22 Bishopsgate, which nears completion to the north. More intriguing, however, is the ‘face’ that will be presented to Gracechurch Street. This will take the form of a deep masonry grid, reminiscent of cubby shelving, that will continue the existing building line but do so in a manner that is permeable throughout. Thus the cells on the upper tiers will be of double height and recessed within them, behind built-in planters, will be for the most part the glazed elevations of the podium floors but also sculpture. Those on the lower storeys will be triple height to indicate the main entrance and elsewhere form the pedestrian and vehicular portals to the alleyways that perforate the site. At all levels some of these cells will merely contain air.

    This is an impressive and innovative solution to a problem which is acknowledged in the planning submission; how freestanding towers should relate to their immediate context. Historically these have risen from either a piazza formed – more or less by default – from the demolitions necessary to build them or a conventional podium that itself completed the building line; recent examples of this include, respectively, 30 St Mary Axe and 100 Bishopsgate. This scheme for 55 Gracechurch Street introduces a third option, a framing device or delineator separate from tower and surroundings but related to both.

    The current building on the site is wound about by three separate alleys or passageways, bridged over by it or other structures, albeit two have been reduced to cul-de-sacs through successive waves of rebuilding. It is very much to the developer’s credit that all three are to be kept and linked to form an east-west route across the site that might eventually encompass a fourth alleyway, outside the site boundary, to provide a branch to the north. Retaining the enclosed quality of these spaces – a key topographical feature of the City – contrasts positively with other recent or putative schemes that have tended to pull buildings back from near neighbours to widen such alleys, losing their unique character, or, as with Eric Parry’s plans for the Clothworkers’ Company nearby, erase them all together. A separate architectural treatment has been worked out for each façade of the new building where it fronts these passageways, drawing on historic evidence for the materials and arrangement. Not all of these currently work, it seems to me, whether the black granite aggregate finish for Talbot Court – its warehouse legacy would be better evoked in a modern equivalent to London stock brick, or, pace the inter-war building across the alley, faience, itself ‘in’ once more – or the overly fussy diapered brick in Brabant Court, yet at least Fletcher Priest are again actually thinking rather than reaching for a cliché (which, here, would be more white concrete, stainless steel and glass). In the same vein two large vehicle lifts serving the basement are to be situated outside of the building curtilage, flush with the pavement during opening hours, removing the need for ground level loading bays and maximising the public realm in the largest alley.

    But there is more. The practice has undertaken a rich and original piece of research into two dozen alleyways and courts in the locality, analysing their location, purpose and footfall and also the shape, size and nature of their entrances in relation to the buildings they sit within. The results have helped inform the design of the portals for 55 Gracechurch Street and are also – like all of the material in the planning documents – superbly presented. Indeed, with the designer’s name and date of construction added and a line or two of history included or fleshed out, showing for example that Corbet Court – one of those featured – led only to the underground car park of the previous 1960s building on its site but now continues through to St Peter’s churchyard, this would have value for historians in its own right.

    It can be difficult to divine genuine architectural progress, even – pr perhaps especially – in a monoculture like the City of London. Both simple and complex, 55 Gracechurch Street feels like something new and needed.



  • Transparency and beauty: Planning to fail?

    No one could doubt Boris Johnson’s intentions for England’s “outdated and ineffective planning system”, as he describes it, which he sets out in this week’s consultation on its reform. Scrapping individual site and scheme applications, pre-approved developments that cannot be stopped in principle, American-style zoning, less paperwork… It’s certainly radical. Media coverage has concentrated on the implications for housing but I’d like to focus on two other areas the white paper addresses: public access to planning information, and notions of ‘beauty’ in buildings.

    The degree to which people are aware of, understand and contribute to any planning application is a major element of the proposals. The current system, Johnson says, is a “relic” that means the nation’s “potential is being artificially constrained.” In an introduction that uses – in rather laboured fashion – the metaphor of an aged and ramshackle building to clear the ground (sorry) for what follows, he also says we need a way forward “that gives you a greater say over what gets built in your community” and concludes that we need to “make the system work for all of us.”

    In his foreword Johnson’s secretary of state, Robert Jenrick, initially sounds calmer with the acknowledgement that “longstanding issues in our development and planning system have come to the fore”, but any suggestion that this might lead to a dispassionate examination of those very ‘issues’ is quickly abandoned when he proceeds to ignore the ones that matter and distorting some of the others that, arguably, don’t.

    The disingenuity that stalks the planning world as well as the political one appears immediately with two misleading assertions. The first is that “We are moving away from notices on lampposts to an interactive and accessible map-based online system” whereby “local democracy and accountability will now be enhanced by technology and transparency.” The second is that planning is ‘discretionary’, whereby each case is considered on its merits. Both do not reflect the actual position.

    Jenrick’s slating of notices on lampposts, repeated twice later in the document (“Residents should not have to rely on planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers or posted in libraries”), not only misses one obvious point – that this is a perfectly valid way of bringing applications to the notice of a wide cross section of locally-involved people – but conveniently ignores another; that currently every planning authority is also obliged to make each planning document publicly available online, as part of the application process. Indeed, the document calls for the “harnessing [of] digital technology to make it much easier to access and understand information about specific planning proposals” even though this is exactly what happens now. It also wants “a digital template for planning notices” but, again, these already exist.

    Already available - a local authority planning portal entry

    Online access is one of the most powerful tools there is for engaging with possible changes to the built environment, and planning portals allow anyone to examine plans, descriptions and historical material relating to any site and scheme, even those going back some years and regardless of whether they were approved or rejected. The go-to item for each is always the design and access statement, which sets out in simple form the entire development. It is true that they can be “hundreds of pages long” for large developments and uploaded as multiple (but easy to read) pdf files where this is the case, but viewing that as a problem is akin to suggesting a recipe should leave out half its steps. In repeating an aspiration for ‘data not documents’, the consultation appears to shy away from the very accessibility and transparency that it demands since not every piece of important information can be presented as a number.

    These planning application documents or the developer’s or architect’s own websites already include other material the consultation mentions as being vital, including timely, sourced information and high-quality virtual simulation in the form of verified views, computer-generated imagery, studies of daylight angles and more.

    If public comments on planning applications are really “dominated by the few willing and able to navigate the process” today, then that is surely true of any field, including that of voting in general elections – the Conservatives remained in office last year notwithstanding 4 in 10 voters didn’t bother to cast their ballot. If, too, young people do not take part in a procedure that is already fully digital and accessible, it is hard to envisage any improvements that will alter that; caution must accompany the document’s vague but also repeated ambition for the public to “feed in their views […] through social networks and via their phones”– should major planning decisions be reduced to a Facebook ‘like’ or a swipe left or right?

    Yes, there is one weak link in the chain between a site and its application documents at present – you need to know the address of the former to locate the latter on the web portal. This is where the trust lamppost is helpful, but all applications have to be published in local newspapers and many of these have online editions, including the Evening Standard where the City of London publicises its own applications each Tuesday. Many planning authorities already provide a map-based search facility online, and some automatically alert subscribers to new applications in their neighbourhood.

    Democratic deficit is a useful phrase. Although the consultation document claims to address this it contains sweeping statements that conflate and elide with dexterity. This has already been seen in that obsession with ‘popular voting’, which idea appears in the document to relate to individual development plans but will actually only be for those local plans – no further public involvement will be possible. It pops up again with the statement that “Communities will be able to trust the planning system again as their voice will be heard from the beginning of the process” whereas in reality, that will be the ONLY point at which their voice will be heard since there will no site applications left to scrutinise under the new approach.

    On that ‘discretion’ point, there are in fact “clear rules for what can and cannot be done”, found in both statute and government policy and guidance. Additional support is derived from case law, societally fundamental in England & Wales, so it is curious that this is criticised as being “exceptional internationally” when applied to planning given the government repeatedly praises this same legal system in other contexts.

    Ironically for a consultation that is not only about what things look like but which seeks to encourage clarity, there isn’t a single flowchart or diagram to explain the relationship between the various elements of the new system, which include local plans, zoning decisions, design codes, development orders, neighbourhood plans and existing national planning policy guidance and use classes, both of which will be retained.

    And what of beauty? The consultation talks of the need for authorities to consider “empirical evidence of what is popular and characteristic in the local area” in order to wave through any scheme that accords with those findings, with little realisation that ‘popular’ does not axiomatically equate to ‘good’. It also champions “gentle intensification” without noting that any encroachment on England’s green and pleasant land even when that is brown and in a city centre has always been fiercely resisted or that this can most easily be equated currently with crude upward extensions along suburban shopping parades or clunky attic storey conversions in residential streets.

    Things to avoid... From 'Distinctively Local'

    Attracting much coverage in the architectural press is the suggestion of design codes or – even more prescriptive – pattern books, schemes in compliance with which will speed through to construction. In truth these are not described in any detail at all let alone illustrated. The new system envisages “a limited set of form-based development types that [would] allow the redevelopment of existing residential buildings where the relevant conditions are satisfied – enabling increased densities while maintaining visual harmony in a range of common development settings (such as semi-detached suburban development). These would benefit from permitted development rights relating to the settings in which they apply.” Unfortunately it is those very PDRs – themselves recently relaxed yet again – that have allowed the aforementioned suburban crassness, and so using them to drive more building work with the justification of local support that is in actuality likely to come only from ‘those who take part’ seems unlikely to achieve beauty and will certainly remove the ability of neighbours or others to oppose further schemes.

    The recent Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report is mentioned approvingly in the consultation but in truth that well-intentioned document says much but contains relatively little. It stresses the need for housing to look like it is of ‘somewhere, not anywhere’, champions use of local materials and rightly marks the importance of re-using heritage structures and ongoing stewardship of buildings. It also addresses the long-standing, discriminatory practice of VAT being chargeable on refurbishment but not on new build, which awkward fact is not even mentioned in the new consultation. Yet it struggles to actually define standards for beauty or explain how they will be achieved, and the images used to support such conclusions as it does come to are themselves as biased as the

    consulta tion's language.

    Quite beautiful....

    ...quite plain?

    Thus one photograph of a new housing development does indeed seem to reflect many people’s ideas of a homely neighbourhood, but my own search for pictures of the same scheme reveals rather less flattering examples. It pulls the same trick in reverse with 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie Talkie, presenting an awkward camera angle and blunt caption as proof of its unattractiveness rather than an opinion as to that.

    With no evidence, let alone the kind of objective criteria that Johnson and Jenrick claim will do the job easily, it is of limited value but does inadvertently signpost readers to a far richer and more practical guide, the ‘Distinctively Local’ report produced by four architectural firms who actually build residential schemes. By no means (only) a free plug for their work and covering everything from the small but important issue of avoiding the utility meter boxes that disfigure the fronts of many new developments to the possibility for a degree of customisation at the point of sale for new-build homes, this handy guide also contains a warning that “Design codes cannot by themselves produce excellence - they are not a substitute for talented designers.” Practical aspects of the creation of new houses that also affect its appearance are also addressed, such as a recognition that young people no longer recognise the traditional home where there is one phone, one television and one living room and the helpful observation that “physical conditions on [a typical building] site are uncomfortable and the culture is seen as ‘laddish’” by potential young entrants to the industry. Its range of case studies to illustrate its recommendations show variety and specific details.

    Other potential mechanisms for producing beauty are considered by the consultation. Promisingly, “In Growth areas, we would also want to allow sub-areas to be created specifically for self and custom-build homes”, and authorities are encouraged to appoint a chief officer for design and place-making. The document is silent on the exact function of this role, however, just as it is on the true potential for off-site manufacture (which would also greatly assist in extending customer choice), the need for a dramatic reduction in the slow, waste-generating ‘wet’ trades still plied on those intimidating building sites and the potential for good that reinstatement of design reviews might bring.

    Worryingly, even existing, accepted icons of beauty may not be safe under these proposals. There are brief mentions of allowing “sympathetic changes” to listed heritage assets more often, as well as a disturbing suggestion wondering if “suitably experienced architectural specialists can have earned autonomy from routine listed building consents”.

    Predictably, house builders and surveyors have welcomed the consultation ideas, whilst town planners and local authorities have not. New London Architecture summarises the views of its professional panel, which are helpful and broad-ranging.

    In one respect at least the consultation is consistent. Everything in it is about cutting: scrutiny, pages, input, time, information, objections. Jenrick himself accepts that the public will lose the right to object to individual developments. Will he and Johnson succeed?



  • Court short?

    Eighteen months ago the Corporation of London chose Eric Parry Architects for its new courthouse and police building, then due to open in 2025; I analysed the proposals as they then stood and made some predictions. Last Wednesday the Corporation opened public consultation on an indicative masterplan for the scheme, which it refers to as the Fleet Street Estate project although just nine days earlier development partner and end user HM Courts and Tribunal Service announced that the complex would be called the City of London Law Courts – a name which does not appear anywhere in the Corporation’s material. It’s a small point of divergence but one which signals larger contradictions…

    My main predictions have proved correct. The courthouse will indeed front Fleet Street, the police building will be entered from Whitefriars Street, a single van dock will be used by both (they will share “a security controlled basement, building servicing and core to create efficiencies through the build process and in the day-to-day running”) and the southern portion of the site below Salisbury Square will be landscaped. True, I was wrong to assume that Hanging Sword Alley to the north west would be built over to form a contiguous plot, albeit with public access maintained via a passageway, but only because it has now been confirmed that the courthouse and police station will be massed as two separate structures with the alley developed as an east-west route. Only one of the City’s existing police stations, Bishopsgate, will remain in use alongside the new building, and I still prefer ‘Justice Centre’ as a name (as indeed did HMCTS recently in Leamington, and its Scottish equivalent in Inverness).

    The real news is the revelation that a third major component has been added to the scheme – a commercial block, to be placed at the south end of the site. Primarily housing offices, its ground floor uses “could include” shops, cafés and bars, though the actual tenants “will be carefully curated so as not to impact the integrity, safety or security of the new CoLP headquarters or court facilities.” Money would appear to be the reason for this significant change, as “The project will be funded by the City of London Corporation in part by the disposal of the existing court and police facilities, and in part by the provision of [the] new commercial space”.

    The consultation material confirms the site as comprising the entire triangle of land bounded by Fleet Street, Salisbury Court and Salisbury Square, Primrose Hill and Whitefriars Street; a re-reading of an HMCTS intranet post from February 2019 makes it clear that the Corporation’s purchase of 68-71 Fleet Street that year was the final part of the Fleet Street portion rather than – as I understood at the time – the only part. As far as the buildings within it are concerned, my assumption is that all will be demolished and in preparation five-year certificates of immunity preventing ‘listing’ for architectural interest took effect for every one of them the same day the consultation opened. The sole exception – though it is still pictured in the consultation’s 'History' section alongside some of the other buildings – is the already Grade II-listed 2-7 Salisbury Court (in practice, numbers 2-3 and 5) of 1878; an application for listed building consent would be required to demolish it.

    In seeking to justify the loss of these buildings, the consultation uses misleading language in places. Two passages summarise the current site as being “quite closed off with no real connections through, with blank walls and no quality public space”, and say that it features “blank walled office buildings creating a dark environment”, “physical barriers” and “no opportunity to walk through or appreciate the location and surroundings.” Fleetbank House, it claims, “dominates and creates a barrier from St Bride’s Church and Salisbury Square, making it difficult to walk through or appreciate the location and surroundings” and “There is a lack of active frontages facing onto Hanging Sword Alley”.

    Those descriptions, along with that of the site as “impermeable with a large 1970s office block cutting off pedestrian movement” in the accompanying press release, are either plain wrong or disingenuous.

    As I mentioned in my earlier post, the entire triangle is emphatically permeable, with Hanging Sword Alley – actually a large courtyard for most of its length – entering from the west and then turning south, Hood Court cutting through the Fleet Street building line to join it and a set of steps linking Salisbury Square to and from Primrose Hill. All of these pass through or under the buildings, interweaving paths and architecture in line with the City’s well-known tradition. Similarly, Hanging Sword Alley is typical of most of the Square Mile’s other alleys so would not be expected to have public doorways or windows along it. This kind of phrasing, whilst sadly endemic in property development, is disappointing to find in such a prestige scheme, especially when used by the party that will be approving it.

    Nevertheless we are promised that the process of realigning Hanging Sword Alley will be responsible for “revealing magnificent views of the St Bride’s Church spire“ emerging above Lutyens’ superb Reuters building to the east of Salisbury Court, although it will be interesting to see whether the drawing of this – one of only two illustrations showing the new buildings included in the consultation pack – will match the formal verified view imagery required for a planning application. Salisbury Square will be remodelled as “a new public green”, and there will be an “opportunity to create” (note the caution) roof terraces on all three buildings.

    There are official design standards for each of these: the Court and Tribunal Design Guide (finally published by HMCTS a few months after my earlier post), the Police Building Design Guide from the Home Office and the Best Practice Guides of the British Council for Offices. These represent the latest client thinking, but of course the project is moving forward at a remarkable time, post-Brexit and during a pandemic. The consultation admits as much, yet mentions Covid-19 only in the context of a lack of face-to-face consultation in this round and a generalised need to ensure that “the UK invests in its future” in the wake of the virus. Both feel like last-minute insertions and neither addresses the wider questions the situation raises.

    Whether the rationale for a commercial block still holds at a time when physical retail and consolidated office space are at the very least being reconsidered must surely be one of those, not least given the near-ten-year timeline of the project when conception is considered. The other might be why a large courthouse is needed at all. Since March HMCTS has rapidly accelerated its use of remote technologies in the civil and criminal jurisdictions, both of which will be accommodated at Fleet Street. Digital adjudications – some might call them ‘decisions’ when shorn of the elaborate formality that normally surrounds them – are made outside of a courtroom environment, exist only in the electronic realm and have even been conducted with the magistrate and legal advisor in their own homes recently. There have also been more court sessions where parties join in sound and vision instead of in person. Overall, the organisation is taking “urgent steps to increase the capacity of our existing systems, to introduce new capabilities, and to provide guidance to our staff on organising telephone and video-enabled hearings”. This is despite concerns expressed by some over the effectiveness of such solutions when considered for judicial outcome (as opposed to simple efficiency) and others wondering if the right problem has been identified in the first place.

    It is also worth noting that the additional Crown Court capacity planned for the new court in 2019 is not mentioned in the new material and the design guide itself is explicit on provision for significant video link use, with even small rooms normally used only for brief periods to be designed to “enable advocates to use the booths in the future to attend hearings virtually”. Thus with HMCTS showing every sign of widening the range of cases heard by these new routes, continuing the closure of courthouses and opening back-office service centres in more economic parts of the country, in five years’ time a large, specialised building in one of Europe’s most expensive cities may not seem as sensible an investment as it does today. In the meantime, perhaps robust cyber security should be added to the specification as well as physical resilience, and it is surely not being flip to suggest this should extend to the architect and contractors given Building Information Modelling (BIM), a live, digital 3D model for the planning, design, construction and operation of buildings, is mandatory for public projects in the UK.

    What, then, of the architecture? EPA has not designed comparable criminal justice buildings before, though it has extensive experience in the commercial and wider public sector. Building outlines shown in the ‘Emerging masterplan’ slide do though appear to be of the future scheme. The courthouse is a rectangle paralleling Fleet Street, symmetrical about an atrium whose southern wall includes a wide bay of some kind. The plans of neither the police nor office buildings, though, can be determined in any detail beyond broad block shapes. Internally there will be little room for flair within the tight prescriptions of the site and the design guides, in the courthouse especially. The principal architectural decision there, responsible for shaping the entire building, is how to orientate the sandwich of public area/courtrooms/private area. Several standard layouts exist, the choice often driven by the size and shape of the site and the maximum permissible height. Though represented diagrammatically in the guide, along with the associated flows necessary for the segregation of parties, cross sections that bring these together to indicate actual design options have been redacted from the document.

    There is an architectural dilemma involved when determining the appearance of a courthouse – and, for that matter, a police station: transparency versus solidity. The Corporation terms the Law Courts a “new civic hub”, and it is the most important public project in the City since the Guildhall Art Gallery opened twenty years ago right next to the seat of government for that body (it is a shame that the current magistrates’ court site further along could not have been utilised for this project, effectively completing the quadrangle around Guildhall Yard). There, stone was used, as it had been for centuries. After 1945 architects from the Gilbert Scott dynasty worked to ensure this and brought a consistency of style within that family’s distinctive interpretation of Modernism when designing for the Corporation over two generations. At Fleet Street, though, we are told that the materials used “will provide each of the three buildings a sense of their own identity, taking inspiration from the surrounding streets and the wider city”.

    That EPA has been selected makes sense in this regard; the practice deploys a sometimes surprising variety of finishes in its work, from load-bearing stone to glazed ceramic to steel. The consultation shows this with two photographs of completed EPA buildings and mentions “expressed weathered steel and a variety of stone façades” as the materials to be employed at Fleet Street. That first sketch seems to agree. On the left stands the rear of the courthouse, with what from this angle seems to be a full-height bay window containing a spiral staircase (and perhaps with an openwork top) that is flanked by boxed-out oriels; both features might be assumed to be of stone. To the right is the side of the police building, the façade here seemingly of unclad steel. The other sketch, looking west along Fleet Street, gives a few more clues. It shows a courthouse that follows the massing, set-backs and cornice lines of Reuters and whose elevational treatment appears to include two double-height upper storeys, almost certainly those housing the court rooms.

    New criminal justice buildings around the world are offered up in the pack as examples of what is happening elsewhere, though once again the material is somewhat inconsistent. All of the buildings shown feature extensive glazing despite the points referred to above, and Singapore, which practises capital and corporal punishment, is included but the United States, which builds many new courthouses, is not.

    So, the City of London Law Courts is not an open and shut case. There is a long way to go. The current consultation period will be followed by another, each informing discussions with planners and clients before a formal application is lodged this winter. If the process that yielded Westminster Magistrates’ Court is any guide, this is likely to be iterative and difficult and will invariably involve compromises. As someone with a foot in more than one camp and experience of that building, I only hope more of those are headed off early or at least acknowledged before business begins at Fleet Street, this now intended for 2026.

    Find the consultation materials and response portal here.



  • The Isolation Files #3 – ‘Instant’ architecture

    Demand is falling for the modular, transportable or slot-together medical facilities brought quickly into being around the world, although many have proved critical. Traditionally, speed is considered antithetical to good architecture. Consideration of the brief, site and approach followed by construction itself all take years – typically three to five for any large building today – with the implication that effectiveness, efficiency and, yes, aesthetics have been thoroughly considered in that time too. Yet permanent as well as temporary buildings have appeared every fifty years or so since the industrial age began which were in fact conceived and – especially – fabricated in months rather than years…


    Completed: 1800

    Building: Ditherington Flax Mill (Shrewsbury, UK)

    Architect: Charles Bage

    Construction: 12 months

    Function: Textile mill

    Capacity: 900 spindles

    Materials: Iron, bricks, timber, glass

    Features: Iron frame; non-structural brick elevations

    Bage was actually a structural engineer. He had worked closely with fellow engineer William Strutt to produce the earliest known analysis of the strength of iron beams and columns, and used the knowledge to build this mill for spinning flax into linen yarn and thread. Ditherington has a structure of cast iron columns and beams spanning the building at each floor level, with floors on brick arches tied by wrought iron bars. This is entirely self-supporting and the brick elevations are merely weather-proofing. Ditherington was far more fire-resistant than mills built from the traditional timber and the first iron-framed building in the world. It is thus regarded as the ancestor of the iron- and steel-framed office building or skyscraper, which only appeared – in Chicago – well over three quarters of a century later.


    Completed: 1851

    Building: Crystal Palace (London, UK)

    Architect: Joseph Paxton

    Construction: 9 months

    Function: Exhibition venue

    Area: 92,000 square metres

    Materials: Iron, timber, glass

    Features: Kit of parts; self-supporting structure; modular wall panels

    Paxton had pioneered iron and glass construction with a great greenhouse on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. He sketched his initial idea for this temporary exhibition venue on a train and, having been selected over many renowned architects to build his scheme, partnered with a contractor to produce a full set of plans in 10 days. Every component was designed to be simple and repetitive, allowing volume manufacture at reasonable cost and fast assembly. The structure was formed from iron columns and lattice frames, both cast and wrought; the columns acted as downpipes. It followed a grid that was itself driven by the largest panes of plate glass then manufactured. Those on the roof were formed into units and fitted from trolleys. The floorboards were initially used for hoarding the site and external walls were modular, composed of glazing panels, ventilation louvres or timber. The Exhibition made a 40% profit and the building was re-used elsewhere in expanded form afterward.


    Completed: 1895

    Building: Reliance Building (Chicago, US)

    Architect: Daniel H. Burnham, John Root, Charles B. Atwood

    Construction: 8 months

    Function: Commercial tower

    Floors: 16

    Materials: Steel, terracotta, glass

    Features: Steel frame; terracotta cladding; electric light and telephone in each office

    The Reliance is generally accepted to be the first building to bring together the steel frame, a lightweight ‘skin’ and large expanses of expensive plate glass to make an office tower whose rooms were flooded with daylight. Careful column specification and design removed the need for cross-bracing whilst still providing good wind resistance. This economy, plus the absence of masonry above the ground floor (which was part of an earlier scheme aborted after the death of Root), meant it was exceptionally fast to build, taking just twelve weeks for the frame to be assembled. This was enclosed with white, glazed terracotta pieces that were thinner than brick or stone, aiding the provision of daylight. Intended for rental as professional chambers to doctors, dentists and so on, tenants began occupying the building on New Year’s Day, 1895.


    Completed: 1939

    Building: Maison du Peuple de Clichy (Paris, France)

    Architect: Eugène Beaudouin, Marcel Lods, Jean Prouvé

    Construction: 26 months (excluding emergency basement shelter)

    Function: Community facility

    Area: 2,000 square metres

    Materials: Steel, glass

    Features: Cladding independent of structure; moveable internals; adjustable roof

    Intended to provide in one building a covered market, village hall, conference room, cinema and offices for a union and the local council, the ‘people’s house’ is a key project featuring the designs of metal worker and architect Prouvé. To combine the contradictory needs of the brief, his wall and floor elements are separate from the structure and can be installed, erected or moved as needed, creating for example a meeting venue with partitions or an open trading area out of the same space at different times of the week. The roof could open as needed. Toilets, stairs and other fittings were prefabricated. Prouvé was inspired by the automobile and aeronautics industry, anticipating the work of the British High-Tech movement, and later specialised in metal curtain walling which often had built-in shutters and vents.


    Completed: 1966

    Building: DeLaveaga Elementary School (Santa Cruz, USA)

    Architect: Leefe & Ehrenkrantz

    Construction: 9 months

    Function: School

    Roll: 270 students (initial building)

    Materials: Steel, brick, glass

    Features: Demountable partitions; moveable services and storage

    DeLaveaga was one of a dozen schools built under California’s experimental School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) programme, serving the rising population of post-war America via an industrialised, component-based approach to the provision of education facilities. SCSD was created by architect Ezra Ehrenkrantz who was inspired by the comparable British Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) of 1957. Six subsystems comprised the SCSD specification, encompassing structure (excluding external walls), air conditioning (within the roof space and repositionable), lighting and so on. Commissioning echoed the aerospace industry, as each school board gave performance goals for suppliers to respond to with their versions of the subsystems. These therefore had to be compatible with each other to allow the necessary flexibility. Some bids included maintenance for a period.


    Completed: 1993

    Building: Igus GmbH (Cologne, Germany)

    Architect: Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

    Construction: 15 months

    Function: Factory

    Area: 7,400 square metres

    Materials: Steel, aluminium, GRP, glass

    Features: Unobstructed floors; service runs in ceiling; interchangeable cladding panels

    Designed for a plastics company as an expandable factory, warehouse and testing facility with the specific additional requirement of a complete change of use thereafter, Igus was one of a series of buildings by High-Tech architects that were flexible, fast and future-proof in their design and erection. Steel masts with tension rods work with steel beams arranged as a simple square grid to form the structure; the insulated exterior skin includes areas that can be changed between glazed, solid, grille or door inserts, and fittings can be attached directly to its inside face. Services are not fixed and hang from the roof or sit outside the overall envelope. The self-contained pods are plugged into ducting and risers and can float to another location on the floor. Domes of GRP bring daylight and natural ventilation.


    Completed: 2019

    Building: Mjøstårnet (Brumunddal, Norway)

    Architect: Voll Arkitekter

    Construction: 18 months

    Function: Mixed-use tower

    Floors: 18

    Materials: Timber, glass

    Features: Prefabricated timber structure and cladding

    The world’s tallest all-timber building contains a hotel, apartments, offices and a restaurant. Its structure, lift shafts and façades are made exclusively from two kinds of factory-made engineered timber – glulam, where layers of planed wood are sandwiched together with their grain aligned, and cross-laminated timber where the grain is alternated. Adhesive is used in both cases. Here the former was used for columns, beams and diagonals, the latter for elevator shafts and balconies. Elements were brought to the site assembled before being craned into position. Such materials are increasingly employed as alternatives to concrete and steel, compared to which they are more sustainable and renewable without sacrificing strength and durability.



  • VE DAY 75: Aftermath

    “It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”

    - Aristotle

    “Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.”

    - Churchill

    The impact of the war for Europe was almost impossible to comprehend, even excepting its contribution to a death toll of tens of millions. Entire armies and their weapons had to be stood down, disarmed and returned home. Prisoners of war awaited repatriation. There were insurrections, ethnic and other retaliations and more formal reckonings via war crimes trials. Vast swathes of land had changed hands. Millions of civilians found themselves in the wrong country, homeless or starving, or wandering, lost. Cities had been levelled and were littered with unexploded ordnance and wrecked materiel.

    My father – who was to spend six months in Germany – and his Wing at Travemünde saw many of these problems. A factory was emptied to allow blankets to be made and 2,000 military supply containers were converted into stoves for civilian use in the winter. Theft of food and other items occurred, a guard was killed during an escape of prisoners near Hamburg and cuts in rations caused “alarm and adverse comment on the British administration”. And though the war was over, death was still present for the Wing itself – seven of its airmen died during their posting, by explosion, gunshot, vehicle crash and drowning.

    Mere miles from the agreed occupation boundary between Russia and the Western Allies, the Wing found itself at the intersection of two very different armies and two very different cultures. Oral testimonies of British servicemen based at Lübeck and Travemünde reference Russian abuses of German civilians and the difficulties of intervening in the actions of an ally, and reveal their complicity in disobeying repatriation orders and falsifying papers to allow those fleeing from the east to stay in the west. Interference by Russia in Western intelligence operations was not unusual, although Russian officers visited the Wing cordially at least once. And as early as March 1946, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill warned that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent”.



  • VE DAY 75: 8 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 8 May 1945, it was Victory in Europe Day in Britain, western Europe and America. In London 50,000 people, some of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to be there, gathered in Whitehall for Churchill’s announcement. Made in Downing Street but relayed live by loudspeaker to the crowd outside, he proclaimed that the war in Europe would end at “one minute past midnight tonight”. An hour later Churchill appeared with the Royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to great acclaim. Two hours after that, he emerged onto the balcony of 100 Parliament Street, opposite the building containing the underground cabinet war rooms, and said “This is your victory,” before beginning an impromptu rendition of Land of Hope and Glory that the crowd happily joined. Finally, at 9pm, King George VI broadcast to the nation, remembering “those who will not come back” and saluting “the great host of the living who have brought us to victory”.

    Much later – after midnight in fact – in the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst German commanders were made to sign the surrender again for the Soviet Union, which to this day marks VE Day one day after the rest of the world in accordance with the Allies’ original plan. The resentment this caused in Russia would be one of many steps toward a new conflict that would overshadow the world in the coming decades. This war, though, was over, although it was not until 20 May that the German garrison on Texel, an island immediately north of Amsterdam, was defeated by Canadian forces in the last battle of the European war.

    For my father and his mates, their job – to remove or destroy Luftwaffe aircraft, equipment and weapons – was just beginning. On VE Day the advance party left Ostend and drove 230 miles to Twente in Holland. They passed through Arnhem, which my father recalled was still burning and filled with starving citizens, and camped by the road that night. The rear party, meanwhile, sailed from England today. Ahead lay a link up, revised orders, a long drive to Germany, and the secret Luftwaffe test centre at Travemünde on the Baltic coast, at the northern-most point of what would soon become the Iron Curtain.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 7 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 7 May 1945, the war in Europe was over by the time people woke up. In the early hours of this morning in a room at the technical college of Reims in France that served as his headquarters, Eisenhower took the formal surrender of all remaining German forces in Europe. The German delegation had arrived late on 6 May with the hope of a signing before midnight but negotiations had taken longer than intended. The surrender was to come into effect at 23:01 Central European Time on 8 May 1945 (one minute past midnight on 9 May, given the daylight-saving then in effect – Britain was in the same time zone for the duration). The delay was to allow Russia, whose own army was pushing forward from the east and which was not properly represented at Reims, to be informed and a simultaneous announcement and so news of the agreement was embargoed as a result. Posing for the press immediately afterwards, Eisenhower made a ‘V for Victory’ sign with the pens used in the ceremony. One journalist leaked the story, however, and by this afternoon the secret was out in much of the West. In Britain the public were anxious for confirmation and eventually the government, in hasty consultation with those of the other Western Allies, had to announce that Churchill would speak to the nation at 3pm tomorrow, 8 May. Just a few hours after the signing at Reims, and still an hour before sunrise, the advance party of the RAF’s No.8401 Air Disarmament Wing embarked at Tilbury for the crossing to Ostend in Belgium, including my father. The Wing’s war diary notes that “lifebelts were issued together with a paper vomit bag”, although fortunately the crossing was calm.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 6 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 6 May 1945, more and more people, including soldiers, medics and journalists, were finding out exactly what the fighting had been for as aid started to arrive at the many prisoner-of-war, concentration and extermination camps Nazi Germany had created. Outside the camps, hundreds of thousands of German troops had to be disarmed, guarded and in some cases interrogated. There were also thousands more refugees, displaced persons and deserters to be fed, housed and managed; some of these wanted to return to where they came from, others wanted anything but. All of this awaited the RAF’s No.8401 Air Disarmament Wing, an advance party of which left RAF Kenley at 0730 in a convoy of 37 trucks heading for Tilbury Docks. My father was among them. Their route took them through Brixton, Vauxhall and Southwark, across the Thames via London Bridge, into the City of London and out past Aldgate. At Dagenham they were diverted to nearby RAF Hornchurch, where they spent the evening awaiting a ship.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 5 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 5 May 1945, the surrender signed at Lüneburg yesterday came into effect. One of the German generals stayed with Montgomery overnight to assist with this. Fighting continued in those parts of Europe outside of the surrender’s scope. Montgomery was still under pressure to secure Demark for the Western Allies and sent a single senior officer and a company of elite British paratroopers in a dozen Dakotas to take Copenhagen. They landed at 5pm to huge acclaim; the Germans stayed in their barracks. In Holland the Canadians managed that country. In a telegram to his Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister Winston Churchill describes the situation as “quite a satisfactory incident in our military history.” At Rheims in France General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander for the theatre, prepared for the total surrender to come. In England my father’s unit, the RAF’s No.8401 disarmament Wing, was ordered to move out tomorrow.



Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

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