Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… architectural carbuncles

If London is to remain a world city, it needs architectural controversy and carbuncles

Swellboy on… architectural carbuncles

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 10 2011
Nick Foulkes

I never thought I would say this, but I am beginning to come round to the Candy brothers’ blocks of flats on Knightsbridge. In fact, as a Londoner I am beginning to feel quite proud of this quartet of glass towers looming over the park, jutting through the treeline.

I have not suddenly come into a hundred million quid and decided to splash out on a new flat and I am still not entirely convinced by the bottom of the buildings; they remind me too much of a bank HQ, although I would not go quite as far as one critic who described it to me as looking like a Tube station. And I was probably the only person who really ever loved Bowater House – I miss it still. However, London needs to have headline projects such as this to maintain its status as a world city.

I know there is something unsettling about the great disparities of wealth that exist in the capital, but that is the system we have chosen to live under (even though that choice is on an opt-out rather than opt-in basis). Plato’s idea of the big society was a little different to that of the Cleggeron coalition; he thought that a legal framework should exist, allowing a man to earn twice, thrice or four times as much as the lowest-paid member of society but that he must “give back the surplus to the state, and to the gods who are the patrons of the state” on pain of a hefty fine. Plato’s idea simply never caught on. So instead we have a society that values sportsmen and financiers, and as I am hopeless with a football and a spreadsheet (let alone both at the same time), it is not an arrangement that favours me.

However, given that this is our world and our values, I would like London to be the leader, and part of that leadership is demonstrated through controversial developments such as Number One Hyde Park. However, my sadness at the demise of Bowater House was tempered by the knowledge that while decidedly contemporary in style, these blocks of flats are actually part of a venerable London tradition of controversial buildings around Hyde Park, buildings that I rather like.

Next door, for instance, is the barracks completed in 1970 by Sir Basil Spence, one of the great architects of the 20th century, responsible for Coventry Cathedral and Sussex University. The chief feature of this Army building is a graceful 33-storey tower that points skywards like some accusing concrete finger. And then of course there is the Park Lane Hilton, a symbol of the optimism and modernity knocking around Britain in the 1960s. Both buildings, controversial in their time and still dividing opinion today, are a part of the city skyline and of the accretive process of history.

I am of course a terrible reactionary and traditionalist; give me a high plaster ceiling with an elaborate machicolated cornice and I am happy. Yet even I can see that now it is built and being talked about around the globe, it is one of the wonders of the city and unavoidable testimony to London’s capacity to reinvent itself. Once the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, London, though shorn of its colonies and territories overseas, has found a way to make itself the cynosure of the world, something that seems to elude other quondam imperial capitals.