There’s a bend in the Thames that gives special prominence to the buildings along it. Here, between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges, the south bank of the river bulges outwards, such that anything that stands there takes its place among the north bank’s array of monuments – the Houses of Parliament, Somerset House, St Paul’s Cathedral.
If the elaborate British planning system has any ability to influence the quality of architecture in sensitive locations, it should be evident in a place like this. If not, then places of equal importance all over the country are in danger.
72 Upper Ground is a proposal, designed by Make Architects for the developers Mitsubishi Estate and CO-RE, for putting about 1m sq ft mostly of offices along this part of the river. It would stand just along from the National Theatre and the Southbank arts centre, achievements of postwar public investment in culture whose success increases the desirability and hence property values of the area. It would replace a tower and studio block formerly used by ITV. The proposed building is, not to put too fine a point on it, a brute. It would increase the floor area of the current accommodation on the site by 230%. It would be 109m high compared with the 72m of the existing tower. Its height, though, is not the primary issue: it is also broad, made of aggressively stacked-up blocks, horizontally banded, with a big pile at the back of the site and second, lower one to the front. It is out of scale with its surroundings and disconnected from them.
There is no particular magic or logic to the architecture. It takes its blockiness and striations from Denys Lasdun’s design for the National Theatre, only at an inflated scale and with less sense of purpose, such that it looks parodic rather than respectful. Its designers seem to have taken some inspiration from The Interlace, a well-known development of similarly stacked-up forms in Singapore. There, though, the design aims to maximise open space and gardens. Here, it’s about squeezing as much profitable volume as possible out of the site.
The building would block out light from neighbouring homes and public spaces. In return, it offers limited public benefits. As this is an office development, rather than residential, there is no requirement to provide affordable housing as part of the planning deal. Instead, the developers promise what they grandly call “two new public squares”, in reality modest additions to the extensive open space already in the area. The most enticing element of the design, an elevated roof garden several storeys off the ground, will not be accessible to the general public.
The backers’ best argument is that the project will create an estimated 4,000 jobs, but many of these are likely to go to commuters into nearby Waterloo Station rather than to residents of the borough of Lambeth, in which it would stand. As 3.5m sq ft of office space is in the pipeline in the area, it’s questionable whether even more, especially with post-Covid changing work patterns, is what it most needs. The proposals include some affordable work spaces, just above the minimum required by Lambeth planning policy, with the promise that they will be available to local creatives, but there is scant detail on how this will be achieved.
Florence Eshalomi, the local MP, has warned of a “significant number of negative consequences” and expressed the hope that the proposal “will be reconsidered in favour of one which utilises this key strategic site for local benefit without such a substantial degree of unnecessary harm”. Local objectors have called it “grotesquery on steroids, a swollen deformity for the south bank”. Lambeth’s planning department acknowledges that the development is “controversial and extremely unpopular”.
Local objectors have called the development ‘grotesquery on steroids, a swollen deformity’
Yet planning officers recommended approval of the application for 72 Upper Ground and the planning committee recently voted six to one in favour. They did so with only sketchy scrutiny of the design. One councillor who supported the project called it a “Marmite” scheme, which implies that the quality of its architecture is purely a matter of subjective taste. This view ignores the fact that Lambeth has several policies that seek to define what is and is not good design.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with a substantial employment-generating development on this site, but planners have to decide the point at which big becomes too big. There has to be a meaningful examination of the quality of the design, one in which the onus is on the applicants to explain what is good about it. Planning policies have long proclaimed the principle that tall buildings should be “well-designed”, but approval of 72 Upper Ground renders them almost valueless.
The story is not over yet. Both London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the communities secretary, Michael Gove, have the power to overturn Lambeth’s decision or, in Gove’s case, to make it the subject of a public inquiry. Gove has declared his belief in promoting “beautiful” structures and limiting “ugly” ones, which echoes a number of government pronouncements about “building beautiful”. If he is serious, he should support an inquiry into 72 Upper Ground, to establish what such statements mean.
The location of the proposal is prized. One end of Boris Johnson’s ill-fated garden bridge was, for this reason, going to land nearby. It is a gift of nature – the bend on the river – and public investment in infrastructure (bridges, the river embankment, transport) and in culture. The developers of 72 Upper Ground want to mine those assets for private profit. The planning system should demand that they give more back to the public in return. That is what it is for.
Rowan Moore is the Observer’s archicture crtic