Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The model is part of a new exhibition posing questions about building afresh in historic settings.
Forty-eight years after gaining planning permission, Modernist great Mies van der Rohe’s only London design has finally been built. In miniature, that is.
As part of a new exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Mies’ 1969 design for a minimalist London tower has been realized in model form. Both the exhibition and the model have attracted a surprising amount of attention in the city. That’s because Mies’ tower—and the radically different building that was eventually constructed in its allotted space—were a battleground where London has debated a perennial question that all older cities must at times ask themselves. Is it ever possible to sensitively insert bold modern buildings into a historic neighborhood?
That’s because the tower was due to be built at the heart of City of London, the British capital’s financial district and its longest-inhabited quarter. Indeed, the City only missed out on getting the Mies’ Tower now on display at RIBA thanks to a minor planning wrangle. A lean and elegant slab clad in brown glass, the design was warmly approved in 1969 (just after Mies’s death), but the corporation of London nonetheless felt it needed a plaza in front to complete it. The space chosen was then owned by many landlords in myriad small parcels, making acquisition extremely hard. This hugely complex process was only completed in the mid 1980s.
By then, Mies Tower was far out of fashion, while the florid Victorian building still occupying on the site was back in vogue. Major planning battles elsewhere in the city over the destruction of older buildings had made demolition newly contentious. Planners reconsidered rejected the tower design, opting instead for a plan from Britain’s leading post-modernist architect, James Stirling. The rejection, while not unpopular with the public, was thanks in no small part to that great scourge of modern architecture, Prince Charles. Having already dismissed London’s National Gallery extension as a “monstrous carbuncle” — and brought about its cancellation — Charles went on to criticize Mies’ design as a “giant glass stump.”
Stirling’s design, referred to in its built form as No.1, Poultry, could hardly have been more different. Broadly retaining the height and silhouette of the Victorian building it replaced, it was in just about every other way as mad as could be. Clad in rose limestone candy stripes, Stirling’s design looked like a three-way crossbreed between a Victorian factory, an ancient Egyptian temple and some pompous public edifice from Fascist Italy. It’s strangely fitting that, from the front, the building looks a bit like a huge masonry shrug emoji. In an ironic twist, this building in turn was delayed, only being completed in 1997 by which time—you guessed it—it was also out of fashion. It failed to find full favor and recent years was voted one of London’s ugliest buildings by the public—though this condemnation didn’t prevent its being listed last year as a historic monument at a far earlier age than is normal.
Designs like Stirling’s or Mies’s might equally struggle to fit into an older urban area, but the City of London is no pristine set piece. Certainly, the area has some architectural masterpieces—Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral and numerous parish churches—and the odd charming corner. Overall, however, it’s been so bashed about by fire, aerial bombardment and unimaginative construction over the centuries that it’s actually a bit of a dump, a kind of financier’s slum with all the twisting chaos of a medieval old town but little of the charm. Repeatedly redeveloped over the last 150 years—especially after World War II bombing—its medieval street plan give it the ramshackle, grimy feel of Dickensian London, but it no longer possesses many of the bells and whistles of Victorian architectural grotesquery that, at least in retrospect, might render this squalid muddle charming. For any architect, this is a challenging space to work. Planners have to make a choice: should they try to stay true to an existing fabric that is itself compromised, or simply rip it up and start again?
Mies’ plan came closer to the latter, creating a building in a different style to its surroundings, surrounded by the blank slate of its new plaza. This idea wasn’t all bad by any means. The tower’s glass and metal might have jarred with the Portland stone buildings around it, but the plaza would have opened up a space that could have turned what is currently just a snarled-up traffic junction into the true heart of the area.
Still while there’s something calm about the design—its exposed structure the only decoration beyond the murky reflections of other buildings on its façade—this sense of order doesn’t really translate when slapped in the middle of twisting streets to which it bears little relation. Modernist icon or not, there’s a sense that the tower could really be anywhere.
By contrast Stirling’s design unquestionably fits in more easily with the surroundings, even if it does come with large stretches of glass. That’s because, despite its quirky detailing, the building still manages to be pompous, heavy and overbearing in an area full of other similarly hefty, uninspired buildings. In a century or so, further mellowing might make this corner charming, but the building is neither new enough to reshape the area nor old-looking enough to commiserate lovers of the Victorian for the building it replaced. It will end up jarring less than Mies’ tower no doubt, but Stirling’s is a cynical view of our own age’s architectural abilities, where the best we can offer are parodies of the past that cleave slavishly to what’s already built. Maybe, in rejecting Mies’ tower, London did miss out after all.