Via Make Architects

New development will ruin the National Theatre

Make Architects’ disastrous plans risk destroying the character of the South Bank

Artillery Row

On 29 March 2022, Lambeth Council’s planning committee met to consider a proposal to redevelop a prominent site on the River Thames nearly next door to Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre. It is currently occupied by a miscellaneous group of buildings, formerly ITV’s television studios. They are known as the London Television Centre, with a prominent and very ugly tower block, 24 storeys high, set a long way back from the river, which was built in 1969 and used to be known as Kent House. 

Picture Credit: Cityscape Digital

It was not the first time that plans had been put forward for redevelopment of the site. ITV had originally planned to do it themselves and had commissioned Hopkins Architects, who produced plans for a relatively conventional, glass-wrapped building. This design got planning permission before ITV decided to sell the site for £145.6 million to Mitsubishi Estate London in November 2019.

The new building is on a simply massive scale

Mitsubishi Estate commissioned new plans from the architectural practice, Make, who have become firm favourites of developers. They came up with a set of hugely inflated proposals, not a single tower block, but a set of massed horizontal glass slabs towering over the adjacent IBM Building and National Theatre beyond. It would be a behemoth, completely out-of-scale with its surroundings, particularly the elegant low-rise buildings designed by Lifschutz Davidson for Coin Street Housing Association, not to mention the nineteenth century worker’s housing round Waterloo in Whittlesey Street and Roupell Street.

Picture Credit: Cityscape Digital

An adapted version of this scheme was put forward to the Planning Committee by Ben Oates, Lambeth’s Principal Planning Officer. The planning committee previously received a paper from him outlining the potential issues surrounding the development of the site in June 2020. This is now the way that planning proposals work: developers work closely with Council Officers on projects. One can see the benefits of this. It means that developers get a lot of comments and criticism in advance of their formal submission and can take account of any reservations ahead of a formal hearing. Plans are developed collaboratively.

There is a disadvantage as well. Planning departments are essentially co-opted by developers and cease to be neutral judges of any new scheme. By the time the project came to be assessed by the planning committee, the senior planning officer had become not so much an impartial judge giving advice to the committee, but its advocate. He concluded his presentation by pointing out that the new scheme would create more than 4,000 new jobs in Lambeth, a council which has a great deal of urban poverty.

The scheme was then considered by the seven members of the Planning Committee. One of them, Councillor Mohammed Seedat said of the scheme:

It’s obviously a Marmite design. Pretty much every building on that shoreline there has had negative comments including the National Theatre. It’s very clearly trying to distinguish itself from its newer glazed glass neighbours by trying to build upon heritage from [the] 60s and 70s. I remain on the bench about if it is a good or not good design.

It is true that the National Theatre was not at all popular when it was first completed, although it is now regarded as a building of exceptional architectural significance. For Councillor Seedat, as for the other councillors on the committee, the opportunity of creating 4,000 new jobs swung them in favour of the scheme, even though the space is likely to be occupied by big international corporations attracted by its proximity to Waterloo, not Brixton.

Following the presentation of the scheme, people appeared to object to it. A lawyer voiced opposition on behalf of the National Theatre which will be overlooked by the new development. A number of local residents complained about the loss of daylight. The scheme was passed by six votes to one and looks set to go ahead unless Sadiq Khan turns it down, which is unlikely, given his lack of obvious interest in London’s historic environment. He is likely to be influenced, as were the Lambeth councillors, by the jobs created.

New buildings pop up like tumours

A number of issues were conspicuously missing from this discussion as reported in the press. The most obvious is that this is a site of not just local interest, but London-wide importance. It is on the southern bank of the curve of the River Thames as it sweeps round from the Palace of Westminster to the Tower of London. It sits immediately opposite Somerset House and alongside the river path which thousands of people walk from the Royal Festival Hall to Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre.

The new building is on a simply massive scale. It must be roughly four times as large as the National Theatre and is certainly more than twice its height, even though the National Theatre is on a larger site. Worse, it is designed in a style which mimics it. 

It will dominate views of central London from all directions. You will see it prominently from Parliament Fields and Alexandra Palace in the north. It is larger than both the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead of London being still predominantly low-rise, dominated by buildings which have a traditional symbolic purpose, it is now turning into a version of Hong Kong or Shanghai. Vast new commercial developments line the river side, most like this new development: studiously characterless in design, just big for the sake of being big.

You could, of course, argue that the battle to save elements of the historic character of central London has been effectively lost. As massive new buildings and office developments rise in all corners of London from Canary Wharf to Wandsworth, particularly all the way along the south bank of the river from Westminster Bridge to the new city surrounding Battersea Power Station, there are no doubt many people who think that it is more important to keep London as a centre for foreign investment post-Brexit than trying to retain its historic character.

But the current government came to power promising to improve the quality of new architecture. It established the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It says it wants local councils to focus on beauty. Does it think this building is a good example?

The proposals to redevelop the old ITV site raise problems which have been evident in nearly all recent planning disputes.

All new building development is now looked at not in terms of London as a whole, but by the planning committees of local councils, who (for good reasons) do not pretend to be particularly interested in or concerned by the aesthetics of new design. They judge new building proposals purely in terms of financial returns, not how the building might contribute to the life of the street and the city. There is no consideration for how best to retain and develop London as a city with a mixed character which could and should be preserved. New buildings pop up like tumours all over the place without any regard for the whole.

Historic England, which is the public body concerned with historic preservation, appears to have lost an effective public voice and seems to lack confidence as to its proper role. It now includes property developer Richard Upton as a Commissioner, which would in the past have been regarded as a conflict of interest. The other Commissioners are more interested in issues of tourism and regeneration than historic preservation. Historic England should be leading discussions about London’s redevelopment and how to retain its historic character, instead of just commenting on a one-off basis from the side-lines.

The system of local councils offering pre-application advice surely suborns their independence and co-opts them as advocates for new development. They no longer judge schemes on the basis of their architectural as well as commercial character, free to object to final schemes when they are presented to the committee.

Given the huge scale of the development of the ITV site and its visual importance, Michael Gove (as the Secretary of State responsible for planning policy) should call in this scheme for review. He should consider its merits not just as a job creation scheme for Lambeth, but as a scheme which will affect the look and character of London as a whole.

At the same time, he should reflect on the current imbalance in the development space. The property development industry spends large sums on planning lawyers and PR consultants, manipulating the political system to their commercial advantage. There is no answering system for reflecting on and planning for London’s architectural character. 

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