A group of prominent architectural experts have spoken exclusively to Breitbart London to express their bewilderment at calls to list the “ugly”, “overbearing” No.1 Poultry office complex in the City of London.
While not usually headline news, the architectural press has been alive over the past week with references to the campaign to list London’s controversial post-modernist No.1 Poultry building. Desperately trying to prevent the worst mistakes of modern architecture from being modified, improved, or demolished, a cabal of influential individuals have come together to call for their preferred design disasters, such as “favourite suicide spot” No.1 Poultry to take on listed building status.
Architecture Journal reports that Peter, Baron Palumbo, the “architectural patron” who commissioned celebrity modernist architect James Stirling to design the building in the 1980s, is positively spitting tacks over proposals by the present owners to improve the flawed structure.
Making no effort to hide his contempt for those who would modify the building which he fought to have built, Palumbo wrote in support of a grade-2 listing, saying the proposals would:
“…deliberately dismantle and effectively destroy the geometry [of the building] with an ignorance, insensitivity, and a blithe contempt that is breathtaking in its gall… I have read and reread, several times over, those proposals masquerading under the headings ‘a small number of enhancements’ that would address and overcome the alleged ‘shortcomings’ of the building for those occupying it; and I have done so with increasing incredulity.”
It is unlikely the modifications he so strongly protests would constitute any great change – chosen architects, Shoreditch-based BuckleyGrayYeoman, are yet another of the faddish plain white wall, cast concrete, and plate glass practices doing brisk trade in London today.
Palumbo’s sudden admiration for listed building law is somewhat mystifying, given how hard he fought to have a group of listed Victorian neo-gothic buildings, notable survivors of the Blitz, torn down to make way for his own pet project in the first place.
The demolition of the group, called “the best group of mid-Victorian buildings in the whole city” by Victorian society director Christopher Costelloe, was bitterly contested at the time and still considered a low-point for the British preservation movement. Francis Terry, noted neo-Classical architect told Breitbart London that the new No.1 Poultry itself was badly designed from a technical point of view, and preserving it would prove difficult. He said:
“A lot of modernist architects are trying to list things at the moment. One of the problems with listing late-20th buildings is they are so badly built, you are really burdening the owner of the building with real problems. The concrete construction is intended for quite a short lifespan – once its listed, you are legally required to keep it looking as it was when built, which is very expensive and difficult.”
Terry said despite its substantial appearance, the external masonry was purely decorative and hung on a steel frame. Unlike traditional buildings which used stone and arches for strength and stability, the design was prone to failure – listing would prevent the owner from making modifications to improve the design as technology and understanding of new materials progressed, a mistake Terry said would be “extremely expensive for the owner”.
Academic, author, and architectural historian Gavin Stamp was especially scathing of the proposal by the 20th century society to list No.1 Poultry. Stamp was one of the campaigners who tried to preserve the original buildings in the 1980s and ’90s, and told Breitbart London that in any case it was too soon to consider listing a building that was less than 20 years old. Calling the present building “pretentious and mediocre”, Stamp said:
“The fact that the likes of Zaha Hadid and M’Lord Rogers are campaigning for it only strengthens my opinion, but Peter Palumbo has always managed to secure allies. It is, of course, ironic that, having destroyed a valuable concentration of mid-Victorian commercial buildings, some listed, he should now be clamouring for protection for his baby… the man has no real architectural judgement or taste. He remains merely interested in celebrity.
“Having, with many others, fought two public inquiries in the 1980s to defeat Palumbo’s arrogant proposals, only to find successive victories turned into defeats owing to suspect political interference by ministers in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government, I really couldn’t care a damn what happens to No.1 Poultry. I just wish the jolly Gothic building by J & J Belcher still stood on the site. It was an object lesson in how to treat an acute corner which was not heeded by the architect of its wretched successor.”
Poultry isn’t the only unlikely modern building being pushed forward for listed status, usually reserved for structures of great historic or architectural merit. Ennobled modernist architect Lord Rogers, whose proposed designs for the National Gallery Prince Charles once called a “monstrous carbuncle”, has recently been writing to his high-profile architect friends to encourage them to support the preservation of housing estate Robin Hood Gardens.
In an email seen by Breitbart London, Lord Rogers calls for support for the proposed listing, again launched by the 20th Century Society, by hailing the 1970s cast-concrete housing estate as “a building of special architectural interest… one of Britain’s most important post-war housing projects”. Hailed at the time of its completion as the “ultimate solution” to Britain’s post-war housing problem, and loved by fans of crypto-fascist postwar celebrity architect Le Corbusier for its obliteration of traditional community structures, the design ultimately failed completely, and is now near-universally loathed.
It has long been observed that architects struggle to practice what they preach, not least by journalist Ed West who noted in this week’s Spectator that “modern architects all tend to live in Georgian or Victorian homes”, despite preaching modernism for the rest. Breitbart London understands that an actual resident of the Robin Hood housing development was so incredulous that anyone would actually want to preserve the buildings from demolition, he offered Lord Rogers a house swap for one night to see whether having actually experienced it he really thought it worth saving.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Breitbart’s source reveals: “I don’t think he took him up on the offer”.