City Journal

David Watkin
It’s Back to the Future in the Heart of London
Plans for a giant, revolutionary development show how cities can regain their humanity.
Winter 1996

How amazing it is that at the end of the twentieth century, at the very heart of one of the world’s great cities, a boastful monument of modernist architecture at its most brutal is about to be torn down and replaced with an $800 million development, brilliantly designed in a traditionalist architectural style that most citizens believe to be as dead as the spinning wheel. This is the development known as Paternoster Square, to be built on the north side of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, according to a master plan by the London architect John Simpson.

Paternoster Square poses in an acute form the question we need to ask ourselves as we approach the millennium: what do we want the next century to look like? What do we value about the twentieth century that we want to take with us into the next, and what are we so ashamed of that we want to leave it behind and bury it forever?

In modern architecture—at any rate, in the historic towns and cities of western Europe—there is much to leave behind. It is shocking to see the continuing survival of the destructive belief that twentieth-century man has stepped outside history, so that he exists on a plateau of human achievement isolated from and superior to the past. Here, on this bleak and windy ridge, he must follow the dictates of Hegelian determinism and build a new world to express the spirit of his age, the Zeitgeist. But what spirit do modernist architects express? Not the spirit that brought us twentieth-century advances in health care, democracy, and domestic comfort, but rather the violent and disruptive spirit that made the century more murderous than any other. As architecture looks ahead, it must abandon modernism’s discontinuity and disorder and try to restore harmony and order. This implies a return to the language of classicism, for that is the chief language in which our civilization recognizes itself architecturally.

At the core of this tradition, as far as cities are concerned, is the notion of urban order as an embodiment of civic ambition, civic order, and civic virtue. As the greatest theorist and architect of the early Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti, put it, the architect provides noble surroundings for the noble actions of noble people. The great seventeenth-century architect Sir Christopher Wren developed this idea further.

“Architecture,” he said, “has its political use; public buildings being the ornament of a country, it establishes a nation, draws people and commerce, makes the people love their native country, which passion is the origin of all great actions in a commonwealth.” By the eighteenth century it had become a commonplace to see architecture as a source of national pride and glory. Jacques-François Blondel, the century’s foremost architectural educator, was thinking in precisely such terms of national gloire when he listed as architecture’s achievements “royal palaces, public squares, permanent memorials to the glory of heroes,” adding “private houses” only as a minor afterthought.

Curiously, the royal element has been crucial in Paternoster Square’s revival of this traditional ideal of urban planning and architecture as an expression of high civic aspiration. Indeed, the present Prince of Wales has been a prime mover not just of the Paternoster Square project but of the more general revival of this urban ideal in Britain. The story of his involvement began at Hampton Court Palace in 1984, when the Royal Institute of British Architects invited him—unwisely, as it turned out for them—to celebrate their 150th anniversary by coming to dinner. They had not realized that they were to be the main course. In his speech he touched on the recent competition for a major new extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. He attacked the entry by the firm of Ahrends, Burton and Koralek as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend,” words that caught the imagination of the nation. Within a few short minutes, he had sealed the fate not only of this design but also of the Mies van der Rohe tower that Sir Peter (now Lord) Palumbo was proposing to erect on a sensitive site in the heart of the city—near the eighteenth-century Mansion House, home of London’s Lord Mayors.

The prince faced opposition from the entire architectural establishment, including the president of the RIBA, Owen Luder, who praised the brutal design for the National Gallery by Richard Rogers as “the work of a man who has said, ‘That is what I think the answer is, and sod you.’” He became known, not surprisingly, as “Sod You Luder,”" and his crude, intemperate tone, his open contempt for the sensibilities of ordinary people, typified what the Prince of Wales most hated about modern architecture.

That was 1984. Three years later, attention shifted to the large triangular area known as Paternoster Square on the north side of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This site had been developed in the 1960s by Sir William, later Lord, Holford, with a series of grim grid-faced office blocks looming over windswept plazas. Holford deliberately designed them with no reference to the historic plan or setting. He wanted, he said, “no harmony of scale, character, or placing, just a total contrast." Well, he certainly got contrast and was hugely praised for it by the leading architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and the whole architectural establishment. It is astonishing that Pevsner, who was an enormously sympathetic interpreter of historic buildings, was always completely blind to the failings of modern architecture, which, disastrously, he did so much to promote. He was thus able to claim that Holford’s lumpish blocks were a modern application of the principles of variety and surprise promoted by the English picturesque tradition of the eighteenth century.

The Paternoster site, disfigured by these monster office blocks, had developed alongside the original medieval Saint Paul’s Cathedral, following a medieval street pattern that still exists in other parts of the city. Its market, busy streets, and lanes retained their dense urban character until the Blitz on December 29, 1940, when Hitler, trying to obliterate so evocative a symbol of national identity as Saint Paul's, succeeded only in blowing up its neighborhood. The area had been destroyed by fire several times before: in 961, in 1087, and in the Great Fire of 1666. On each of these occasions, its network of streets and lanes survived to find new vitality and prosperity. Only after the devastation of the Blitz was the traditional form lost—purposely—in the subsequent redevelopment.

In the 1950s, William Holford was appointed architect by the City Corporation, the administrative authority of the City of London. In March 1956, he produced a master plan that destroyed the traditional street pattern in favor of giant grids of building blocks. Both houses of Parliament, called in because the plan involved realigning a public highway, approved this scheme, even though it totally compromised the historic relationship between the cathedral and the city. It provided tall office buildings that at ground level gave priority to vehicles, accommodating pedestrians with the occasional barren, vaguely menacing deck or “precinct.” Here, Holford had deliberately eliminated all traces of the city's medieval and Georgian past. Moreover, his high-rise blocks, from 6 to 18 stories high, provided only three-quarters of the accommodation that existed in the traditional four- and five-story buildings on the site before the Second World War. There was no reason to build high, for lower buildings laid out on a different plan could have achieved the required density. Holford selected tower blocks entirely for reasons of fashion. Moreover, with one exception, the buildings were made of Portland stone, an extremely costly material that, under Holford’s disrespectful treatment, here looked virtually indistinguishable from low-budget concrete!

The architect John Simpson, of whom more later, has recently argued that the orthogonal planning—the repetition of right angles created out of the high-rise buildings and the simple grid elevations—was used by Holford and his associates as a grand advertisement for methods of industrialized construction that were not then common. Their Paternoster Square proclaimed: “This is what future buildings must be like.” As in Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower at Potsdam (1919–21), hand-built in brick and then rendered to look like concrete, the architecture was used at Paternoster as an attempt to influence, even to force, a change in the technology of construction: as with so many techniques, industrialized construction could become cost-effective only when it became commonplace. The irony that the buildings were mostly of Portland stone, not concrete, seems to have escaped these believers in the moral crusade of modernism, which upheld “truth to materials and honesty of construction.” Certainly, there was no honesty in any part of this masquerade!

Holford bulldozed the few buildings that survived wartime bombardment enough to be reconstructed. How different from the sympathetic treatment given to a bombed city such as Warsaw! Why did this happen in England? One key reason is this: to fight the war, Britain had formed an alliance with Stalin, so that the country was flooded with pro-Soviet propaganda of all kinds, promoting an image of total, collectivized newness and modernity, a ruthless scrapping of past traditions in order to establish the Brave New Future. This kind of totalitarian Utopianism, which united men as different as Stalin and Le Corbusier, appealed to influential architectural historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner and J. M. Richards, a pre-war Communist sympathizer. They used influential organs such as the Architectural Review to promote the rationalistic vision of regimented high-rise towers proposed so disastrously for Paris by Corbusier in his Plan Voisin of 1925. In this nightmare, totalitarian scheme, Corbusier had megalomaniacally planned to demolish the historic heart of Paris on the right bank and replace it with a grid of 18 tower blocks. Here lies the origin of soulless schemes such as Holford’s Paternoster Square.

By the early 1980s these buildings of the brave new future, only 20 years old, were obsolescent, unable to accommodate the cabling required for modern computer networks. Property developers bought the site and announced a limited competition in 1987 in which eight modernist architects were invited to produce designs for new buildings. As a result, eight well-known firms produced examples of high-tech brutalism. Among those who saw their projects in 1987 was the Prince of Wales, who was horrified to find that the proposed buildings would do as much damage as their predecessors to the setting of Saint Paul's Cathedral. Seeing this as one of the great icons of national identity, he believed that the opportunity should be taken to design new buildings that would respect, not reject, it. The prince, wanting to make his views known to the public at large but apprehensive about being so controversial, invited about six of us, architects and architectural writers who were known to favor environmentally sympathetic architecture, to discuss it with him in July 1987. We encouraged him to go public with his view that not one of the eight schemes, including the winning one by Arup Associates, was acceptable. We warned him, of course, that though in our view the British public would be entirely with him, he would annoy the entire architectural establishment.

With the prince’s encouragement, the architect John Simpson now began the long task of designing an alternative master plan for a civilized and harmonious Paternoster Square. In October 1992 the City of London Planning Committee approved a version of the plan. In the meantime the prince had not been inactive. In December 1987 he gave what became a celebrated speech at the Mansion House, in which he dared to say that modern architects had done more damage to London than the Luftwaffe. I was at this dinner and will never forget the shock that statement caused: gasps from the establishment architects round the table, headlines in the newspapers next day. The prince also mentioned the Paternoster Square competition, in which the Evening Standard had editorialized in favor of John Simpson’s project. This influential London newspaper also paid for Simpson’s project to be exhibited in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in February 1988 as an alternative to the modernist schemes.

In 1989 a consortium of new owners who favored Simpson's scheme bought the Paternoster site. These were Greycoat PLC, a London-based property investment and development company; Park Tower Group, a property developer with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and London; and an affiliate of Tokyo's Mitsubishi Estate Company. Each owned one-third of a company known as Paternoster Associates. They invited Simpson to choose several like-minded architects to design some of the project’s individual buildings, since it was obviously too large and complex an area for one architect to do all. So a range of collaborators joined in, including the English architects Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam, Terry Farrell, and Paul Gibson; the Greek architect Demetri Porphyrios, who has an office in London; and the American architects Allan Greenberg and Thomas Beeby.

In its brilliant audacity, the Simpson master plan aims to reinstate Paternoster Square as the urbane, gracious, bustling focus for business, shopping, and leisure north of Saint Paul’s. It achieves the same density that existed in 1940—25 percent greater than the current density. The square and the network of streets and lanes that connect with it will be returned to a traditional pattern. The streets are lined with complementary buildings designed within the classical tradition. Fronting the churchyard, as they get closer to Wren's modest Chapter House, the buildings graciously shrink in scale. When the development is finished, you’ll be able to see Saint Paul’s Cathedral from Paternoster Square at ground level once more, and from elsewhere in the new development you’ll see Wren’s sublime skyline. Simpson is also seizing the opportunity to restore the traditional alignment of the churchyard so that it will be bordered on the north, as it was before Holford, by a curved street. Today, Holford’s buildings form a jerky row of right-angled blocks unrelated to the former street or the cathedral.

Remember that we are dealing here with an area that is at one of the crossroads of the civilized world. The city was important in Roman times; the cathedral of Saint Paul was founded in 604; the very name Paternoster survives from the makers of the rosary beads, or Paternosters, who lived near the cathedral precinct from the thirteenth century to the Reformation. In the Middle Ages, too, the area became associated with stationers and text writers, so that by the early sixteenth century it became the center of England's printing and publishing industries. This it remained until the Second World War, but modern architecture was completely incapable of finding a way of expressing and adding to these historical resonances.

Instead of a few dominating monolithic blocks, Simpson’s master plan breaks down the large triangular site of four and a half acres, running the whole length of the cathedral, into smaller, more humane units. These are in six blocks designed by the different architects already named. Unfortunately, the site is bounded on three corners by buildings currently under other ownership. However, Simpson’s plan incorporates designs for replacement buildings if and when the corner sites become available. This would increase the size of the new development from four and a half to seven acres.

Let us now make a brief tour of the new Paternoster Square, as it will appear when completed, noting that the architects will use traditional materials: stone, brick, slate, tile, copper. Facing south onto Saint Paul’s churchyard, and running parallel to the cathedral choir, is an elaborate building by Allan Greenberg, architect of prestigious classical works in Washington, D.C., including the office of the secretary of state. His contribution to Paternoster Square is designed in the language of Wren's Kensington Palace and Wren and Vanbrugh's monumental brick Orangery next door. Of red brick with giant pilasters, Ionic and Doric, rising through two stories, Greenberg’s building boasts colossal windows based on the King's Gallery facade of Kensington Palace. Greenberg also draws inspiration from designs that Wren's pupil, Hawksmoor, proposed for this site—designs featuring an arcade surmounted by a three-story pilaster order and an attic story. Greenberg’s building is bordered on two sides by two newly re-created historic streets: Paternoster Row on the north and Canon Alley on the west.

On the other side of Canon Alley, facing south into Saint Paul's churchyard, is a new building by John Simpson, U-shaped and surrounding Wren's surviving Chapter House. Like Greenberg’s building, Simpson’s is likely to fill with offices for lawyers and other professionals. It is a complex structure that adopts a number of different styles and heights to accommodate itself to the adjacent buildings on this key site. The south front, next to the Chapter House, is of just four stories, rising to a height just below that of the cornice line of the cathedral's ground-floor columns. In white brick with stone dressings, this part of Simpson’s composition is in a plain Georgian style. The north front of the building forms one side of the new Paternoster Square, an enchanting re-creation of the squares of Continental cities. The main square leads down through broad flights of steps to an intimate lower court. With its fountain and open Doric loggia, this whole traffic-free complex will become a hugely popular addition to the public open spaces of London. The loggia, or market hall, follows the tradition established on this site over three centuries ago, when Newgate Market was moved from a modest site elsewhere into a purpose-built hall in a new square here.

The north side of Paternoster Square contains three large building groups by Farrell, Adam, Gibson, and Porphyrios, which run back to Newgate Street, the northern boundary of the whole site. Farthest from Saint Paul’s Cathedral, these—ranging from six to nine stories—are among the tallest of the new buildings. Though they echo giant Renaissance palazzi, their scale and ebullience catch something of the flavor of the Edwardian and inter-war commercial architecture in this section of London. In this part of the project, Simpson has re-created the lost Ivy Lane, which emerges as a charming Gothic shopping arcade with a glazed fan vault, designed by Farrell. Nearby, Porphyrios's building, which has the spare, serene Grecian neoclassic flavor for which he is known, terminates in an attractive tower capped with an open belvedere of Greek Doric columns. The architect of the striking Battery Park Pavilion in New York, Porphyrios has since built a new quadrangle at Magdalen College, Oxford. Now nearly completed, it is a model of how to build sympathetically, yet on large scale, in the midst of a dense network of famous historic buildings.

Finally, on the west side of Paternoster Square is a dramatic building by Thomas Beeby, fresh from designing his marvelous Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. His vast pile has an imperial Roman splendor, though it is also indebted to Sir Edwin Lutyens’s work in the city of the 1920s. Greycoat PLC had already carried out an exemplary restoration of Lutyens's Britannic House, Finsbury Circus, a huge office building in the city with stone facades of sixteenth-century Italianate richness hung on a steel frame. The big buildings on the north and west of Paternoster Square will attract prestige financial institutions. Citibank has already expressed interest.

Construction, as well as materials, will be more traditional, for this is not to be a silly postmodernist joke. The walls will be of self-supporting masonry, with the structural frame not carrying the masonry but providing lateral restraint. Simpson criticizes those recent apparently traditional or classical buildings that have thin veneer brick construction, so brittle that expansion and contraction take place at specially built fault lines packed with a rubberized mastic that has a life of only 10 to 20 years. In these flimsy buildings, rain soaks through the brick and runs down the inside surface, where it is collected in plastic trays and drained out through weepholes in the walls. By contrast, traditional brickwork is like an overcoat, thick enough to soak up the rain and then dry out without allowing water into the building. Plastic trays of veneer-brick construction and the metal tier that hangs the veneer on the steel frame have a short life, but Simpson believes that a classical architect will be interested in the long-term performance of his building: how it grows old, whether it can be reused—and, therefore, how it is built. Here he is close to the vision of the great Victorian critic John Ruskin, who passionately believed that buildings, like people, need to age and mature so that they can serve as a commentary from the past on the present.

Because of the practice of architects like Holford at Paternoster in 1950s and ‘60s, we now have a largely unskilled workforce, mostly trained only to assemble buildings on site, not to construct them properly. Thus, unlike the first modernists, we have the legacy of industrialized construction with which to work, with all its defects and shortcomings. For the numerous traditional buildings now being built by architects such as John Simpson, Quinlan Terry, Demetri Porphyrios, Robert Adam, and Julian Bicknell, a whole new generation of young craftsmen in stone, timber, and plaster is being trained. It is a moving experience to see the truth of Ruskin’s belief that a craftsman’s life can be enriched by the justified pride he can take in his skilled, exacting work.

In October 1988 the prince, growing more confident that his views commanded wide support, wrote and presented his own television film, A Vision of Britain, in which he illustrated the Simpson scheme. This was a good day for classicism, for on that afternoon the queen had opened Quinlan Terry’s Richmond Riverside development, a large—and brilliant—assembly of classical offices, shops, and flats linked by courtyards and archways.

Both the prince and the BBC received thousands of letters of support for his film from the general public, and in 1989 the prince published it in book form. The same year saw the publication of a book titled The Prince of Wales: Right or Wrong? An Architect Replies, an attack by the new president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Maxwell Hutchinson, who got the leading high-tech architect, Richard Rogers, to write a preface. Here, Rogers not only condemned the Prince of Wales and his advisors but even belittled the design of Saint Paul’s Cathedral itself. He argued that Wrenís first design, rejected as impractical, would have been “one of the most technically advanced constructions of its time,” adding, “Sadly, the design was too radical, the project was rejected, and in its place Wren designed the present, less innovative cathedral, so loved by the Prince of Wales.” He also argued that in the future, “architecture will no longer be a question of mass and volume but of lightweight structures whose superimposed transparent layers will create form so that architecture will be dematerialized.” Well, it’s nice to have advance warning, isn’t it?

In this book, Hutchinson showed an arrogant contempt for the public, who, unlike architects, want traditional architecture. Ridiculing them in amazingly condescending language, he complained that “the reactionary tone of the prince’s words goes down well with the small shareholder on the Clapham omnibus.” He went on to dismiss architects such as Quinlan Terry, John Simpson, Robert Adam, and Léon Krier, claiming that “if it hadn’t been for the prince, these people would now be regarded as the outermost lunatic fringe, designing gazebos for the nouveaux riches in Leicestershire.”

Nonetheless, the Simpson Paternoster Square scheme was elaborately exhibited to the public in May and June 1991 in a gallery off Paternoster Square. All visitors, of whom there were as many as 18,000, were encouraged to make their comments: over 80 percent were in favor; the 20 percent against were largely architects. Indeed, of those architects who visited, 67 percent were opposed. During that same June, the developers submitted this scheme for planning approval: the City of London Planning Committee, English Heritage, the Royal Fine Art Commission, and the relevant statutory amenity societies (the Georgian Group and the Twentieth Century Society) all made their comments, such is the labyrinthine complexity of modern British planning procedures. They mostly recommended that the bulk of the buildings should be somewhat reduced. The architects complied, and the City Planning Committee recommended that the secretary of state approve their slightly modified scheme. The planners also insisted that the project must not use reconstructed stone in buildings adjacent to the cathedral, a stipulation that will make these structures some 6 to 8 percent more costly to build than standard London office buildings.

The story does not end there. Modernists and architects still oppose the scheme and want to see it suppressed. The Twentieth Century Society, dedicated to preserving modern buildings, regardless of merit, actually prefers the Holford blocks, arguing that they will increasingly be seen as “historically important.” The London Society objects to “the classical dressing of large twentieth-century office groups.” I wonder whether the society also objects to the classical dressing of the Colosseum in Rome. The London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, of all people, have had the temerity to object to the market hall as “a pseudo Greek temple.” Do they object on the same terms to Thomas Jefferson’s State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, of 1785, modeled on the Roman temple known as the Maison Carrée in Nîmes?

But the objections of these societies are of minor significance in comparison with those of the prestigious Royal Fine Art Commission, a body where knighted architects congratulate one another on being forward-looking. Complaining that the buildings “hark back to the neo-classical and neo-Baroque of the earlier part of this century,” they want buildings “to reflect the spirit of their age.” I find it hard to attach any meaning to such statements, which are just the residue of an outdated Hegelian belief in the Zeitgeist. But the Royal Fine Art Commission’s vanity and misplaced emphasis on novelty lead it to argue that a “‘Classical’ scheme like Paternoster Square should be a genuine reinterpretation of classicism in terms of our own time, the 1990s.”

The commission went on to claim that it would be “in the interest of the developers for a public enquiry to be held, so that the designs can be seen, if it so turns out, to be supported by the public.” What did they mean, “if it so turns out,” since the designs had already been supported by 80 percent of the visitors who saw them? What more did the Royal Fine Art Commission want? They wanted the buildings stopped, of course, and thought that a public inquiry, with the tremendous delays involved, would be the likeliest way of ensuring that. Their ploy failed, and at the time of writing it seems likely that the scheme will go ahead, though there are still serious financial and other problems in the way in London’s current slow real estate market. Two of the original developers have moved on, having other commitments, leaving Mitsubishi as sole owners. They will be looking for partners to invest with them in this major development.

It is passionately to be hoped that support can be found for what will be one of the most exciting architectural events of the late twentieth century. The public will be enthralled at the amazing sight of the gray and empty Holford tower blocks being demolished, and harmonious new buildings of warm materials and traditional forms rising right next to a historic building. This creation of a sequence of linked spaces that Londoners and tourists will actually want to visit for pleasure will be the most heartening way possible to celebrate the millennium: a positive affirmation that the values that lie at the heart of our civilization are alive and kicking despite the contempt with which the pioneers of the modern movement rejected them.

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