Martin Playford revisits two grand schemes from the seventies, one a gleaming symbol of the might of the City, the other a sad leftover from a best-forgotten motorway project
Standing proud at 600ft, the pioneering Tower 42 is the tallest skyscraper in the City of London and the fifth largest in the capital as a whole. Designed by Richard Seifert and originally built for NatWest bank, its three hexagonal chevrons closely resemble the company’s main logo. The three lead faces of the hexagons point with near-perfect alignment towards the three great markets of Spitalfields, Old Billingsgate and Smithfield – a symbol of banking at the heart of commerce. Its status as the first skyscraper in the City heralded a departure from previous restrictions on tall buildings in the area, setting the scene for the ever-changing but still iconic London skyline. I am also rather biased. As a young technician I was employed by Mr Seifert to work on the building. The central core, lifts and staircases hold fond memories.
Southwyck House on the other hand is a blunder of a building that is often mistaken for Brixton prison. Known locally as the Barrier Block, it presents a daunting edifice, with early seventies, neobrutalist-inspired architecture and tiny turret windows peering out over Brixton. It was designed as part of the 1968 “box of motorways” project which, had it got off the ground, would have seen a raised six-lane motorway scythe through Brixton. The Barrier Block was designed to protect the Somerleyton estate from the inevitable pollution and traffic noise, which explains its tiny windows and unusual zig-zag design – intended to “bounce” the sound back to the ground. The road project was finally abandoned, but Brixton has been left with this ugly and impractical building.
Martin Playford is managing director of rpa:architecture.