We visit the new buildings at Paternoster Square, next door to St Paul’s Cathedral, and find them to be a great British success story – because they give everybody something to moan about …
One of the most sensible things a developer can do, if he is hoping to put together a commercial scheme around St Paul’s Cathedral, is to commission a masterplan from an architect whom the cathedral has already employed to design a neighbouring building.

From a financial point of view, the relationship between developer Mitsubishi and architect Sir William Whitfield appears to have been a success. The commercial buildings in Paternoster Square (which were largely pre-let) are now all being fitted out, and the retail is expected to be up and running by Christmas. It is hard to imagine a site that would inspire more ranting along the lines of “opportunity missed” and “Prince Charles should be strung up” – and not just among architects – than this one. So any sort of completion has to be regarded as a triumph.

Okay, so the end result is not

St Mark’s Square. But then it

never was. Although the 1960s Paternoster Square scheme by

Lord Holford was thought of as

an extremely well-behaved piece

of urban development when it

was built, the truth is that it was never a commercial success. And in terms of civic amenity, the most exciting thing on offer for the past 20 years seems to have been Sketchley’s £5 reduction on dry cleaning. A deserted concrete

stage for a wind-powered ballet of empty McCoys cajun flavour crisp packets.

Whitfield’s avowed intention was to bring Paternoster Square back into the city. There is no question that this has been achieved. Mitsubishi’s plan was to have a development that was not monolithic, so didn’t need to be built all at once, let all at once,

or remodelled all at once. So Whitfield divided the site up into

six self-contained plots, set up

an underground service core for each plot linked to a common underground service road. At ground level, he raised a

not-wholly-convincing colonnade and then put retail behind it, and perched office space on top. If one of the owners of one of the sites decides in 50 years that he cannot live without a completely different kind of building, then replacing what exists will not screw up either the civic composition or the servicing system of the whole.

One of the reasons Paternoster Square will be a great British success is that there is something in it for everybody to complain about. The modernists moan it isn’t modernist enough, and the Carolingians say it isn’t classical enough. Then what’s all this nonsense about reinventing medieval street patterns when

all you’re offering is a load of speculative B1 office space? And what exactly is a Doric dealing floor, anyway?

Having got the scale and the circulation right, Whitfield seems

to have assembled half of the Cambridge University’s school

of architecture to help him out

with the actual buildings. Still, there’s precious little that could obviously have been done better, or even differently. The unifying colonnade is a bit too Saddam International Airport for my taste and I suppose you could say that Whitfield’s buildings aren’t either classical or pastiche enough.

Maybe MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s fractured facades are too fussy or Allies and Morrison’s masonry is too monochrome. Perhaps Parry’s building is too


But this really is carping. The individual elements have all been designed by well-respected architects at the top of their game. As a result, they at least look like proper buildings rather than the usual glass skin wrapped around

the perimeter of the site so as

to maximise the letting agent’s

net-to-gross while keeping the rain off tenants’ IT kit. Here there is plenty of light and shade, colour and variety.

Everyone can safely say that

the central feature of the piazza,

a free-standing column (a copy of a support to the pre-fire St Paul’s portico by Inigo Jones) with a

huge golden torch now complete with fibre-optic display is a bit

Las Vegas, but then let us not get too solemn about this. Lutyens wanted a recording of purring buried in the lions in Trafalgar Square.

There is plenty for the style hobbits to complain about, but the very first thing that strikes you about what is essentially a commercial development is “Mmmm … nice to see a bit of masonry for a change” – and not just Klippocladd 18 mm pink granite tiles set in mastic, either.

Real masonry. You know – mortar joints. Chunky Portland stone.

Pretty hand-made thin bricks with serious reveals. All that thick stuff that gets better as it gets older. It’s also nice to get a bit of outside threading in through the whole complex as in “people and streets” and views of St Paul’s that didn’t exist before – and all this in a development type more associated with climate control, security guards and “No Entry” signs than friendliness to pedestrian.

Paternoster looks far more appropriate to central London than anything at Canary Wharf and promises to be absorbed much more into the pattern of everyday London life than, say, Broadgate. What made the Japanese developer extremely happy was that having former Royal Fine Art Commissioner Sir William in charge has meant that the scheme has not had to be called in by the planning inspectors, thus avoiding an 18-month delay that would have played havoc with its place in the business cycle. That,

and having Marks and Sparks confirming a site.

I think that when it’s all let, and the piazza’s restaurants are full of people enjoying themselves, as well as ordinary pedestrians going from north to south, nobody will notice the actual buildings above

first-floor level, good as they are. However, developers and local authorities will start to wonder why all historic city-centre developments aren’t at least as good as this.

Blast from the past: Paternoster Square’s 60-year history

1940 German bombers destroy complex of 19th-century buildings
1956–late 1960s Office complex is developed to Lord Holford’s masterplan
1987 Arup wins contest to draw up new masterplan for Mountleigh
1988–1989 Site is acquired by developer Diego Cisneros of Venezuela and later by Greycoat of UK, Park Tower of New York and Mitsubishi Estate Company of Japan
1989 Influenced by Prince Charles, developers commission neoclassical scheme from Terry Farrell
1993 Farrell design is granted approval by Corporation of London
1995 Site wholly acquired by Mitsubishi Estate Company
1996 Sir William Whitfield is appointed masterplanner
Mar 1999 Whitfield’s masterplan is granted planning approval
May 1999 Demolition of Holford scheme
Jun 2000–Mar 2003 Building construction, followed by fit-out
Oct 2003 New development to open to the public