Protecting a building as significant as Parliament requires tough decisions and a dose of humility, says Elizabeth Hopkirk
At the topping-out of PLP’s giant 22 Bishopsgate a couple of weeks ago the guests included a cleric from St Helen’s, the 800-year-old church standing in the shadow of the young upstart.
He gave a speech reminding the dignitaries – including the contractors who have slogged out their guts to bring the tower to reality – that the building is but a fleeting shadow. “22 Bishopsgate reminds us everything is impermanent and turns back to dust,” he said, probably taking his hosts by surprise.
He’s right, of course. Some might have felt he was casting an inappropriate gloom over proceedings, but if a priest can’t remind us of our place in the universe, who will? And in an industry prone to hubris – and responsible for a large percentage of our carbon emissions – a bit of humility wouldn’t go amiss.
Buildings used to outlast humans as a matter of course but these days even those of us without the life expectancy of IM Pei will commonly see as many as three buildings succeed each other on a single site. It’s not very sustainable and fortunately we’re getting better at designing loose-fit, long-life buildings that can be more easily repurposed with a willing owner.
That’s less true in the high-rise residential sector, as former City planning chief Peter Rees reminded us in a recent interview. Rees, who presided over almost every tower in the City of London bar 22, warned that many of the new breed of luxury apartment blocks will be derelict in less than a century because the flats are sold on 125-year leases and the freeholds flogged on, making it nigh-on impossible to “reassemble the asset” when the façade, for instance, needs replacing in 60 years.
Legislation is urgently required to ensure the developers of these “piles of safety deposit boxes in the sky” are held to account if they attempt to suck profit out of our cities without guaranteeing the long-term future of what they build.
Today only our most cherished buildings survive long enough to be enjoyed by more than three generations. As the saga of Parliament’s £5bn-plus restoration demonstrates, even when we really care about a building keeping it alive is complicated. Years have passed since the need to shore up the crumbling Palace of Westminster was agreed and we’re still only at the stage of working out how to decant MPs and peers.
It is extremely regrettable that a building as fine as William Whitfield’s 1987 grade II-listed Richmond House is to be destroyed to make way for AHMM’s expensive temporary Commons, good though that proposal is. C20 Society director Catherine Croft has argued eloquently for Richmond House’s retention. But it’s too late. If we start again now, further decades will pass before Westminster’s renovation gets off the ground. A huge amount of money will have been wasted and there’s a genuine risk Parliament will have been reduced to ash.
Richmond House must be sacrificed for the sake of the more important building. However it’s a great shame that, five years ago, civil servants didn’t identify a spec office block in the pipeline that would have been large enough to accommodate MPs’ offices, committee rooms and the Commons chamber.
22 Bishopsgate, anyone?