March 22, 2013 6:30 pm

The bold, the bland and the bulging

Edwin Heathcote, the FT’s architecture critic, offers his view of the recent additions to London’s landscape
One Blackfriars, designed by Ian Simpson and due for completion in 2018©Sarah Lee/Guardian

One Blackfriars, designed by Ian Simpson and due for completion in 2018

London’s skyline is changing more rapidly and more radically than it has at any time in the city’s history. It is dominated by the starchitects, Lords Foster and Rogers, Renzo Piano, Rafael Viñoly and others with their oddly-shaped, easily-nicknamed protrusions, the Gherkin and the Cheese Grater, the Shard and the Walkie Talkie.

At the same time the more anonymous background between these towers is being filled in by lesser-known designers. These are often huge buildings which seem to get planning permission on often spurious, ill-defined grounds, with less of the public debate that surrounds the most prominent towers yet which arguably have an even greater impact on the city’s landscape.

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Most prominent is St George Wharf, Lambeth’s massive riverside development, now adorned with a tower which recently hit the headlines when a helicopter crashed into a crane on its roof. The designers are Broadway Malyan, one of Britain’s biggest practices who fully deserve anonymity. To my mind, this huge development has comprehensively spoilt the wonderful riverside site: with its clumsy blocks and unnecessary tower, it adds nothing to the city at street or river level and its glassy, dull-eyed gaze freezes every trace of urbanity around it.

Ian Simpson is not a well-known name in London, although his buildings have transformed northern metropolitan skylines. The ungainly shape of his Blackfriars Tower, bulging in the middle, is a good example of the damage a big mediocre building can do to an area, announcing its presence with a self-conscious silhouette. Another profile trying too hard, the Strata tower near Elephant and Castle in south London (which I’ve heard described as “the Ladyshave”) similarly damages the skyline with its three curiously stationary wind turbines in its crown. It was designed by BFLS which has itself, perhaps understandably, splintered into other practices.

The Bézier development, Old Street©Sarah Lee/Guardian

The Bézier development, Old Street

The transformation of the Old Street Roundabout into the officially boosted “Silicon Roundabout” has led to a rash of second-rate buildings – curiously, tech-companies, with their passion for product design, seem almost blind to architectural aesthetics. Among the worst of the recent additions is the Bézier apartment building by TP Bennett, which looks like a giant arse, and the area is due a few more bum buildings in the coming years.

The City itself, although not an unalloyed success, remains relatively sophisticated and it is that sophistication which shows up its surroundings. Bankside is being built up with a thick layer of dim, corporate modernism that crushes any post-industrial character that might have remained. Buildings such as Allies & Morrison’s overscaled Blue Fin building destroy any sense of scale, grain or texture.

Strata tower, Elephant and Castle©Sarah Lee/Guardian

Strata tower, Elephant and Castle

The success of these second tier and apparently second-rate practices is depressing because the city is alive with talented young architects who are rarely given a chance to do anything at a significant scale while they are still young and committed. Instead the city is carved up between superstars (guaranteed planning permission for big buildings on prominent sites) and corporate plodders (guaranteed maximum plot ratios). The result is a superficial architecture, buildings conceived as developers’ logos. They make no attempt to engage with the complexity of the city, instead wiping its sites clean to create an architecture as bland as any in Shenzhen, Shanghai or Dubai.

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