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Editor’s Letter: Scuppered Plans

19 June 2015

The internet is forever launching bandwagons – many of them laughable, but some highly laudable. Among the latter are campaigns against two of the more myopic architectural developments recently proposed in London: firstly, a successful appeal to save the former Spiegelhalters’ shopfront in the East End (see Apollo, March 2015), and then widespread outcry about King’s College London’s plans to demolish four historic buildings on the Strand. In each case, public pressure, in the form of considerable online petitions and protests across social media, blogs and the like, seems to have been a catalyst for mainstream press coverage and, in the case of the King’s plans, for more official objections – provoking the listing body Historic England, that is, to retract its initial support for the project.

Popular triumphs in this vein are welcome. They are a reminder that voicing complaints to proposed developments need not smack of nimbyism, but ought to be a reflection of how we all share a stake in both the nation’s architectural heritage and the future of our built environment. This is particularly the case in urban centres, in which any building in private use and ownership nonetheless remains part of public life: after all, buildings are experienced by the people who walk past them every day, or view them across an open vista, as much as they are by those who inhabit or work in them. A groundswell of opposition online can be an important rebuke to architects and clients whose aspirations have grown to encompass little more than themselves.

King’s proposal to bulldoze a section of the Strand is particularly egregious, for reasons that have by now been widely rehearsed. They include the architectural interest of the condemned façades; the inadequacy of the proposed replacement building to the importance of the site (next to Somerset House, across from St Mary le Strand); and the university’s blindness to its own historical errors in developing the campus (it knocked down another stretch of the Strand in the 1960s to construct a building now deemed inadequate). It is of serious concern that Westminster Council could have approved the demolition of the terrace in the first place. Although the buildings are not listed, they stand within the Strand conservation area – and an architectural conservation area, if it is to mean anything whatsoever, must surely imply some measure of protection for the fabric of its historic buildings.

The decision by Greg Clark, the new communities secretary, to order a public inquiry into King’s proposals is a promising sign. Indeed, it is to be hoped that his department will now have the chutzpah to scrutinise some of the more conceited planning applications waved through across the country every year. A good place to start would be the madcap vanity project that is the proposed Garden Bridge. As for Westminster Council, it has responded to events by tossing its toys from the local authority pram, attacking Historic England for altering its advice. Even if this charge has some validity, it only seems to confirm that the Council has no sensitivity of its own to the architecture supposedly under its protection.

In New York, the Frick Collection has shown more grace in acknowledging public objections to its proposed expansion, and conceding that it will need to draw up new plans if it is to increase its gallery space and improve other facilities. Artists, horticulturalists and members of the public had rounded on the scheme, focusing on the intention to build over the ‘viewing garden’ laid out in the 1970s. The Frick should now be praised for heeding public concerns; and perhaps some of its noisier critics of late might be invited, and indeed willing, to contribute to the discussion as the museum draws up fresh proposals. The Frick’s foremost aim is to open up the second floor of Henry Clay Frick’s mansion to the public, giving visitors unprecedented access to the Frick family quarters and bringing more of the collection out of storage. It is difficult to object to that.

Since this article went to press, King’s College London has announced that it will withdraw its planning application for its Strand Campus in central London.

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