On Architecture

The beastly East

The question is whether the heart of Whitechapel can keep its character under the pressures of urban development

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As a long-term resident of East London, I was overjoyed by the publication of the handsome two volumes of the Survey of London on Whitechapel last June. But it has taken me time to digest how much it tells one about the history of Whitechapel through its microcosmic survey of patterns of architectural change.

Oddly, it tells one almost as much about the history of the last ten years as it does about earlier centuries, because in documenting what has been happening, for example, to the streets round Aldgate and, in particular, in Aldgate itself, it conscientiously describes who is responsible for the redevelopment of each of the monster new buildings which have been constructed over the last ten years, thereby obliterating what little was left of random, higgledy-piggledy back yards full of warehouses and small factories and the street fronts of retailers and garment traders, which had already been subject to redevelopment after the Second World War.

It conscientiously describes who is responsible for the redevelopment of each of the monster new buildings

The story is predictable but nonetheless depressing. Site after site has been sold to big property developers based in tax havens off shore, not contributing anything whatsoever to the character of the area, but simply treating it as a source of capital return on vast and anonymous residential tower blocks.

This transformation from small-scale shops to massive office blocks was introduced by mayor Ken Livingstone, whose so-called London Plan liberated the skyline and identified Aldgate as an area of potential new office development. The big property companies, such as British Land, Barratt and the Berkeley Group, swooped in, many of them proposing student housing which is not subject to the same regulations as more conventional housing developments.

The Relay building in One Commercial Street, Aldgate – London, England

A good example of such developments is the Relay Building, a huge angular glass block with fins immediately above Aldgate East station. It was designed by John Seifert Architects, originally developed by a company called Formation Design & Build, which offers investment services to high-net-worth individuals, jointly with Julius Properties, based in Guernsey, and funded by a loan from an Icelandic Bank which went bust halfway through.

In 2011, it was sold to Redrow Homes and, in 2014, to Hondo Enterprises, owned by Taylor McWilliams, a Texan disc jockey. The so-called “affordable” flats are down a back alley intended for rubbish collection and are now apparently available for short-term holiday rental.

Immediately opposite is a more elegant, but equally vast, glass tower block designed by Wilkinson Eyre. This was originally proposed by the developers, Tishman Speyer, but, in 2005, they sold out to the Royal Bank of Scotland, who in turn sold it to Morgan Stanley Real Estate.

It is unsurprising that these big office blocks do not relate to their surroundings. They are paper-based transactions, planned purely for their investment potential. Affordable homes are treated as a sop to get planning permission and there seems to be no way of enforcing the original planning agreements, as ownership changes so often to increasingly remote, offshore entities.

Looking at the pictures of Aldgate as it was in the late nineteenth century makes me weep

An area which had a human scale, a place of streets and local shops, has been transformed into an area of big, bland glass blocks. Looking at the pictures of Aldgate as it was in the late nineteenth century makes me weep.

Further east, the sad history of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is admirably documented. Thought to be able to trace its origin to a foundry in Aldgate run by Stephen Norton in 1363, its ownership is traceable from 1567 until it was sold in December 2016 for £5.1 million to Vince Goldstein, an east end property developer, who promptly sold it on for £7.9 million to Bippy Siegal, a New York financier.

Its equipment was sold, its employees dismissed, its trade abandoned. No effort was made to allow a management buy-out. The plan was to turn it into a luxury hotel, but so far, six years later, nothing has happened and the building is now available to rent, but not as a foundry.

Further east, round Whitechapel Station the picture of development is less depressing, partly because so much more survives of the original urban fabric, including a long run of houses outside the revamped station, refurbished by the conservation architect, Julian Harrap, when it was thought that the road was going to become Olympic Boulevard. The street was poshed-up to eradicate any traces of poverty for visiting dignitaries in their limousines.

Entrance to Whitechapel Station on Mile End Road, London, UK. Victorian station building now serves Underground, Overground and Elizabeth Line trains

The Royal London Hospital has been totally rebuilt at public expense by HOK International. It is an unlovely monstrosity, but the old building was more obviously in need of redevelopment than almost any building I have ever been in to, still essentially Victorian in its long corridors, as if it had not had any money spent on it since the days of the Elephant Man. At least, HOK covered their new building with various shades of blue glazing so its bulk is disguised.

The reconstruction of the hospital as Tower Hamlets Town Hall by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) has been done well, preserving a great deal of the original fabric, including the façade facing on to Whitechapel High Street and the original late nineteenth-century front block with its chapel and porte-cochère.

Now the question is whether the heart of Whitechapel, most of it still low-rise, with an original street market, can keep its character under the pressures of urban development. At least, the Survey of London has documented what is left.

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