As controversial schemes to build above listed structures proliferate, Eleanor Jolliffe asks whether the architects involved are putting profit before principle

Ellie cropped

In nearly ten years of writing columns for BD I have rarely, if ever, commented on architectural style. It’s not that I don’t have opinions. I just don’t believe everyone should share mine. Architectural principles are important but we can get too tangled in style wars and forget that streets and cities need some diversity. I think today I am as close as I have ever come of my self-imposed rule on commenting directly on another architect’s design.

I have recently seen a steady trickle of planning applications and press reports about building over historic buildings. I am not talking about sensitively employed rooftop extensions. I am talking about a building almost floating over a heritage asset. The most noted recent examples are Marron’s proposal for 80 Broad Street in Birmingham, or Herzog and de Meuron’s proposals for Liverpool Street Station in London.

My first question is, are they serious? Is this a serious planning application for a serious proposal someone actually intends to build? Or is this a tactic - to ask permission for something so outlandish that the scheme the client in each case actually wants to build will feel restrained and acceptable in comparison. If so, while possibly clever, it is cynical at best and asks serious questions about the antagonistic relations in our planning system.

If however, they are serious I have bigger, more worried questions to ask. I understand the impulse behind these schemes, and I think I recognise the spreadsheet that has so influenced the brief given to the architects involved. But I worry about the paucity of care with our placemaking.

Of course Marron and Herzog and de Meuron are not the only parties that should be asked questions. Probably hundreds of people will have instructed, advised and consulted on these schemes. This type of development will have complex overlapping stakeholders, intricate financial arrangements and significant constraints - including those of the incumbent listed historic building. However, if (probably) hundreds of reasoned, intelligent and professional people analysed these constraints and sites and still decided on overbuilding at this scale; well, are we all just losing our heads a little?


Marrons’ over-build proposals for 80 Broad Street in Birmingham

Or am I being too harsh?

Many of us will have been in rooms where a cost plan is a persuasive design argument. This is logical and understandable - buildings are emotionally and financially expensive. They cost money and they usually need to make money. However, a glance at these designs makes me wonder if the cost plan has become the most persuasive design factor.

Or are there truly architects out there that believe that hovering a tower over an existing building is acceptable, as long as it’s ‘floated’ on a storey of glass curtain walling, or an oversailing superstructure.

If so, why?

I am prepared to be persuaded. Genuinely. But I have run and re-run the logic in my head and I can’t make it scan with any of the principles of placemaking and urbanism that I have learnt, practised, or which the profession publically lauds.

Furthermore, I don’t think overbuilding is about style. Whether or not I would choose to design a tall building in the ways depicted in the two named examples is debatable, but it is not the style in which they are designed that worries me.

>> Also read: Why is Herzog and de Meuron submitting this bonkers proposal for Liverpool Street?

What worries me is the shrug towards a piece of historic building fabric that has been deemed to be of national significance. What worries me is that the form and scale of these schemes implies that nationally significant historic buildings are an irritant.

I understand that the land is valuable and there is an argument for increasing density, but I worry about the hands into which these heritage assets have fallen if this is the respect they are shown. I worry about the broader respect for unprotected site context that this attitude towards protected site context implies.

I am more than prepared to listen to the arguments, to be proven incorrect; but at the moment all I see is a shrug in the direction of the inconveniently listed buildings that we wish we could demolish. In these proposals the skill of the architect in the design of the new building may be excellent, but is all but immaterial.

All I can see when I look at these schemes is a spreadsheet, and a disrespect for the city each application claims to be enhancing.

>> Also read: The proposed Liverpool Street redevelopment may be ‘bonkers’ but it’s not without precedent