The new University faculty is the best thing built in Greenwich for decades. Critics should be careful what they wish for

CIMG3287There’s a paradox about development in Greenwich (the town, not the borough) in the last 15 years. Schemes that commanded near-universal support when they were first proposed (the glass bubble around the Cutty Sark, which makes it look like its riding on an inelegant hovercraft, is a good example) are later derided: the Cutty Sark’s restoration, rightly or wrongly, won the 2012 Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building in the UK.

CIMG3323On the other hand, schemes that seemed controversial at the time later prove to be successes. The new pier buildings just by the Cutty Sark were much reviled when completed in 2012. The 853 blog called them “f’ugly lumps” and when I blogged about them at the time, admitting that I had chaired the Planning Board meeting in 2007 at which the buildings had been approved, a troll lambasted me as “ludicrous”, “unedifying” and “reprehensible”. Two years later, the shiny copper has darkened and the buildings are accepted, if not liked: apart from ongoing grumbles about restaurant signage the fuss has died down.

CIMG3327The other great controversy of 2012 – the Olympic events in Greenwich – also turned out to be a false alarm. The anti-Olympics NOGOE campaign had, by the time the games started, shrunk to a small splinter group whose objections sounded increasingly desperate: at one point NOGOE claimed, outrageously, that the presence of an Irish building contractor on site raised the threat of an IRA terrorist attack. In the end, of course, the equestrian events in Greenwich Park were a huge success and the park looks better now than it ever has.

Just as the phony war about the Olympics in the park was raging, the National Maritime Museum opened its impressive Sammy Ofer Wing, designed by C. F. Møller, in 2011. Although the new wing’s interior is a disappointment, it turned the museum round to face the park for the first time. Bizarrely, given all the hysteria about potential tree damage in Greenwich park from the Olympics, the museum got away with felling a giant Turkey oak to make way for the new wing, and it was well worth it.

But it’s easy to forget the other great controversy of the last decade. The large site between Stockwell Street and King William Walk had for many years housed a bric-a-brac and furniture market, a lot bigger and edgier than the covered market around the corner in the middle of the one-way system (another controversy arose there, when a new roof and a boutique hotel were proposed, about which I will blog another day). Developer Capital and Counties acquired the site in the mid-noughties, the market gradually shut down, and in 2008 plans for shops and flats by architects Sidell Gibson were submitted and approved.

Sidell Gibson’s 2007 proposals for the Stockwell Street site: pompous, bland and proof that architecture that tries too hard to “fit in” rarely works

Sidell Gibson are “conservation architects” who oversaw the restoration of Windsor Castle after the disastrous fire in 1992 (Prince Charles approved),  but in Greenwich they struggled to reconcile historic instincts with their client’s demands for four storeys of flats above ground-floor shops.

The original plans – which are still proudly posted on Sidell Gibson’s website – were grudgingly approved by the council, and there was surprisingly little public opposition to them: as so often happens, they were just not quite bad enough to refuse. But in hindsight they would have been a disaster for Greenwich, almost as inept as the Hotel Ibis across the street. A cheap blend of reconstituted stone, brick, Juliet balconies and blank, tinted windows without glazing bars, Sidell Gibson’s building would have been neither a convincing pastiche nor a contemporary statement.

Rather than “re-integrate the site into the fabric of the centre of Greenwich… [and] recreate the original urban form with a lively outward facing scheme and new animated street frontages” as Sidell Gibson claimed, the scheme would on fact have been a bulky insult to the genuinely Georgian Spread Eagle coaching inn next door. The top two storeys would have been crammed into a bulky mansard roof (the top floor flats would have been very dark, as their windows would only have faced into an internal courtyard, a bungled bid to disguise the building’s size from the road).

Sidell Gibson’s blurb on the scheme misspells the nearby St Alfege’s Church as “St Alphage’s” – an unforgivable sin that’s a neat metaphor for the building they proposed. In striving so hard to “blend in” and recreate the urban fabric, they completely misunderstood Greenwich’s history: neither Hawksmoor’s St Alfege’s, Indigo Jones’s Queen’s House or Wren’s Royal Hospital were built to “blend in” or “recreate” anything: all were bold new statements which shocked at the time.

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That the Stockwell Street site was later acquired by Greenwich University, and new architects Heneghan Peng brought in, is one of Greenwich’s luckiest breaks in decades. Instead of Sidell Gibson’s embarrassed apology of a building, Heneghan Peng (fresh from designing the visitor centre at the Giants’ Causeway, shortlisted for the Stirling prize in 2013) soon came forward with a bold, exciting vision for a new University building, housing the library and architecture faculty and known officially simply as 10 Stockwell Street. No more references to “repairing fabric” or “recreating urban form” – instead good quality, original architecture that does not cram the site. Rather than a single block as Sidell Gibson proposed, the Stockwell Street frontage is split into separate pavilions. Big and bold need not be bulky.

It was thus surprising to read Oliver Wainwright claim in last Sunday’s Observer that “Too many cooks” had spoiled the new building, which “feels like a punch that has been propelled through a vat of heritage syrup, emerging on the other side with a fraction of the force”.

Wainwright argues that the building is a “beige compromise” thrashed out by “the committees of Unesco World Heritage, the International Council of Monuments and Sites, English Heritage, the planners of Greenwich and the GLA”. Not true: there was not much opposition to this development despite its very sensitive site. What he calls a “lifeless limestone skin” is in fact an impressive, bold facade which does not scrimp on detail – even the ceiling of the entrance lobby is clad in limestone.

Far from being a dumbed-down, design-by-committee pastiche, Heneghan Peng’s new building is a vast improvement on the original plans for the site, without any of the fussy classical references worn by Sidell Gibson’s design. Gone is the mansard roof. Rather than the pompous arched arcade through to King William Walk, parallel with the railway line, there is now a simple path. Instead of boring retail units, there are new exhibition spaces both at ground level and upstairs – which I haven’t explored yet but which look amazing in photos.

The idea that Greenwich is full of stuffy Nimbies who demand that all new buildings are covered in a “vat of heritage syrup” is nonsense. In fact the Greenwich Society is one of the more enlightened amenity societies in London. Rather than obsessing about parking and the impact on the neighbours, the Society does a good job asking what infrastructure will be delivered alongside the new homes going up in Greenwich – and when the town’s chronic traffic congestion will be resolved. It welcomes good-quality modern architecture and condemns pastiche.

The new Stockwell Street building is one of the best new buildings to be built in Greenwich town centre, and grating it approval was one of Greenwich Council’s  better planning decisions, in decades. Following my recent mea culpa about the Tesco development in Woolwich (which has just won the 2014 Carbuncle Cup) I’m pleased to admit that I played no part in approving this far better building – I had stepped down from Greenwich’s Planning Board by the time Stockwell Street was approved in the summer of 2011.

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Stockwell Street has had a lucky escape. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Greenwich was afflicted with a number of infill developments that strived to “fit in” but which all disappointed. They show just how low expectations were in Greenwich until very recently. Greenwich may now be the most visited place in London outside Zone 1, but until the 1990s it was a relatively sleepy place with a dusty Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and not much else. There had been little development, and much economic decline,  in Greenwich in the 1970s and 1980s. The council’s attitude to tourism was at best indifferent.  Before the University and Trinity College of Music took over the Royal Naval College, public access was heavily restricted by the MOD for security reasons right up until the late 1990s – the painted hall and chapel were only accessible for three hours every afternoon. A tatty tarmac tennis court sat to the west of Hawksmoor’s stupendous King William Block of 1700-01.

Once the Museum was extended in the late 1990s, with the Neptune Court development by Rick Mather, and Greenwich was swept along by the London-wide development boom of the new millennium, the council was taken by surprise by a rash of new developments and was ill-equipped to distinguish between the good, the average and the downright bad. If anything Greenwich now attracts more tourists than it can cope with – as the phenomenal success of the Tall Ships festival earlier this month showed – but the quality of new architecture has sadly not always risen in line with visitor numbers.

Directly opposite the new Stockwell Street building the Ibis Hotel, built at the very end of the 80s, set the tone for so much that followed. It’s bland postmodernism that strives so hard to be inoffensive that you want to strangle its meagre corner pavilion. The cinema next door is better, but beyond it to the west is Serica Court, a sheltered housing block popular with its residents but an insult to the High Road it faces: it’s an incoherent cluster of brick that would be more at home in Milton Keynes than the heart of Greenwich.

Too many buildings in Greenwich of the 1990s and 2000s (above) now look cheap and shoddy

Directly across the road from the stupendous Eastern portico of Hawksmoor’s St Alfege’s (currently being restored and hidden by scaffolding) is Pizza Express, a boring infill of the early noughties, whose grey render and concrete lintels show that budget faux-Regency never works. Around the corner on King William walk, in 1999 a “Design and build” extension was tacked on to Devenport House conference centre that resembles a motorway hotel – cheap red brick on top of breeze-blocks. Detailed design was by GHM Rock Townsend and planning was secured by Spence Harris Hogan but tellingly, 15 years on this woeful scheme is not cited on either architect’s website (see here and here). The shops and student housing around the Cutty Sark DLR station could be worse, but 15 years after it went up the render is looking flimsy.

Wood Wharf – whatever you think of the brick river frontage, the rear and side of this block of flats are just awful

The proposed eight-storey hotel proposed to take the place of Hardy's on Trafalgar Road: not an April Fool, it turned out

The proposed eight-storey hotel proposed to take the place of Hardy’s on Trafalgar Road: not an April Fool, it turned out

On the river, just to the west of Cutty Sark Gardens is the truly awful Wood Wharf, designed by Alan Camp Architects and completed in 2005 (not to be confused with the much bigger Wood Wharf development on the Isle of Dogs). Meant as a sensitive homage to old wharf buildings with arched windows and a generous boardwalk, it now seems an embarrassing mistake. The budget ran out on the side flank which is dominated by render and binstores. The river walk leads nowhere while the New Capital Quay site to the west remains a building site.

Just to the east of the town centre, in 2010 a nine-storey hotel tower was once proposed on the site of Hardy’s Pub – which I assumed was an April’s Fool joke until the planning department showed me the submitted plans (they can be viewed here – thankfully they were refused).

While the media obsesses about whether the Cutty Sark’s glass bubble harms or helps, Greenwich’s working-class heritage is gradually being lost. On Greenwich High Road, the historic Swan pub has just been knocked down (luckily a plan to demolish a similar pub on Woolwich Road in Charlton has been refused – for now) and on Trafalgar Road, the site of the old Victoria pub is now filled by a bland brick box whose shop units remain whitewashed, years after it was built.

Trafalgar Grove’s naff neo-Georgian townhouses fail to impress. From behind, all becomes clear: they are in fact a reclad 1950s block of flats, which should have been left well alone. Corvette Square next door looks on, alarmed

Despite the best efforts of the Greenwich Society and others it’s tragic to see some of the lousy development still going on – on Trafalgar Grove, between the Arches leisure centre and the Royal Naval College, a fifties block of flats, Travers House, has just been reclad as “neo-Georgian” townhouses so bad that you want to laugh. That these blocks used to be affordable housing for the elderly turn farce into tragedy. James Stirling and James Gowan- the architects of the superb brown-brick Corvette Square estate next door – must be turning in their graves.

CIMG3297New Capital Quay, at the mouth of Deptford Creek, is rather better but the new Waitrose unforgivably turns away from the Creek, resulting in service road with endless blank winodws overlooking it. Greenwich can, and should, do better than this on such a key riverside site. The new neo-Regency infill on Greenwich Church Street is a forgiveable bit of pastiche, as it rectified wartime bomb damage, but even here the details let the building down – the upstairs pilasters rest on some odd brackets.

While mediocrity is tolerated, good schemes are opposed for silly reasons. A great proposal for Greenwich – shops and 83 homes between Creek Road and Bardsley Lane designed by local architects BPTW – have recently hit some opposition from a “Keep the Green” campaign and a sister group, Friends of Maritime Greenwich, because they entail the loss of a slither of green space as well as a car wash and a lousy eighties block of flats.

The latest plans for Creek Road are much better than the 2007 ones, with the old bookshop building now spared demolition – so why was there a campaign against them?

Again, these well-intentioned “friends” should think hard about the alternatives to the development they oppose. Though the plans may not be perfect they are much better than the original 2007 plans by KSS Design Group, approved by a committee I chaired, which were denser (106 flats rather than 83) and involved the demolition of the old bookshop at the western end of the site, along with the nearby Lord Hood pub, and a clumsy eight-storey tower at the western end (the new plans are no higher than six stories). The plans were later amended to save the Hood but only recently was the bookshop reprieved.

CIMG3313It is nonsense to suggest that the “Green” on Creek Road is an important, or historic, green lung for Greenwich – a glance at a pre-war map shows that before wartime bombing and subsequent clearance, Creek Road was lined with terraced houses and shops all the way from Greenwich Church Street to the creek. Pressure groups opposing high-density development in Greenwich is like King Canute ordering the waves to retreat: Greenwich’s rail, bus and DLR connections mean it has a high Public Transport Accessibility Level (PTAL for short) which planning policy says means high density.

This can have disconcerting consequences: a recent planning application for a suburban site on the corner of Invicta Road and Charlton Road in Blackheath proposed a two bedroom house on a tiny garage plot, with both bedrooms underground and lit by lightwells – one of them north-facing – with the applicant arguing that the large number of bus routes serving the Royal Standard justified shoehorning a two-bedroom house onto a site barely big enough for a garage. I am pleased that the council turned the application down.

The morals of this story are clear: controversies can arise unexpectedly many years after a development is given planning consent. Developments that are designed to “blend in” to the fabric of historic towns like Greenwich rarely work. Recent development in Greenwich, like so many other historic towns, has been hit and miss and it’s important to celebrate good buildings rather than quibble. Many of the worst developments of the last 20 years are low-rise, low density. What matters is not height or density as much as quality – which Stockwell Street has in spades.

A triumphant success like Heneghan Peng’s new architecture faculty can happen almost by accident. Those who object to such boldness should ponder the puny architectural compromises of the recent past and think again.

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5 Responses to The new University faculty is the best thing built in Greenwich for decades. Critics should be careful what they wish for

  1. marymills says:

    Alex, Alex – first of all I agree with a lot of what you say and I could go through it bit by bit picking away at it – and hopefully others will do that do. Also architectural style is a matter of taste – and many councillors (and planners) have very different ways of looking at things. As you know I kept off Planning Committees – (because councillors ought to be out their talking to residents about their views and help them through the process of committees and so on – rather than pompously make ‘decisions’) – BUT the one thing I do remember arguing on the one Planning Committee I was briefly on, was to argue and succeed in stopping infill pastiche on a suburban street and persuade the committee to go along with something more original. (I daren’t say where because I guess there will be all sorts of people saying – ‘that carbuncle!!! – so – it was you Mrs. Mills!!!)

    What I was going to do was put in a small plea for the late John Humpherys House which was pulled down for the new architecture school in Stockwell Street. Poor John Humpheries was at the bottom of its time in architectural fashion (bet that if you give us another 20 years we will be bemoaning it as a lost gem!). It was the first ever local government purpose built computer centre erected when Greenwich, as part of the London Boroughs Joint Computor Consortium, was at the cutting edge of digitisation of local government services in the very early 1960s. Sadly what was proposed was a bit too revolutionary for the ex-Woolwich councillors after the boroughs amalgamated a couple of years later in 1965 – they saw what was going on, took fright and closed the whole thing down. We should be proud of the old Met. Borough of Greenwich which tried to be pioneer, built a cracking building to do it in – but to see the revolution halted and the building eventually pulled down.

  2. Alex Grant says:

    Thanks Mary – like you, I admired John Humphries House and regretted its demolition, I am sorry I overlooked it when writing this blog piece

    Although it did not respond to the street well (it was at an angle to the Spread Eagle and associated buildings, and was set back from the street line) it was of some historic interest and was carefully designed, as early 1960s buildings go. Such buildings (like Centre Point) are gradually coming back into fashion but this process started too late for there to be any strong feeling that its demolition should not proceed

    I recall going to meetings inside it as a rookie councillor in the late 1990s (when it housed Planning dept and parts of the Housing dept) The interior was well-appointed, with a wood-panelled meeting room that looked like a set from the Avengers. Did the exterior have a stone rather than concrete flank wall?

  3. Blimey, I agree with just about every point and view in this article. A shame you’re not still a councillor and able to have influence – if a few more councillors had the same views the borough would be a far better place. It’s not just some recent architecture which is lacking in Greenwich borough but public realm and urban design, where the council is really behind the curve and seems to often have no interest in improvements.

    The new uni building is a great additions to Greenwich. This sums it up perfectly – “Many of the worst developments of the last 20 years are low-rise, low density. What matters is not height or density as much as quality – which Stockwell Street has in spades.”

  4. Vesna Domany Hardy says:

    Alex you are a great loss for our borough’s planning. The entrance to the highly raised Cutty Sark recalls shape of the black cube. It seems to ask for pilgrims veneration. However The School of Architecture is a great and truely impressive addition to the Greenwich town centre but not only. Unlike most of the new architecture in London in general that rarely satisfy requirements of enviromental preservation, service to the community, arcitectural novelty plus please aestheticaly this project has it all. Now I proudly show it to my visitors who all praise it too.

  5. Elena Sapsford says:

    The new university building looks like a quality building in terms of proportion and materials used.
    It may just look good in 50 years time. However, its size brings a bit more of the ‘city’ to Greenwich town, and it’s lack of any detailing – carving, stained glass, something! – means that as so often there is nothing for the eye to study. Sometimes we see an old building and spot a new detail which causes us to think and smile about the craftsmanship. This building won’t enrich us in this way, as most modern architecture will not. One look and you’ve pretty much seen it all. And so the interest in the area continues to rest on the great buildlings of the past. The exhibition spaces may be welcomed, but the love of ‘spaces’ which contemporary architects often seem to have could just create soulless halls to be filled with ‘something’ in the end. My children won’t smile at this building and save a place for it in their hearts. Intricate detailing may be out of fashion at the architecture schools, but craftsmanship and building styles that grow and age with us are something I’m sure many people long for to give their daily lives quality. We must not be afraid of copying the best of the past, while giving it new flavour and vigour.

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