30-storey Southwark tower would be tribute to first man in space

Proposals by a Russian architect for a 30-storey tower shaped like a space rocket are expected to be rejected by south London planners tomorrow.

The scheme, called Gagarin Tower after the Soviet cosmonaut, would replace a five-storey 1930s building next to the listed Menier Chocolate Factory theatre.

The plan was drawn up by St Petersburg-based Studio 44 for Don Riley, who runs the Menier to which it would be linked by a bridge.

The proposal includes a 105m tower, circular in plan, embraced by a metal triangulated exoskeleton and topped by a cone-shaped nose.

Southwark planners’ report for tomorrow’s planning committee criticises the poor quality of the “willfully insensitive” design and recommends refusal.

It brands it “alien” and “entirely inappropriate” and argues it would cause “unacceptable harm” to the character of the local area, which includes Borough Market, and the skyline of London as a whole.

Historic England also concluded it would cause “substantial harm”.

A previous iteration dating from 2011 and never submitted was also criticised by the council and prompted Cabe to raise serious concerns. Those concerns have not been addressed, said the planners.

The current proposal is for a seven-storey building – a steel and glass mansard structure on a three-storey base which planners dismissed as “gargantuan” – facing Southwark Street.

The rocket rises behind on a site bounded by the railway. It would contain nine 268sq m duplex flats, thus avoiding the requirement to include any “affordable” housing and attracting criticism for inefficient use of space.

It would also contain a theatre, rehearsal space, offices, a two-storey “spiritual centre” and a space ship-inspired restaurant.

A 332sq m publicly accessible terrace sits at first-floor level. Southwark planners acknowledged the public benefits of this and the theatre but said they were too insignificant to trump the objections.

The scheme was “clear overdevelopment” with buildings that would appear overbearing and incongruous, they said.

Objections from neighbours described it as monstrous and a folly.

Extract from council’s report

The proposal has been referred to as ‘the Rocket’ as the design of the tower has been inspired by the engineering behind Gagarin’s first space flight in 1961. The resultant form is unmistakably rocket-like, even featuring a cone-shaped nose at the top and a supporting tower structure.

The rocket reference is completely alien to the character and identity of Southwark, and indeed London as a whole. This crude and literal depiction, described by Southwark’s Conservation Area Advisory Group as ‘comic’, has no basis in its locale. …

All design is expected to respond sensitively to its context and to integrate into the place in which it is found and this scheme does not achieve this. Furthermore, it appears that this overriding design concept has been pursued at the expense of any architectural quality, and as such it results in compromises such as uncomfortable circular apartment layouts, inappropriate use of materials and a willfully insensitive insertion on the skyline.

Although strong architectural concepts are encouraged, this requires sensitivity and skilled manipulation to result in the high architectural standards expected. This has not been employed here, where the inappropriate design concept has been allowed to dominate the proposals to a harmful degree.