I was lucky. The Tory MP it had been under offer to was told, in January 1997, that he couldn't get a mortgage because he was going to lose his seat in May.
Thus, I bought a shell. It was easy to figure out the interior. But it came with a wraparound roof garden/terrace, 320º, say, which forced me to address the walls. They were dull, dun, an aggregate of slurry – think mildly polluted estuary at low tide.
From this terrace, I can see London's most potent icons, Big Ben and Tower Bridge, as well as GG Scott's Salvation Army tower at Camberwell, Canary Wharf tower, the former NatWest tower, Guy's Hospital, the Barbican and the transmitter masts at Sydenham.
I can see how lacking in tall buildings London is.
I gape at the bereft skyline and wonder if the entire conservation industry wasn't devised for sad dorks who yearn for stasis, who can't acknowledge that, whatever they do, the future will happen and it will be different, it will have to be tall.
I gape at the skyline and wonder if the entire conservation industry wasn’t devised for sad dorks
I can't, unhappily, do anything about the lack of tall buildings other than proselytise for them. I can point out that a handful of failures 30 years ago is not enough to condemn the type: we have not abandoned air travel because planes sometimes crash. I can suggest that if views of St Paul's are really so important, every building within a mile of it should be razed to the ground in order that the dean, a man who believes in "God" and is thus not to be listened to, can show it off to best advantage.
The other lack that was and is apparent is that of colour. London's exteriors are drab. It is still, nearly a century on, as subfusc as the Camden Town painters represented it. In my tiny way, this was something I could help rectify. The said walls could be improved. Dusty eau de nil, duck egg, carmine? I was driving through the South Lambeth Road when I saw a blob of startling blue – Gitanes going on Gauloises – which resolved itself as I got closer into an elegant health centre. I parked and entered. Of course, nobody knew who had designed it. About a dozen calls later, I got the name. That colour is Keim cobalt, said Helen Eger of Eger Architects.
So now my walls are Keim cobalt. This column is not sponsored by the Bavarian firm of Keim, whose UK office is at Bridgnorth. Nor is it sponsored by Eger Architects, which uses colour audaciously, as an integral part of a design rather than an add-on to "brighten things up" (that's for bodgers like me).
The late 1950s warehouse that I mentioned earlier has also been transformed by colour. Ricardo Legoretta and Alan Camp have turned it into Zandra Rhodes' Museum of Fashion. I am proud to have contributed to a canyon of colour. Why do so few architects pursue this route? Why are Eger, Camp, Alsop, Gough and Cullinan the rare exceptions that prove Dickens' rule about "the national dread of colour"? Is that dread learned? I mean, is it a facet of a broader culture that is mistrustful of artifice, display and divergence from the drear dictates of common sense, and that is horribly in thrall to good taste? Possibly. But the manifest delight with which Zandra's building is routinely greeted suggests to me that there is a public appetite for colour. Not for the reticent hues used in po-mo makeovers of 1960s council stock, but for the big colours that are essential to the Mexican tradition that Ricardo Legoretta is heir to and propagator of. It is an appetite whose satiety is conspired against in London not simply by aesthetically nannying planners (whose colour sense comes from Henry Ford), but by many clients. Why? Because colour requires maintenance.
And there you have it. It was the failure to maintain high-rises that did for them as a social housing type. We maintain our bodies, our cars, our streets. But buildings, evidently, are different. So, no Grand Bleu here – and note that Alsop's masterpiece (so far) is known and defined by its colour. No Grand Bleu despite the existence of innumerable paints and pigmented renders and vitreous materials that will endure as well as brick or stone and that demand as little maintenance.