Designing in the City of Westminster

By Professor Robert Tavernor

The City of Westminster is exceptionally rich in historic architecture and enjoys the breadth and space that its urban twin, the City of London, has lacked.

Designing in Westminster presents a particular challenge; how is the mix of political and social aspirations that define its uniqueness to be represented? This debate raged in the nineteenth century with the so-called “battle of the styles”, which saw government buildings in Whitehall dressed as Renaissance and Baroque palaces: the Palace of Westminster famously has a sober classical form with extravagant gothic detailing that complements the adjacent medieval Great Hall and the skyline of Westminster Abbey. The more recent MPs offices at Portcullis House (Hopkins Architects) and the modern take on mansion block typology at One Hyde Park (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) demonstrate that architectural quality and vitality – as well as controversy – remains a constant in Westminster.

copyright Jason Hawkes

copyright Jason Hawkes

So, how to design appropriately in such an exceptionally demanding urban context? Responses to this question will vary considerably between those who seek to invest in Westminster’s urban fabric, and those whose role is to safeguard its character. This is not an arena for compromise; the higher the status of the context, the greater the potential for a clash of professional opinions. Westminster attracts world-class investors and attendant design and planning teams, who are balanced by leading local political figures and experienced planning officers. Inevitably, the process that leads to a planning decision is often complex, protracted and frustrating. Successful outcomes require patience and a willingness and ability from both parties to negotiate.

The three recent projects by Make that are featured here illustrate design responses to both the general and specific urban contexts of Westminster. The first two, in St James’s Market and Leicester Square, relate buildings to public space in the West End. The third on Artillery Row reinforces – and effectively reinstates – the corner of a prominent urban block in Victoria. Each project required the architects to understand the qualities and character of the place; rather than imposing a single design approach, Make has responded specifically with sensitivity and – as much as the historic contexts permitted – with panache.

48 Leicester Square, previously known as Fanum House and the headquarters of the Automobile Association, is strongly associated with the “modernisation” of Leicester Square in the 1920s, when cinemas replaced theatres. The existing building is not listed and is not distinguished architecturally; its character is compromised by poor overall proportions, a relatively squat middle section and a visually cluttered, top-heavy asymmetrical roof which dominates its form.

Nonetheless, the architectural detail of the base and the giant order is well considered. The combination of the principal Portland stone rhythm of columns and pilasters, and the striated stone base with wide openings, creates a visually powerful container for the building. The visual weight of the body on its base is relieved by the glass and bronze work that provides a secondary level of visual interest in relation to the primary frame.

Make considered a range of building options for 48 Leicester Square, including early proposals for an entirely new building which would relate to the W Hotel to its north and establish a strong “modern” edge to the west side of the square. However, following initial consultation with Westminster’s planning officers, it was decided that the existing building had external architectural elements worthy of retention.

This led the team to find ways of retaining those parts of the facade – its principal masonry frame as high as the cornice to the giant order – and renewing the glazing and bronze-coloured metalwork that weaves in-between it. The architects found that by adding a cornice above the attic windows, so that they become a classical “frieze” sandwiched between an existing lower and new upper cornice, the proportions of the middle section of the building would be positively transformed.

Several different roof forms were considered that would complement the proportions of the enhanced base and simplify its silhouette. The decision was made early on to select a bronze coloration that would relate to the bronze work of the main body of the buildings and bring it through the stonework frame to a formal resolution at the building’s top.

The proposed roof will become a significant part of the new composition, and while very contemporary in conception and character, it derives from a long and distinguished tradition of Western architectural and urban design: the roof of the Basilica in Vicenza, Italy, was an interesting precedent, with its copper-clad roof providing a strong visual focus, as were exemplars local to Westminster, including the Western Pumping Station at Grosvenor Dock.

Thus, the roof is made up from four curving mansard-like components set parallel to each face of the building and rising from the datum set by the attic storey frieze and new pronounced cornice that surmounts it. The plan of the existing building is not strictly orthogonal and has corners with quite different angles at its southern end. The architects have skilfully overcome the asymmetrical geometry of the plan with a roof that appears simply resolved. It will have large parallel-set corner ridges that rise from the chamfered corners of the existing building and new corner clocks, to a horizontal summit.

The metal framework of “blades” that forms the proposed roof will appear solid from some viewing locations at ground level, where they will appear to overlap one another, and more open from other angles revealing the glazing between them. It will not read as a heavy form, but lattice-like – in some ways similar to the great plant houses of Kew Gardens.

However, and importantly for the specific character of the Leicester Square Conservation Area, the roof of No. 48 has grown out of the retained and enhanced architecture that supports it below, as well as the functional needs of a twenty-first-century commercial building. This will be a compelling architectural synthesis that enhances the architectural and urban reputation of Leicester Square. It will become urbanistically and visually a significant part of the evolving rich urban character of Westminster.

48 Leicester Square

48 Leicester Square

Biography

Robert Tavernor is Emeritus Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the London School of Economics, and Principal of the Tavernor Consultancy which provides London-based townscape and heritage advice.

He acted as heritage consultant on Make’s 48 Leicester Square scheme.

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