Victoria’s secret: how a carbuncle got away with it

CIMG8888.JPGBuilding Design magazine’s awarding of its Carbuncle Cup for this year’s worst new building to Nova, a new office and retail development around the corner from London’s Victoria Station, sets off predictable reactions. How could it have been built? Who in their right mind would give it planning permission? And why didn’t someone do something to stop it?

I have some experience of the Carbuncle Cup: in 2014 it was given to the Woolwich Central development (a huge Tesco’s with flats on top, considerably dumbed-down by cost-cutting on the way from  drawing board to completion), whose planning permission was granted by a Greenwich planning committee I had chaired ten years ago. But Woolwich was – and arguably still is – an obscure corner of south-east London, while Nova is at the very heart of London. What is this development  – which unless you live or work in Victoria, few would have heard of until now – and how did it come about?

Rather than the Nova development as a whole, the Cup’s only been awarded to Nova North and Nova South, two 16-storey office blocks by PLP Architecture described by judges as “a hideous mess”, a “crass assault on all your senses”, and a “demented preening cockerel”.  A residential building to the west, by Benson & Forsyth (architects of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh), and to the east Lynch Architects’ L-shaped block containing a new public library, are rather better. But they’re not enough to redeem the rest. The whole of this huge 2.5-hectare development – bordered by Bressenden Place, Buckingham Palace Road and Victoria Street – is a shambles.

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Nova’s construction cranes above the Palace Theatre, 2016

On paper it’s great of course. Its marketing material says Nova is “a game changing 897,000 square feet mixed use scheme delivering 603,000 square feet of world class Grade A offices, 193,000 square feet of contemporary high quality apartments, 85,000 square feet of inventive and inspirational restaurants, eateries, bars, and retail”.

The developers once crowed that they would create a “covetable workspace for innovative global businesses, a destination for exciting, concept shopping, and a distinctive, ever-changing cultural space”. Nova is “More than a development… [it’s] a campus, a village, a district, a quarter, a landmark, a place to live, work and enjoy. Because it’s completely new. It’s Nova”. Some people, the blurb added, “think all the large scale, redefining, landmark developments in central London have already been done. We think differently… Nova is an architecturally daring development on a grand scale, creating a vibrant new link between Victoria Station and Buckingham Palace and the Royal Parks, and definitively crowning the recent reinvention of Victoria.”

Sadly no one at Westminster Council had their bullshit detectors on when this guff was written. Why not? Victoria is often seen merely as a transport interchange, through which passengers pass as quickly as they can, or at best a transitional area between Belgravia, St James’, Pimlico and Westminster. 

“Pity poor Victoria. Rebuilt in the 1960s after world war two bombing, the area is now being extensively redeveloped by Land Securities but sadly not for the better,” BD’s editor Thomas Lane has said. But the western end of Victoria Street escaped bombing (and much of the redevelopment of the rest, near Westminster City Hall and the New – now old – Scotland Yard building, was done by post-war planners rather than the Luftwaffe, though that’s another story). Nova did not just require the demolition of unloved 60s blocks, but a number of historic buildings. Two crimes have been committed here, not one: as well as this soulless new development, there’s also the destruction of a charming remnant of ungentrified London that it entailed. Far from reversing the damage that the 1960s and 1970s did to Victoria’s historic fabric as its developers claim, Nova has only inflicted further damage.

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The hoardings have been up for so long at this end of Victoria Street that it’s easy to forget what was demolished there six years ago. Let’s think back.

The northern half of the Nova site had 1960s concrete buildings whose loss has not been mourned: two 10-storey office blocks, Elliott House and Carrier House, and the octagonal stump of the Stag pub (described as a “gay Wetherspoon’s” in pub guides and one of the last reminders of the presence of the Stag brewery in Victoria until the late 1950s). Then there was 29 Bressenden Place, a block containing the Thistle Westminster Hotel, offices and flats (the blogger Vijay Shah, who worked on its sixth floor for five years until it was cleared for demolition in 2012, has described it as “unbelievably stuffy and humid”, somewhere where  “everything kept breaking down”, and that “the windows looked ready to fall out at short notice”).

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This 1920s Midland Bank building was torn down in 2013. Benson and Forsyth’s residential block now stands in its place

But the southern edge of the site was a different story: a whole parade of historic buildings were knocked down. These included 124 Victoria Street, a mid-Victorian house that used to form part of a grand terrace (it had latterly hit hard times with a Better bookmakers on the ground floor). Nearby was Sutton House, the premises of T. M. Sutton, known as ‘the Harrods of pawnbroking’, at 156-158 Victoria Street. A six-storey building of dark red brick and Portland stone with grey brick dressings, it was designed for the company by Reginald Lone in 1935 and was a rare surviving example of the “Moderne” style of 1930s retail architecture. When it was listed in 2009 it still had most of the original shop fittings, along with three “privacy booths” at the rear where customers could show their goods for pawning. But this did not stop it from being torn down: only the facade and some of Sutton House’s booths were saved, moved eastwards and tacked onto Lynch’s new office block nearby. The building should have been saved, not transplanted.

And then there were the foyers of two former cinemas on Victoria Street: the Metropole Cinema, built in an elaborate Spanish Renaissance style by the noted cinema architect George Cole in 1929, and the later Cameo News Theatre (also called the Classic). Their auditoria had already been demolished in the 1970s and replaced by an office block, Allington Towers, but their frontages had survived in restaurant use, one as an ASK and the other a Bella Italia. The Metropole’s coffered foyer was flattened in 2013, with its curved ceiling skylights with copper frames and stained glass ending up in a salvage yard. This was a sad end to a cinema whose auditorium (and Wurlitzer organ) featured in the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter: the scene in which Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson sneak of to see a matinee screening of The Loves of Cardinal Richelieu was filmed here.

All these buildings, including the Metro pole cinema where Brief Encounter was filmed (bottom left) were demolished in 2013. Only the facade of Sutton’s Pawnbrokers (top right) and Barry Baldwin’s Endangered Species Triptych (bottom right) survived, both carted off elsewhere

Also knocked down was the Belgravia branch of Midland Bank (latterly HSBC and then a giftshop, Cool Britannia,  before its demolition), a prominent Portland stone building of 1926 on the corner of Victoria Street and Buckingham Palace Road. It was designed by Whinney, Son & Austen Hall, prolific bank architects of the 20s and 30s whose work can still be seen at 69-70 Pall Mall, on Corn Street in the middle of Bristol, and at the former Midland Bank branch on King Street, Manchester (a collaboration with Edwin Lutyens; it’s now a swanky Jamie Oliver restaurant).

There was more demolition around the corner on Buckingham Palace Road. Three stucco houses from the 1820s (numbers 81-87), an art deco building housing the L’Arco Italian restaurant (number 79), and the interwar red-brick Kings Arms pub (number 77), were swept away. So was Allington Street – an L-shaped street through the middle of the site, part of which followed the course of an alleyway into the old Stag Brewery dating back to the 1630s – and its Georgian-style Stage Door pub, across the road from Frank Matcham’s 1,500-seat Victoria Palace Theatre.

These buildings on the south side of Victoria Street, including the charming Edwardian Victoria Arcade, survive – but for how much longer?

The only architectural feature of Allington Street to survive was its most banal: Barry Baldwin’s Endangered Species Triptych, a distinctive sculpture of an elephant, tiger and orang-utan, above the entrance of Allington House, an office block by Sidell Gibson built as recently as 1997. After an outcry and a petition on Change.org, Land Securities agreed in 2012 to carefully remove the triptych and hand it back to its sculptor.

On the eastern edge of the site, the Duke of York pub, which was turned down for listing in 2009, has been gutted but its facade will be retained. Next door, Billy Elliott has been running at the Palace Theatre – the only building on this stretch of Victoria Street to survive unscathed – since 2005, and in that time the face of this part of Victoria has changed forever.

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Until the Carbuncle Cup was handed over earlier this week this frenzy of demolition in the heart of London went largely unreported in the media: there’s been much more coverage of other major new developments like Elizabeth House, the Shell Centre, Broadgate and  Land Securities’ “Walkie Talkie” tower. In 2013 Simon Jenkins, then chairman of the National Trust and the Evening Standard‘s star columnist, described the Nova development ‘s buildings as “so depressingly predictable a child could sketch them on a blackboard. They are designed in the new ‘fromagerie’ style of London building, a dish of up-ended slices of cheddar, brie and gorgonzola. Modern architects can design nothing but boards of cheese, all of identical sheets of glass.” But the main point of his column was to argue for a larger public space on the site with the demolition rubble turned into a grass mound, not to regret the demolition itself.

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Aptly, this Fat Cat image adorned hoardings for a long time while Nova was being built

Victoria’s unfashionability is one factor of course, but tedium is another. Plans to redevelop the western end of Victoria Street have been around for at least 25 years. In 1992 the developer Greycoat, in conjunction with London Underground, put forward plans to demolish everything between Terminus Place and Victoria Street (including George Sherrin’s charming Victoria Arcade of 1907) and build in their place a new bus station and two office blocks, one of them a 22-storey tower by Michael Hopkins.

The proposal got a positive reaction from many critics, who felt it would give Victoria what it had always lacked: a sense of arrival. But in 1993 Westminster City Council refused planning permission because of the height of Hopkins’ tower, and the traffic impact of displacing buses and taxis out of Terminus Place. (Since then it’s almost been airbrushed from history. In early 2014 the Royal Institute of British Architects held an exhibition, The Brits who Built the Modern World, to celebrate Hopkins and four other architects of his generation, which made much of Hopkins’ projects like his Mound Stand at Lords’, Glyndebourne opera house, and the Queen’s Building at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. But oddly the exhibition did not mention the huge tower he had proposed at Victoria in the early 90s.)

On the north side of Victoria Street, the site now called Nova was in multiple ownership in the 1990s. early in the new millennium Land Securities started devising an ambitious plan to redevelop bot sides of Victoria Street and Portland House, the lozenge-shaped office block to the east. Land Securities branded their proposal as Victoria Transport Interchange (VTI for short) to emphasise how it would help fund a tube station redevelopment underneath. In 2005 Land Securities asked the council to grant it a compulsory purchase order, which the council – keen to take Victoria upmarket – finally did in 2011.

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The Duke of York pub, gutted behind its retained facade

A masterplan was agreed  for the site in March 2006 and Land Securities’ first planning application for the site, known as VTI One, was lodged in 2007. It envisaged 146,000 sq m of offices, 36,000 sq m of retail and 811 new homes, with quite a generous new pedestrian route running north-south through the site roughly on the course of Victoria Arcade (which would be knocked down along with all the other buildings between Victoria Street and Terminus Place, which would be renamed Station Place). Lee Polisano (then at Kohn Pedersen Fox until he helped set up PLP in 2009) was responsible for the overall masterplan and three office buildings, but other buildings would be designed by a range of architects: Benson and Forsyth, Lynch Architects and Wilkinson Eyre. A heritage consultancy, Richard Coleman Citydesigner, was engaged by to assess the ‘listability’ of various buildings proposed for demolition – and unsurprisingly concluded that none were of listable quality. Sutton House, for example, was not mentioned in Lands Secs’ application documents in either 2007 and 2008, only to be listed by English Heritage in 2009.

In the meantime Victoria found itself thrust centre stage. It had been identified as an ‘Opportunity Area’ in the Mayor’s London Plan of 2004, making it easier for developers to argue for tall buildings there. Initially two very tall, 133-metre buildings (“Building 2a” on Terminus Place and “Building 7a” just west of the Duke of York pub) were proposed, but both were strongly opposed by local amenity groups and the council. In December 2007 Westminster’s Planning and City Development committee welcomed the comprehensive redevelopment of the site in principle but asked Land Securities to think again about height, adding that only one building higher than 12 stories should be permitted, not two (a condition that Nova has broken).

Hopkins proposal from 1990s for Terminus Place

Michael Hopkins’ tower that never was

Land Securities’ revised plans for the site, called VTI Two and submitted to Westminster in September 2008, were scaled back in a number of ways. No development south of Victoria Street was now proposed (Victoria Arcade was spared, though it’s long term future is unclear). The proposed Wilkinson Eyre tower in place of Portland House was dropped. The two 133m towers were abandoned; office floorspace was reduced from 146,000 sq m to 83,000 sq m, retail space from 42,000 sq m to 12,000 sq m and the number of new homes from 811 to 205. The maximum height of the new development would now be 73m, not 133m, though Benson & Forsyth’s Building 5 would still be 14 storeys, four times higher than the Midland Bank building it replaced. Shamelessly, LandSec’s planning consultant Gerald Eve argued that views of Building 5 from Grosvenor Gardens would be “softened by the dense treescape” and there would be “no harm caused to the appearance of the Gardens” by a new 14-storey building at its eastern corner.

Although the Westminster Society was now supportive, the revised plans still attracted a furious reaction from another amenity group, the quaintly-named Thorney Island Society, as well as the design Quango CABE,  who lamented the “unpleasant” public spaces and the “absence of appropriate human scale”. But the planning committee paid little heed: on February 5th 2009 it approved the VTI Two application with only one councillor, the Conservative Alan Bradley, voting against.

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Tellingly, the development was soon rebranded as Victoria Circle, and then rebranded again as Nova. What was supposed to create a world-class transport interchange is really just funding a new underground ticket hall: the £80m towards transport improvements that Nova has provided has not gone far. In the last 30 years almost all other London termini – Paddington, Liverpool Street, Blackfriars, Charing Cross, King’s Cross, Marylebone, St Pancras, and less successfully, Waterloo – have been restored, with new development alongside skilful restoration of their grandeur. The rebuilding of London Bridge is nearing completion and a revamp of Euston is on the way soon. But despite the vast size of the Nova development there’s nothing in it for Victoria, now looking chaotically shabby.

Victoria station is full of historic detail, but much of it is poorly maintained or obscured by modern clutter

Victoria Station is historically important. Briefly called the Grosvenor Terminus but soon renamed as Victoria, it’s really two stations: the London Brighton and South Coast station of 1860 and the London Chatham and Dover station of 1862, known for short as the Sussex and Kent sections respectively, and separated by a wall until the 20s. The two stations were both later refronted in competing, almost comically ornate styles: the Sussex section by  Charles Langbridge Morgan in 1898, the Kent section by Alfred W. Blomfield and W. J. Ancell in 1909.

“A rather unhappy sort of muddle,” John Betjeman once said of the two rival frontages; for the railway historian Hamilton Ellis they have “about as much beauty and dignity as a pair of old hags standing with their boots in a Pimlico gutter.” But behind them the Kent station still retains its original 1862 trainshed by John Fowler, the Scots engineer who built the Forth Bridge. Six years older than St Pancras’s and according to English Heritage “one of the lightest and most elegant of the major station roofs from this period”, this shed has a lot of poignancy. Under its arches many of the those killed in the trenches of the First World war would have boarded their trains: Victoria was the main terminus used by soldiers going to the Western Front.

This is the entrance through which Royals used to enter Victoria Station to greet arriving Heads of State: incredibly it’s now locked up and used only as a service entrance for retail units

Most of the station is listed Grade 2 but it’s been badly mangled by piecemeal alteration. There’s still enough of the station’s Victorian atmosphere to imagine baby Algernon of The Importance of Being Earnest being discovered in a handbag here – but only just. CCTV cameras cling like marsupials to the Corinthian columns holding up the concourse roof; a 1980s bulbous metal travel centre is latched onto the frontage. A huge office block (Victoria Plaza) shopping mall (Victoria Place) and an equally unimpressive 1990s block with a dingy Wetherspoon’s (Victoria Island) crowd round Fowler’s trainshed. Many of the station’s Victorian and Edwardian entrance arches have been blocked or disfigured by shops, cafe units, ticket offices or bureaux de changes.

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John Fowler’s trainshed of 1862: “one of the lightest and most elegant of the major station roofs”

When redundant telephone boxes were removed from one of the station entrances in the 2000s two glazed-tile maps of the LB&SC Railway network from about 1907, were uncovered and restored. But the tiling alongside the maps is decaying; there is no plaque to indicate the importance of Fowler’s trainshed a few yards away. On Hudson Place survives a large part of the original 1862 station. But the central entrance of paired Roman Doric columns, which used to lead to the Royal Waiting Rooms where arriving Heads of State would be received, is now blocked up; other doors are now staff and delivery entrances for shops facing onto the station concourse. In the early 70s Victoria even lost its main station clock, for decades a well-used meeting place on the Sussex concourse: like London Bridge, it was sold off and shipped to the United States to decorate a restaurant.

Eurostar has meant that Victoria is no longer a gateway to Europe, but passenger numbers are still on course to increase by 20% between 2011 and 2020. Victoria needs – and deserves – the same sort of sympathetic revamp that Paddington, St Pancras and Kings Cross have had. In its original form, Nova could have entailed substantial work to the station. The forecourt is getting a welcome revamp, with buses and taxis moved out, and the stone facades are being cleaned up, but there’s no clear plan to restore the station itself.

We’re left with the worst of both worlds: Nova’s huge, but not huge enough to finance the restoration and reordering that Victoria Station so badly needs. Some of the objections – such as the quaint notion that more tall buildings would “spoil the Queen’s view from her gardens” at Buckingham Palace, miss the point spectacularly. Westminster Council seems to have been so obsessed with lopping off a few storeys here and there that they forget to consider how Nova meets the ground, and what had to be destroyed to make way for it.

Nova’s website promises that the development is “a laboratory for new ideas… a base for experimental, exclusive, eclectic restaurant and retail brands,” and “A place where the unexpected lies around every corner” but it won’t be anything of the sort: only multiple restaurants and Bond Street fashion houses can afford the rents. The cinema where Brief Encounter was filmed, old pubs – and even souvenir shops in old banks selling plastic policeman’s helmets and model taxis – aren’t just worthless tat: they are part of the heart and soul of London, now erased forever.

All photographs by Alex Grant

 

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