Best-laid plans: Five buildings we'd build differently today - Part 2
London is littered with ugly and unpopular buildings from the 1960s that jar with their surroundings. If 3D digital technology had been available, they could have been built very differently
Report from – Damien Carr
The 1960s were boom-time for building development in London, which needed rebuilding following World War Two but technology wasn’t quite able to make up for the constraints on time. Whereas Christopher Wren had 42 years to plan and build his masterpiece of St Paul’s Cathedral, late twentieth century builders were lucky to get three years for the entire design and build.
Now thanks to the latest 3D digital technology, it is possible to get a really detailed understanding of every aspect of a planned development. If a bit of future-proofing like this had only existed in the 1960s, some of London’s most controversial buildings could have been built very differently.
3. Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre
Architect: Bossevain & Osmond
What we have: The plan was for a ‘Piccadilly Circus of the South’ to replace the bombed-out hole on the South Bank; the competition winners proposed a fully enclosed American-style mall over three levels with an office block above, the first of its kind in Europe. The result was rather different – budget squeezes and compromises resulted in a windowless box, entirely unappealing. All those grandiose plans to revolutionise retail were clearly not about to be realised here. When the centre opened in 1965, only 29 out of a possible 120 shops were trading.
If 3D digital technology had existed then: This project cried out for an intelligent, detailed mapping of the traffic patterns and pedestrian movements, which could have led to much better integration of the building with the surrounding area, including easier and more pleasant access: who wants to fight their way across busy roads? Digital projections could also have been used to create a more enticing exterior and interior and troubleshoot both before a single brick was laid. A windowless interior requires sympathetic lighting; a busy location should be offset by a soothing interior environment, encouraging shoppers to linger. In contrast to CGI imagery, which can be misleading (after all, you can make anything work on a screen – some developers have run into problems when their beautiful, shiny, ‘adland’-style CGI interiors turned out to bear very little relation to reality), 3D visualisations deal in realities, allowing developers and architects to adjust their creations to suit the facts of a building, location or environment.
4. Euston Station
Architect: BR architects in consultation with Richard Seifert
What we have: The Underground station is one of the worst in London, with no step-free access, innumerable staircases and escalators and a dingy cramped ticket hall. The foundations don’t support development above. The square outside is a bleak concrete expanse, with no positive elements apart from a lot of buses to get you out of there as quickly as possible. The choice of retail is duller and more homogenous than almost anywhere in London and these days, the contrast with the spanking new Kings Cross Station just down the road is painful. The latter, before redevelopment, was once referred to as ‘a wart on the face of the Mona Lisa’; that amusing but unpleasant description still applies to Euston. With luck, the HS2 redevelopment will fix its many problems; certainly, some close-grained mapping of the area and its possibilities would be hugely beneficial.
“Even by the bleak standards of Sixties architecture, Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; and a blight on surrounding streets… It gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight".
Richard Morrison, The Times, 2007
If 3D digital technology had existed then: Using digital technology to walk through the building and understand how to integrate the shops into the transport hub would have been really helpful. And it’s not too late: for the next phase of the station’s life, the planners have aspirations for a station that is really user-friendly, with retail on the ground floor and trains buried discreetly below ground, or if, as is likely, that proves too expensive and complicated, retail on an easily accessible podium level. A detailed virtual walk-through enables planners, developers and possible tenants to look carefully at the space and make the best use of it, so that problems such as ill-conceived footfall, poor lighting and unfortunate areas that are underpopulated with shops or any kind of decoration would quickly become apparent. In addition, digital technology could help with phasing: Euston is far too important a London terminus for it to be able simply to close down while major changes are made, and keeping disruptions to a minimum while that happens will be essential.
5. Old Paternoster Square
Architect: Sir William Holford
What we had: The post-war rebuild was loathed by many as a monolithic, featureless buildings with a charisma bypass; a poor substitution for the four- and five-storey Georgian buildings destroyed by bombing. Updated many times, it had to be completely redone in the 1990s in better keeping with the wonder of St Paul’s nearby and while not a raving success, a definite improvement.
‘The old Paternoster Square was typical: ghastly, monolithic constructions without definition or character.’
Robert Finch, Lord Mayor of London, 2004
If 3D digital technology had existed then: Any structure or space that is near St Paul’s needs not to jar with one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. By mapping the intended outline of the buildings and concentrating on windows, 3D digital technology could have helped ensure light, airy structures made from appropriate building materials. Instead of learning lessons slowly and painfully, those lessons could have been learned quickly and virtually, and a great deal of public embarrassment – not to mention money – could have been saved. At first attempt, after consulting technology far more interactive and responsive than even a sophisticated fly-through and a lot more honest than most CGI, we could have had a lively and intimate retail space with a wonderful view of Christopher Wren’s grand achievement, a place of spiritual guidance that is also an inspiration to anyone wanting to create beautiful buildings, beloved by Londoners, that make best possible use of their space and surroundings. We are lucky that modern technology enables us to see, explore and alter the reality we want before it exists, and adjust it accordingly to achieve as many ambitions as possible. Wren had nothing but paper, pencil and an enviable amount of time… but then, he was a genius.
Jason Hawthorne is Managing Director at Wagstaffs, a leading integrated communications agency, which has developed VUCITY, an interactive model of London.
He will be speaking at Connected Cities, which will examine how data and digital technologies can help plan more sustainable cities. The conference takes place on 15 September at the Millbank Tower on 15 September.