One might expect universities – of all institutions – to have a feel for the past as they look to the future. All the more disappointing, then, that King’s College London is pressing ahead with plans to rip down a terrace of four historic buildings on the Strand and replace them with what it’s calling the ‘New Academic Building’. Part of a wider campus redevelopment scheme designed by architects Hall McKnight, this building will be part big grey box and part redevelopment behind the Georgian façades of 152–53 Strand – which the university cannot demolish because they are listed.
The buildings to be bulldozed, 154–158 Strand, ‘are identified as making a positive contribution to the Strand Conservation Area’. That’s according to the Heritage Townscape and Visual Impact Assessment commissioned by KCL itself, and published in December 2014 to accompany its planning applications. These buildings were originally constructed as business and trading premises, and range from an 18th-century façade at Number 156, which has a later render from c. 1840 that Pevsner noted for its ‘curious pitted stucco detail’, to early 20th-century structures such as that at Number 154, with its surprisingly elaborate decorative arched window at first-floor level.
Together, these façades represent the type of variety and individuality that makes London’s architecture so particular: that they exist at all, between the grandeur of Somerset House and the Brutalist lattice of King’s Strand Building, is testament to the heterogeneity of an urban fabric that so often seems to reserve a touch of irony towards its more conceited buildings or grands projets. For King’s to be pressing on with their destruction may as well be for the university to be bellowing out: we do not care for history, we do not care for context, we do not care for London. Or just, we do not understand London.
What an irony it is that King’s recently announced plans to drop the ‘College’ from its brand, a move apparently aimed at emphasising the university’s bond with London, but one swiftly dropped after some 12,000 students signed a petition against the change. King’s connection with London is to a degree about its people, which is why the university has long advertised its greatest alumni on tacky billboard windows along the Strand.
But it is also about how the university sits in a city that has always been layered, and haphazard in its planning: wedged between the Embankment and the Strand; abutting Somerset House; facing on to St Mary-le-Strand and the Indian and Australian High Commission buildings across the road; and with surprises nestled in and around it, including the abandoned Aldwych tube station and the so-called ‘Roman Bath’ on Strand Lane. King’s would best celebrate its place in the city by restoring the urban fabric within which it exists.
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