Forget Milan, forget Paris and don't even mention New York. The big story on the architectural catwalk is the City of London, with Europe's most fashionable architects wowing the Square Mile with glamorous designs. Rob Booth watches them strut their stuff
Building offices in the City of London has become achingly glamorous of late. The days of the biggest projects being swallowed up by American architects with about as much imagination as their corporate acronyms suggest are over. Architectural exploration is back in fashion in London and it is as though the preppy conformity of America's Ralph Lauren has been elbowed off the catwalk by the fabulous shapes and colours of Givenchy or Dolce & Gabbana.
So it is with the City skyline. It is Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and Rafael Viñoly who are strutting their stuff to greater applause than US giants such as SOM, KPF and HOK. You are more likely to read about Koolhaas, Nouvel and Viñoly in international style magazines than in the business press and if their names sound more interesting than their commercial predecessors, then maybe, commercial clients are starting to realise, their architecture is too.
So what's brought on this appetite for adventure? And how is it going to change the image of a patch of land in central London that has come to represent Britain's global economic aspirations across the world?
Property consultant and former Baker Harris Saunders agent Simon Harris, a key player in introducing internationally celebrated architects to blue-chip developers building in the Square Mile, believes the attitude of the City planning authority has been instrumental in transforming the atmosphere. "There are two reasons for the influx of interesting new designers," he explains. "The first is that foreign architects can come up with ideas that just aren't at the fingertips of London architects. They approach things in a different way. The second is that they have been greeted most enthusiastically by the Corporation of London. It is not that they are better, it's because they are different."
More than different, they are iconoclasts. Koolhaas, Nouvel and Viñoly, who are all preparing to make their debuts in the City of London, have rocked architectural preconceptions wherever they have built. For example, Koolhaas' Beijing building for the Chinese state broadcaster reinvents the skyscraper as something that not only goes up, but also comes back down. Nouvel's isolated tower in Barcelona out-thrusts the Swiss Re for phallic drive and Viñoly produced a masterpiece in the convention centre genre with the 1996 Tokyo Forum.
All three great architects are now in their 50s and are reaching the height of their powers. This growing sense that their skills are assured helps persuade traditionally risk-averse commercial clients to look them up. Add to that the conviction that occupiers are now more interested in sharing space in an architectural masterpiece than having something small and mediocre all to themselves, and you begin to understand why these designs are flourishing.
Foreign architects can come up with ideas that just aren’t at the fingertips of London architects. It is not that they are better, it’s because they are different
No dull architects here
The schemes by Viñoly - a 192 m high office tower for Land Securities at Fenchurch Street dubbed the Walkie Talkie building (pictured on opening spread) - and Nouvel - a 60,000 m2 shopping and office scheme for Land Securities next to St Paul's Cathedral (pictured left) - prove beyond any reasonable doubt that speculative buildings no longer demand dull architects.
Koolhaas' commission with Sir Stuart Lipton to revamp New Court, the headquarters of blue-chip investment bank NM Rothschild, is the bespoke side of office design. By turning the building into a modern office capable of housing the bank's 600 staff, the project fits Koolhaas's reputation as architect to super brands such as Prada. The principle in both cases seems to be that the star architect can deliver more than just a building. Their name, their reputation and the sheer public interest in cutting-edge architecture are the extras that the American firms struggle to deliver.
Simon Harris helped forge the relationship between Nouvel and Land Securities that has resulted in planning permission for a site next to St Paul's. In heritage and planning terms, the project had disaster written all over it. There loomed a reprise of the bitter 20-year dispute that blighted the development of Paternoster Square. But Nouvel's design has wooed both the decision-makers of the Corporation of London's planning committee and English Heritage and the project was given the go ahead.
When Nouvel was approached about the project, he was said by Harris to have been surprised to be offered something so large on his first job in London. It is a sign of the confidence among the builders of London offices that they should put such faith in the new foreign legion.
Perhaps it is also to do with the preparedness of developers to take a risk to ensure they can keep E E up with the increasingly intense competition for office space. According to the Corporation of London's chief planner, Peter Rees, less than 10% of City offices are vacant and a rule of thumb is that a vacancy rate of 8% or lower means space is running out.
Rees is a champion of the new wave. He admits to a low boredom threshold and the ideas that pour out of the architects working in the Square Mile fascinate him
Rees is a champion of the new wave. He admits to a low boredom threshold and the challenging ideas that pour out of the architects now working in the Square Mile fascinate and absorb him.
Rees has cruised the streets of Paris in Jean Nouvel's convertible looking at the French architect's favourite schemes and has been enjoying design meetings with the intense genius that is Koolhaas, of whom he says: "If I'm not careful, the meetings only last five minutes. He's on his way out before he's even come in."
Whatever you say about the rigour and professionalism that the Americans brought to office design during the 1990s, the ideas coming out of the new wave are far more architecturally stimulating. Rees calls the architects he is working with now either "couture architects" or "world-class prima donnas". Neither term is meant to be derogatory and Rees declares himself "privileged" to be working with the best. It is a breath of fresh air - though not, as it happens, the first. He recollects the pleasure of working with the American firms when they moved into the London market, remarking on their flexibility and willingness to respond and react. But he also recalls how some eventually became stuck in their ways. The fresh air had turned stale.
Rees is fond of comparing his stewardship of the Square Mile's buildings to that of a kitchen gardener. If that is the case, the seeds he is planting at the moment are among the most exotic in his 21-year tenure. The groundwork was done back in 2000 when Rees patiently argued for planning permission for the Swiss Re building - a project that would radically change City architecture. "The Gherkin has set a very high standard for people to match," says one of its designers, Ken Shuttleworth. "Expectations are much higher now and buildings have to be more beautiful."
Shuttleworth also points out that conditions for high-quality architecture are good because of the strong demand for new office space in the City. "It's the market economy working flat out and that improves standards," he says.
The Gherkin has set a very high standard for people to match. Expectations are much higher now and buildings have to be more beautiful
His firm, Make, is working on three schemes in the City. He is competing as part of a consortium to build what could be a 40-storey tower near the Barbican as well as smaller schemes at Old Bailey and on Queen Victoria Street.
The Corporation of London competes hard with other financial centres for global pre-eminence and Rees is in the vanguard of that push. Sometimes his pride in London's dominance over financial centres across the rest of the continent can rile his competitors. At March's MIPIM European property fair in Cannes, he managed to upset German officials by belittling its financial centre, Frankfurt, as "a market town with skyscrapers".
"I detected a lot of jealousy from around Europe," he recalls. An opposite number from Frankfurt looking at the model of proposals for the Square Mile asked if there would be any schemes left over for his city.
Rees also tore into English Heritage, using a Harry Potter reference to deride it as "the Ministry of Magic" and reportedly lampooning its chief executive, Simon Thurley, in a public speech (see "The constant gardener", below).
Wounded egos aside, what will be Rees's architectural legacy? The Heron tower and the Swiss Re - the first proposals for the new cluster in the City of London - expressed bold but simple design ideas. More recent designs - Kohn Pedersen Fox's DIFA tower and Viñoly's Fenchurch Street building - are far more exuberant and, once added to the singular Swiss Re, risk appearing to compete as if they were all at a fancy dress party. The analogy often drawn by critics is of the Square Mile becoming an architectural zoo. It seems a fair criticism and difference for difference's sake is as bad as bland repetition. The lack of a coherent plan for the architectural strategy of tall buildings across London has also been criticised by people such as Ellis Woodman of Building Design. He has warned that "fuzzy and fragmented" policies on high rise are in danger of turning London into a "Shanghai-on-Thames".
But not all the exciting new architects being drafted into the City have been asked to build tall. Nouvel and Koolhaas are doing their first jobs closer to the ground with schemes that are medium rise. It may be that the new wave of City architecture brings more to the pavement than it does to the sky. Working on a slightly smaller scale, the star architects might also pave the way for a wider range of architects, perhaps from a younger generation, to be hired to work in the City of London. With today's rapidly changing working patterns and offices becoming less formal as mobile communications become available to more and more workers, an injection of ideas from a fresh group of designers may be on the cards. The City adventures of Koolhaas, Viñoly and Nouvel could be just the start.
The constant change gardener vs the Ministry of Magic
Peter Rees, chief planning officer at the Corporation of London, has taken to calling English Heritage the Ministry of Magic – the institution that, in Harry Potter, tries to keep humans from knowing about wizards and spells. Rees thinks English Heritage is trying to keep the alchemy of the most exciting architecture away from the City In recent years, he and his office developers have been opposed by English Heritage on several prominent schemes, from the Heron Tower to the London Bridge Tower in Southwark.
Rees’s biggest beef is the listing regime over which English Heritage has such influence. For Rees, the listing system contradicts itself. “All of the buildings listed are representative of dramatic change but, if you list too much, you will never get change again,” he says. “The Barbican, for example, should never have been listed. Some residents now don’t want any change.”
Anyone looking at the City from Waterloo Bridge can see that the construction of a new swathe of towers in the Square Mile will occlude views of the remarkable Swiss Re building. Even though it only opened in 2003, some are now asking whether views of it should not also be protected.
Absolutely not, says Rees, but he concedes: “The danger with the cluster is that because we have world-class architects working on the buildings they will be listed and that will bugger everything up. I am trying to produce a kitchen garden of constant change. I’d like to think the buildings don’t stand still. You don’t need this powerful Ministry of Magic to control change.”
Will a new swathe of towers obscure views of Swiss Re?
Rees’s outspoken views are not shared by everyone. Many observers feel English Heritage’s defence of historic views and listed structures has been useful in holding back a free market rush to build commercial space that could have wrecked London.
On the other hand, English Heritage has held back from demanding that deputy prime minister John Prescott call in the Sir Nicholas Grimshaw-designed Minerva Tower and Lord Rogers’s Leadenhall Street “cheese-grater” tower for British Land. It has adopted an approach that is more developer-friendly and is encouraging developers to start talks early with its advisers. It no longer wants to be seen as the organisation that likes to say “no”.
“Because a building is listed, it doesn’t mean it can’t change,” says Steven Bee, English Heritage’s director of planning and development. “It helps people focus on what is significant about a building but doesn’t block it from change.”
Skyline May 2006
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