June 10, 2013 12:38 am

The changing face of London’s White City, home of the BBC

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general view of BBC Television Centre©Getty

London’s White City takes its name from a series of exotic exhibitions staged in a complex of jerry-built, stage-set oriental palaces and colonial castles constructed on former farmland to the west of some of the city’s most valuable real estate.

The elaborate pavilions housing those displays of imperialism – they started in 1908 with the Franco-British exhibition and ended in 1914 – were clad in brilliant white marble, and led to the area’s subsequent name.

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The remains of the fairs languished on London’s semi-industrial edge, failing to find a real purpose until, in 1960, the BBC used the site to build the world’s first major purpose-built television studio.

It was a big undertaking, a massively complex technical achievement, conceived as a “Factory for Television”. Radical 1960s architects Archigram – members of which would go on to design the South Bank arts complex in London, claimed the studios as an inspiration in their blend of flexibility and technical capacity.

Graham Dawbarn, an architect with Norman & Dawbarn, initially sketched the site plan as a question mark, an appropriate symbol for a building type for which there was no established language. The question mark stuck.

Just as Broadcasting House was defined by its Tower of Babel curve, so the ring-shaped BBC Television Centre became one of Britain’s most recognisable landmarks, less through its presence in an incoherent bit of city but rather for its endless appearances in the background of TV shows and live broadcasts.

Now, that building is being redeveloped in a £1bn project that will see Television Centre expanded into a mixed-use scheme embracing TV studios, media offices, apartments, retail and a hotel.

White City is a curious and rapidly changing part of London. It is bounded by a mess of west London transport interchanges, light industrial and social housing which have never gelled into a proper piece of city. All this is compounded by the presence of Wormwood Scrubs prison and Hammersmith hospital.

On the other side of it, however, lies Holland Park, one of London’s premier residential areas. The odd nature of the area has not particularly been helped by the insertion of Westfield shopping centre – it might be buzzing inside, but presents a series of blank boxes to the city beyond.

The TV Centre scheme for developers Stanhope might be the continuation of a strand of interventions that begins to stitch the piece back together into a more coherent urban landscape.

It is being masterplanned by architects AHMM, which is familiar with the area having also designed a school and an office conversion nearby – and which has proved adept at re-urbanising these kinds of problematic London sites.

This one will contain around 1,000 mixed tenure dwellings alongside a multitude of other uses.

The main 1960s building – the familiar glass-clad “doughnut” is intended to become a boutique hotel and residential apartments, focused inwards on TB Huxley Jones’s original Helios Sculpture at the centre of the circle. The old public lobby (this was, before contemporary security concerns, a completely accessible public building) is intended to become a reception area for both the hotel and residential elements.

A new ‘Crescent’ will be built as a contemporary reinterpretation of the London mansion block to contain a series of apartments overlooking Hammersmith Park and a new courtyard. Beside this will be a “Restaurant Block” designed by London practice Duggan Morris which has built a solid reputation with a series of impressive urban interventions and, in particular with its resurrection of London’s tradition of crisply articulated and detailed brick facades.

Another part, known as the “Drama Block” will enclose a central courtyard and a series of terraces to begin to integrate the scale of this large structure with the surrounding urban grain.

A terrace of town houses set around an optimistically titled “Village Green” completes the immediate residential accommodation. A tower (designed by AHMM) however, situated on the Wood Lane side contains another significant block of housing (with some retail below) while another new building by McCreanorLavington, another London practice replaces a multi-storey car park on the site.

The landscaping around the site is being designed by Gillespies who have worked on every level from Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute to the rooftop garden of the forthcoming Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street).

What is perhaps most interesting about the project though – despite its scale, undoubted ambition and the talent of the architects and designers working on it, is the status of this curious set of buildings in the national psyche.

The TV Centre has become an intimately familiar place – despite its actual urban isolation, it is a place which has become inscribed in the collective memory of all those who have watched the BBC, in Britain and beyond.

The scheme involves continuing TV production on site, including the retention of a number of studios which are still being used by the BBC and the continuing presence of the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide in their existing (and unattractive) offices.

It is hoped this weight of production and TV presence will encourage media companies to inhabit the site and create the much hyped media village so beloved of city boosters. There are also vague plans for some kind of “BBC Experience”, a visitor centre-cum-museum that would revel in the history of the programmes that were made here.

This is a curious case of a mediocre modernist building that holds a place in the national consciousness far above its actual architectural status. There is a particular psychogeography and nostalgic tint to everything from the wall mosaics and the studio signage to the locations for particular productions and the familiar glimpses of bits of the buildings.

This creates a delicate ecosystem of memory which, it appears, the architects are all keen to respect. This kind of anchoring in the familiar makes for a peculiar but intriguing piece of media urbanism in which physical remains mingle with media memories to create a place that is, in its way, almost hyperreal and fantastically familiar.

It is not a scheme free of controversy, this is, after all, a fine public building being privatised (albeit one that will ironically have more public access now that it will be more open) and there have been concerns about taxpayer (or rather, licencepayer) value that the BBC is now spending vastly more on hiring studios.

But despite that, there is no doubt this is a significant step towards repairing a bit of cityscape which has never coalesced into anything coherently urban and the architects are treating its cocktail of media archaeology and period detail with extraordinary reverence and care.

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