the public outcry against Mr. Cotton’s plans to wreck the Piccadilly Site with a 170 ft. advertising hoardingcum-office block of monumental ugliness, has had some effect. The Minister has been obliged to reject the scheme: and the Report had some tart things to say about Mr. Cotton’s architect’s/architects’ (whichever it may be: for they have never to this day been identified) concept of pleasing architectural standards, and the ambiguous (to put it mildly) defence of comprehensive planning put forward by the LCC. However, lest we leap to the conclusion that the Conservatives are about to move sharply in the interest of the community at large against the excesses of private speculators and ugly prestige building, it is worth-while walking down from Piccadilly about 200 yards, to the South Bank.
Standing on the river bank between County Hall and the railway, you might imagine that we are already very near Orwell’s 1984. Across the river, Minipax in Whitehall is now completed. On the south side the others will soon be ready—Minitru over there behind the Festival Hall, and towering over us all Miniluv (the new Shell building); all 30 storeys of it. Orwell thought they would be shining white pyramids; the Shell architects have been neither so atavistic nor so futuristic. They have stuck to their happy medium: slabs and squares. As the handout, for example, described them:
The Shell offices will be characteristic in their expression of a British contemporary architecture. They will be faced throughout in Portland Stone to which James Bone in his “The London Perambulator” paid tribute in his dedication:—“To the isle of Portland, the matrix of London’s grandeur”. Reliance is placed on mass and fenestration, and the drama, new to London, of a block of tower-like dimensions. But, as the Portland Stone weathers, so will become more distinct the rhythmic patterns of cut lines in the stonework relieving the inevitable austerity of manywindowed walls.
The downstream building provides its own individual relief through the interest of the curvature of its main spine block, with its possibilities of delicate light and shade, and through the introduction of panels of grey-green slate in its framework of Portland Stone. The theme of this building is similar to that of the companion blocks upstream, but a theme with variations. For the downstream building has no dramatic contrasts of form such as are provided by the Upstream Tower.
It would be interesting to do a linguistic analysis of the coy style in which this is written. “The drama, new to London, of a block of tower-like dimensions”: this is, of course, an extravagant description of what is going to look like a bigger bash at the Cenotaph. More disturbing is the exuberance over announcing a skyscraper. Big things were a characteristic of early twentieth century technology, culminating in the twenties and thirties—the Queen Mary, the Empire State Building and so on. But in 1960, one has to have better reasons for skyscrapers, even for cosy 30 storey skyscrapers like this one, than “variations on a theme”. Do we want skyscrapers in London? If so, do we want them on the South Bank? How many more are there going to be? Just one is going to look lonely; monologue perhaps, rather than drama.
Drama was acted on this very site in 1951; how ironical that it should be on the Exhibition site that all this is happening! There is a picture of this Exhibition on page 244 of the Administrative County of London’s 1951 Development Plan: Analysis (published by the LCC at 30s. but now remaindered at 7s. 6d.). The caption reads:
Part of the South Bank Area showing the Royal Festival Hall, and the new Embankment wall which are permanent contributions to the development of the area as a Government and Cultural Centre. The temporary Festival of Britain exhibition buildings can be seen at an advanced stage of construction. The permanent buildings in the next stages of development will include Government Offices, the National Theatre, an hotel, a riverside garden and a Science Centre.
None of these was carried out in the last decade. Instead we have the London offices of Shell. The section on the South Bank (CDA No. 4) is on pp. 274–282 of the Analysis. Like many sections of this book, it is much less precise than it appears at first sight, in spite of its parade of figures. The object in developing the area comprehensively, however, was two-fold; it “should be redeveloped as a whole for the purpose of dealing satisfactorily with conditions of bad layout and obsolete development and war damage and extensive areas of vacant land”. Also, “The Area is proposed as the southward extension of the central area of London”. Which “central area”? Chancery Lane? Piccadilly? Kensington Gore? In the paragraphs on Public Buildings the only fresh information is: “The exact building lines within the sites defined are all subject to detailed consideration. It is possible that open space strips may be provided along the York Road frontage. . . and on the frontage of site No. 518 adjoining the Waterloo Road/York Road roundabout”.