Background to the proposals
200 residents attended this open meeting in St Giles’ Church which was organised by the Barbican Association and chaired by Averil Baldwin. The first part of the meeting consisted of four presentations to brief residents on the initial plans for the London Wall West site produced by the project team for the City of London Corporation. The designs were produced by New York architects DS+R (Diller Scofidio and Renfro) who were originally engaged for the Centre for Music.
When the Centre for Music project was dropped, the City Surveyor was asked how the Corporation could maximise the revenue from the London Wall West site, as Adam Hogg, Barbican Association Chair, explained in his introduction. This requirement led to the Corporation’s Property Investment Board approval for an office-led development which has been the basis of the current round of consultations (which closes on 31 March 2022).
The Barbican Association raised a number of issues in the second half of 2021 as the proposals were being developed. The consultation was considered inadequate and did not address the key concerns of residents. In spite of overwhelming support from residents for the existing buildings to be refurbished (a poll showed that 90% of the 400 responses were in favour of this approach), the promised report of the Corporation’s advisors on retaining the buildings has never been provided, and this is now the subject of a Freedom of Information request. The Association has also challenged how the proposals for the site meet the Corporation’s long-term strategies for the City.
An architect’s view
The impact of the current proposals was illustrated with a series of slides by Jan-Marc Petroschka, an architect and Barbican resident. The historic significance of the site is evident not only from the presence of London Wall but also from Aldersgate Street’s origins as a 1600-year-old route north. The original post-war office blocks have been replaced by larger buildings in denser concentrations.The proposed development, of approximately 650,000 square feet, would be equivalent to a combination of the Foster development at One London Wall (200,000 square feet) plus 200 Aldersgate Street (434,000 square feet) but on a much smaller footprint. The proposals are for Bastion House to be replaced with a building of a similar height but two and a half times bigger, and for a 14-storey building on the Rotunda which would extend to the middle of the road, disrupting the historic traffic route. A third building, five storeys high, is also proposed between Ironmongers’ Hall and Aldersgate Street. An American investment bank was interested in the site.
Rather than following the form and scale of the Listed Barbican Estate, the proposals were inspired by the larger, bulkier and amorphous shapes of more recent additions to the neighbourhood. Artist’s impressions of the proposed buildings show their impact: St Martin’s Le Grand would be dominated by the Rotunda building at the top of the street, and Thomas More House and other Barbican residential buildings would be overshadowed by tall blocks which remove their views and sunlight.
An age of crises: the broader view
A longer-term view of cities and their architecture was given by writer and broadcaster Tom Dyckhoff, who knew the Barbican well and who had chaired the event to mark its 50th anniversary.
The current period could be seen as an age of multiple crises, starting with the financial crisis in 2008 which had created a fault line through the period of relative stability which had lasted since the 1970s. Cities had already experienced a shift from industrial production to consumerist services and a growing gap between rich and poor, and global cities were now seeing super gentrification and the privatisation of public space.
These changes were reflected in the attitudes of different generations. Older people had experienced a long period of stability and had benefitted from the property market. Younger people felt squeezed out and had a new attitude to cities and architecture.
The Barbican anniversary had celebrated the forward thinking shown by the City of London 50 years ago. A similar sense of vision and willingness to embrace the future – with all its uncertainty – was required again now. The London Wall West proposals looked backwards when they should be visionary. The proposals should be seen as part of a bigger picture; the solution could be part of a bigger picture too.
A different approach
Peter Jenkinson, cultural change agent and Barbican resident, suggested newspaper headlines that might follow the construction of the buildings as currently proposed:
‘Within sight of St Paul’s Cathedral, the richest local authority in the United Kingdom makes hundreds of millions of pounds by demolishing a public museum on an historic site and building out-of-scale offices for a private American investment bank.’
In some areas the Corporation continued to show vision and imagination: in its commitment to achieving Net Zero by 2040, to green finance, to pursuing biodiversity, to rebalancing the City with culture as well as commerce, to the promises of Culture Mile and the Business Improvement District.
The Barbican Arts Centre was celebrating its 40th anniversary on the day of the open meeting, and architecture critic Oliver Wainwright’s article in the Guardian on the celebration concluded with this warning (Reference 1):
‘The Barbican may be a big hulking brute, but it is a carefully composed, grade-II listed one. It demands delicate intervention with a lightness of touch…’
In spite of the gulf that seems to separate the Corporation – often seen as high-handed, out-of-touch and undemocratic – from residents – who may sometimes be regarded as self-obsessed nimbys – there is much common ground. Officers and members of the Corporation are genuinely trying to make things better, and residents are not all anti-development.
What is required is that people go best rather than go west by openly and generously sharing ideas, perspectives, proposals and reflections that suggest a different direction. One that matches the vision and imagination that led to the creation of the wonderful Barbican.
The position of the Barbican Association
Adam Hogg, Barbican Association Chair, concluded the presentations with a summary of the Association’s position:
The Corporation intended to make a planning application for the site in the Summer 2022, and the Museum of London was scheduled to close in December 2022. This would allow demolition of the building to commence before the exemption from Listing expired in August 2024.
The Barbican Association had raised three main objections: the lack of consultation, with an underlying concern that offices were not in the best interest of London; the failure to adequately explore the opportunities to repurpose existing buildings; and the scale of the proposed development.
The Planning and Transportation Committee, which was responsible for planning applications, had a track record of approving all proposals – with the notable exception of one affecting the Bevis Marks Synagogue. The Association was working with the Synagogue representatives to ensure that the campaign on London Wall West drew from their success.
Questions and discussion
The second part of the meeting was used for questions and discussion with the panel of speakers (responses from the speakers and others are in italics). Comments made after the meeting on post-it notes have also been included here.
Has contact been made with offices near by to see how they feel about the proposals? The reaction of a livery company based in a local office building was surprise and puzzlement at the plans.
It is important that efforts are now focused on a campaign, like the successful Synagogue campaign, rather than talking.
The existing Museum of London building and Bastion House were unattractive buildings. A contrary view was that they were important examples of urbanism.
The buildings should be repurposed, not demolished. The embodied/operational arguments on the consultation website were not accurate. City Tower on London Wall (no 40) is the same age as Bastion House and has been successfully refurbished. Bastion House can be refurbished and should be. If it needs bigger lifts they can be put on the outside of the building.
Would it be best to try to negotiate for the buildings to be taller but thinner to reduce the loss of light? It may be necessary to consider a compromise such as changes along these lines, but in the first instance the aim would be to secure more fundamental changes. However, it appears that in order to meet the requirements of the bank, the proposals have paid little regard for the site or the surroundings.
The scale, mass and height of the proposed buildings should complement the existing Barbican Estate (explained by Adam Hogg in a Barbican Newsletter article) (Reference 2). The architects’ perspective is wrong – they should view the site from the Estate.
A good architectural alternative in keeping with the Barbican Estate is required. It is important to be clear: what are the principles that we are objecting to? The concerns with the London Wall West proposals need to be communicated outside the City since they echo similar issues with projects across London. Developers are now making much larger proposals to compensate for their losses incurred during the pandemic. These proposals are often lazy, boring, conservative and backward thinking.
Where are the state schools? There are no comprehensive school places for girls locally. Why not put a school or extend the City of London School for Girls on the site?
The Barbican Association objected to the original proposals for London Wall Place, and the buildings which were ultimately constructed were more acceptable to residents. The Working Group on London Wall West is actively identifying the lessons that can be drawn from this.
The blocks on the site should not be higher than surrounding buildings: they should be no higher than Thomas More House. What will happen to the Roman wall? How will the Highwalk be affected?
The viewing corridor from Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill: are views of St Paul’s dome no longer protected? It looks as if the proposals would block them.
The Corporation may be challenged financially, but the proposals reflect a lack of vision. Does the City need this office space post pandemic?
What are the Corporation’s other priorities for the future of the City? Maximising profit seems a very singular short-term view. Can we suggest alternatives aligned with other priorities?
Will a campaign require money? The Barbican Association has funds, but it will be necessary to be prudent. Funds will need to be carefully targeted and should only be used if there is a reasonable chance of success.
The Synagogue used historical arguments to fight the plans for modern buildings which would encroach on its space.
The impact of the proposed buildings on the local community of Barbican residents should be emphasised. The Barbican Association is regarded as a very strong lobby group. There are also existing City structures which can be used to feed comments into decision-making. The local elections on 24 March 2022 are likely to bring changes which will affect key Committees.
The Corporation is having to revise its local Plan, which was not accepted by the Mayor of London’s office since it did not conform to the wider London requirements on climate action, office accommodation, tall buildings, and housing.
There is little time left, and it is necessary to identify areas which will make the maximum impact as soon as possible. The Barbican Association Working Group is conscious of the time pressure and is pursuing a number of strands of activity.
It will be important to co-opt younger voices to balance the elderly members who are the majority in the Barbican Association. Youth brings a fresh energetic perspective and cannot be seen as nimby – that is the risk at present.
Conclusion: how residents can help
The meeting concluded with a number of suggestions for residents:
- Keep up to date with the campaign through the website www.LondonWallBest.com ;
- Sign up to receive information by email ;
- Send in comments to the Corporation’s project team (via their website: http://londonwallwest.co.uk , comments close on 31 March 2022) ;
- Join the Barbican Association team working on the campaign by contacting Adam Hogg (email@example.com). PR experience and press contacts would be useful, but other skills and interests would also be very welcome.
(1) WAINWRIGHT, Oliver. ‘A Brutalist hanging gardens of Babylon’ – the maddening, miraculous Barbican hits 40. The Guardian. I March 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/mar/01/brutalist-hanging-gardens-babylon-maddening-miraculous-barbican-hits-40-mall
(2) HOGG, Adam. Bastion House and the Museum of London. Barbican Association Newsletter, November 2021. p 2. https://barbicanassociation.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/BA-NEWSLETTER-NOVEMBER-2021WEB.pdf