Central St Giles by Renzo Piano
Piano’s newly completed central London development represents a grim marriage of conflicting visions of London’s future
It has now been six years since mayor Ken Livingstone published the London Plan, finally establishing the strategic planning policy that the capital had lacked since the disbanding of the Greater London Council in 1986. Welcome as that initiative was, it was predicated on an assumption that, from today’s credit-crunched perspective, looks more than a little doubtful – that in the 15 years following the document’s publication, the capital would need to accommodate as many new residents as made up the entire population of Leeds.
The plan made a commitment to absorb this growth within the city’s existing footprint, calling for a particularly dramatic liberalisation of height restrictions at points of high public transport provision. However, not all of London’s boroughs bought into that vision. Of the tall building proposals granted planning permission during the Livingstone era, the overwhelming majority were in the City or in Southwark. The other central London boroughs of Islington, Camden, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea proved far more resistant to a significant escalation in height.
The resultant tensions are clear from City Hall’s comments on planning applications that came before these councils in the period after the London Plan’s publication. Commenting on the 2006 application for the One Hyde Park development, the mayor’s office berated Westminster’s restrictive view of the scheme’s massing, noting with mysterious logic that “the choice to keep the building below the canopy of trees bordering Hyde Park is a missed opportunity to enhance London’s role as a world city”. Such frustrations ultimately led the mayor to pursue powers that would allow him to impose developments on unwilling local authorities. In this he was successful but lost his job to Boris Johnson before they came into force.
The newly completed Central St Giles is another product of this particularly conflicted moment in London’s development. The first work in the UK by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, it is an office and residential scheme occupying the entirety of the urban block that lies to the immediate east of that most prominent of central London landmarks, Centre Point. The London Plan identified the area around Seifert’s tower as suitable for significant intensification – an ambition that has subsequently been supported by a framework for its redevelopment. However in 2002, when Stanhope and Legal & General, the joint developers of Central St Giles, appointed Piano as their architect there remained a considerable divergence of views about the form that this regeneration might take.
At the time, Central St Giles’s site was occupied by a 1950s office development, comprising a series of brick blocks of between six and eight storeys. Linked together, they described an S-shaped plan, framing two courtyards, each of which was closed off from the street.
According to the characterisation offered in Camden’s planning brief for the site, the complex made minimal contribution to the public realm and served as a magnet for prostitution and vagrancy. Any replacement, it advised, should support increased urban permeability and diversity of use. The document also set out Camden’s views on height: although the site lay neither within a strategic viewing corridor, nor a conservation area, it was bordered by conservation areas on all sides and so any new development should refer to the height of this fabric.
The mayor felt otherwise, viewing this part of London as a desirable location for a cluster of towers and Central St Giles’s block as the potential site of one of the tallest components of such a group. Livingstone still lacked the power to impose that vision but he was in a position to overrule any planning approval that Camden might grant if he deemed the proposed level of development too modest. This he threatened to do, with the effect that Piano’s task became one of stuffing the maximum possible floor area into the lowest possible volume in the hope of satisfying both parties’ demands.
Providing 33,743sq m of floor space, the complex that Piano’s scheme replaces maintained a 4.8:1 plot ratio, a figure that corresponded closely to the density of the 19th century buildings that still characterise this part of London. At 66,090sq m the new project doubles the density almost exactly.
In contrast to the earlier building, Piano’s project is configured around a single, publicly accessible courtyard. This space is framed by two stand-alone buildings – a residential block to the west and a very much larger office building that wraps around the remaining three sides. During the scheme’s development, the architect investigated splitting the office space between two buildings but his clients were resistant to such an approach as it would sacrifice what they saw as the site’s primary commercial advantage. The office floors are being marketed in the expectation that they will be taken by three or four tenants from the corporate or media sectors – large companies that may have previously struggled to find adequately scaled accommodation in the very heart of London. Central St Giles’s principal selling point is the fact that, of its 10 office floors, all but the top two provide floor-plates of 4,000sq m, which is by far the largest of any office block in London’s West End.
So this is beginning to look like a scenario where everyone wins.
It may not be the tower that Livingstone wanted, but Central St Giles does make an extremely significant contribution to the London Plan’s target of accommodating 2,000 additional jobs within the Tottenham Court Road intensification area. The developers, meanwhile, have secured permission for a scheme that is a more attractive commercial proposition than they could ever have dreamt possible. (The fact that they, almost uniquely, have continued building throughout the slump certainly suggests they might be onto rather a good thing.) And Camden’s planners? Well, the scheme may be taller than they would have liked but the increased floor area has enabled significant community benefits. In accordance with council policy, 35% of the uplift in development capacity was given over to housing with 50% of that figure taking the form of affordable homes. That translates into 109 apartments of which 53 are reserved for some very fortunate key workers.
All of which is well and good until one catches sight of the physical manifestation of this alluring equation – the site has been overdeveloped, to my mind, grotesquely so. Indeed I would go so far as to say that the urban impact of Central St Giles is as shocking as that of any building realised in central London in 40 years. It may be that this impression is in some part an accident of timing. Of the buildings that neighbour the project directly, those that lie to the west and north are all set to be replaced by larger structures. A project that today violates our received sense of appropriate urban scale may yet find a context that justifies it to better effect. However, the present experience of Central St Giles’s principal frontage as an alarmingly domineering invasion into the largely Victorian St Giles High Street is not going to change since every other building on the street stands within a conservation area.
Alarmingly domineering? That’s a somewhat subjective assessment of the facts, isn’t it? Well, perhaps it is, but to judge by the completed project it is one that Renzo Piano might share. Central St Giles reads less as a work of architecture than as an exercise in damage limitation – a frenzied, but nonetheless doomed, attempt to conceal the original sin of the project’s bulk.
Piano’s opening gambit is to ask us to see the project as 13 buildings rather than two. He invites this reading by fracturing the street elevations into a series of independent facades, each faced in terracotta and making use of a common window type but distinguished by variations in height, length, orientation and most forcibly of all, colour.
Four startlingly bold glazes have been employed on these facades – a fruit salad of strawberry, lemon, lime and tangerine – with the elevations of the internal courtyard being finished in an altogether less obtrusive pale grey. The painted walls of Neal’s Yard, and the colourful guitars hanging in the window of an instrument shop on Denmark Street are just two of the unlikely local precedents that he has cited in justification for this ferocious explosion of polychromy. To these eyes it is pretty repellent, my objection being as much to do with the colour’s flatness as its stridency. £1,100 per sq m is a lot of money to spend on a facade that presents all the material appeal of a wall of Lego.
That impression also owes a lot to the cladding having been assembled not from monolithic terracotta components of the kind that, say, Eric Parry used on the facade of his recently completed office development on New Bond Street, but rather from a proprietary system of hollow extrusions.
Piano has employed this technology on a number of buildings, most prominently on his skyscraper at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, and always with the aim of communicating a sense of lightness. True to form, at Central St Giles, he emphasises the material’s non-loadbearing nature wherever possible. In a purely decorative conceit, he even spans a number of extrusions in front of the top and bottom of each window, exposing the basic unit of construction in all its slenderness. The facades’ insubstantiality is also celebrated at their edges. A full height recess, glazed on all three sides, separates one facade from the next; with the effect that each is presented as a thin, mask-like plane. Their weightlessness is further suggested by their levitation from the ground. The scheme’s double-height ground floor has been glazed across its entire extent, accommodating a series of restaurants, food retailers and the lobby of the offices. The terracotta facades are not only held above this zone but are teased slightly proud of it, giving the impression of a series of partly opened drawer-fronts.
The dynamism of Russian Constructivism or De Stijl was perhaps Piano’s target but he seems curiously unaware of the implications of the language that he has set in motion. Particularly painful is the handling of the ground-floor structure. As a Chernikhov or van Doesburg would tell him immediately, Piano’s aspiration to present his facades as weightless planes of brilliant colour is not best served by the presence of a line of columns immediately behind them. Having chosen to stop the facades shy of the ground, the inescapable consequence is that he needed to cantilever them if they were to maintain any kind of architectural sense.
While the architect has clearly tried to diminish the columns’ visual effect – they have a slim circular section and are painted light grey – they remain all too present, suggesting a divergence between the scheme’s architectural and structural orders of a kind that one might think an architect of his sensibilities would find troubling. The problem is nowhere more startlingly illustrated than on the narrow lime facade that addresses St Giles High Street. One of the primary routes into the central courtyard extends under this elevation and Piano has sought to provide that significant urban moment with a suitable articulation. To this end, he has done two things: lifted the base of the terracotta facade a whole storey higher than the others with the effect that the columns supporting it grow to twice the height of their neighbours and, secondly, spaced those columns twice as widely as usual, with the aim of ensuring an easier pedestrian flow.
All of this would be welcome were it not for that fact that the architect seems oblivious to the visual consequence of those moves. Can you really double the length of the columns without making a corresponding increase in their girth? Evidently, a structural engineer has told Piano that he can but that doesn’t stop them looking preposterously attenuated in relation to the standard type. And can you really just dispense with a piece of structure because it stands in an inconvenient position? Well, yes – if you introduce a deep enough beam. One surmises that this is what has been done but there is absolutely no architectural acknowledgement of the fact. The sense that the architect has adopted a highly exacting language only to employ it capriciously ultimately permeates too much of the scheme.
All this said, the office space itself is terrific – of a specification as high as any I have seen in the rental market. Despite the building’s enormity, the floor plates are appealingly narrow with the glazed recesses bringing additional daylight into the middle of the plan while winter-gardens at each of the outer corners even provide access to a semi-external environment. The recessed floors on the top are the best of all, enjoying access to a roof terrace and, needless to say, extraordinary views.
Care is evident everywhere – for all my problems with it, Central St Giles is not the work of an architect and developer seeking merely to make a quick buck. What it does represent is a calamitous failure of urbanism. One can certainly take issue with the vision Ken Livingstone offered of accommodating London’s growth within clusters of towers, but a vision it undeniably was. Central St Giles represents a grim compromise between two fundamentally opposed ideas of how the capital might develop. I can’t see that any architect was ever going to rescue it from that duplicity. This one certainly hasn’t.
Architect Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Client Central St Giles, Structural, mechanical and electrical engineer Arup, Cost adviser Davis Langdon, Property adviser Legal & General Property, Development manager Stanhope
Original print headline - The colour of compromise