Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Centre Point

It’s unfortunate that the architectural quality of one of London’s truly iconic, most effective and stylish pieces of 1960s International Modernism continues to be overshadowed (pun intended) by memories of the controversy of its planning and non-occupation throughout much of the following decade.

By the mid-1950s, traffic volumes in the booming post-war West End were already becoming intolerable. In July 1956, the LCC, planning authority for the capital, decided to address this problem at the increasingly busy junction of Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, New Oxford Street, St Giles' High Street and Charing Cross Road by building a roundabout.

After difficulties with acquiring the land required, developer Harry Hyams intervened and offered to buy the site for the LCC’s use in exchange for planning permission to erect a tower. Faced with complex leases and multiple owners, the LCC agreed. The deal is often viewed as inappropriate as it occurred at a time when the sale of planning permission was prohibited and days before additional legislation was passed making the obtaining of permission on land one did not own illegal as well.

Hyams’ architect, Richard Seifert, through partner George Marsh, designed a scheme featuring the second-highest tower in London. It would be called Centre Point (note the correct style), as the site sat at the junction of three London post codes.

The application was granted late in 1959 but Hyams’s land acquisition was not completed until early 1962, when the LCC signed a lease on favourable terms. Detailed design continued throughout this period, and construction was completed in 1966.

The 35 storey, 121m (398 feet) tower which resulted was in fact only the most visible element of a larger complex. This also comprised a bank; a low-rise block at right angles containing more offices, a pub, duplex apartments and retail units; a two-storey glazed bridge link spanning Sutton Row and connecting the two blocks; and a landscaped plaza including a blue mosaic pool with fountains in front of the tower.

This was given a rectangular plan with slightly convex long sides, reminiscent of Gio Ponti’s contemporaneous Pirelli Tower in Milan. It was built with deeply-modelled, inverted Y-shaped, pre-cast concrete mullion pieces which formed the façade treatment and also acted to bear part of the structural load. The tower was supported on Seifert’s favourite geometrically-shaped piers, here pinched in at their centres and sheathed in dark mosaic.

At the summit, an open top floor below an undulating canopy whose rhythm carefully matched that of the façade below assertively displayed the building’s name in vast letters on each long side, facing squarely north and south.

In the year that Centre Point was finished the Ministry of Transport announced a new road flow system for London. Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road were made one-way streets, which in turn meant the roundabout was not needed. The tower remained empty for years since the capital appreciation at the time far outweighed rental income, aided by the fact that an un-let building was not liable for rates. Thus began a near-unbroken string of negative press coverage whose ghost still haunts the streets of Soho.

And yet viewed purely as architecture and an expression of its time, Centre Point is superb. It is 1960s ‘carchitecture’ through and through, a heroic structure clearly designed to be seen from afar and driven around/through/under rather than approached on foot, as evidenced by the infamously mean pavement to Charing Cross Road and as seen elsewhere in London at for example Procter House in Holborn and Neathouse Place in Victoria.

But although the dramatic tower is by far the best known aspect of the building, it is the street level aspects of Centre Point that are in many ways the most interesting.

The ground floor of the tower was originally entirely open around its structural core, with entrance exclusively at first floor level. An off-centre ‘box’ projects forward of the tower asymmetrically here, finished in vertical slats, and the floor is finished in a highly distinctive, deeply contrasting white-on-black mosaic pattern (also found at the dramatically-articulated house Marsh built for himself to the north of London).

This entrance level is reached by open-tread stairways to the north and south. Although the latter is the ‘front’ of the centre, and despite the later construction of a subway entrance to Tottenham Court Road underground station below effectively continuing the pedestrian journey from the tube up into the building, it is the northern stair which appears to have been the principal entrance to judge from the attractive abstract relief panels in the vestibule. Given the 1960s love of technology and a mechanised, computerised future, one wonders whether direct lift connection to the station was ever considered.

Around the north side, then, sits the low-rise mixed use block. A carefully variegated effect sees the lower levels finished with windows set within deeply punched, vertically staggered concrete reveals, whilst the upper residential levels have boxed-out balconies and much glass. This includes fully glazed stairwells at the ends, whose elevations are creased, echoing those on the tower in one of several subtle reflections throughout the building.

Time has changed Centre Point in many ways. In a major refurbishment in 2002-03, Gaunt Francis Architects enclosed the open area below the tower to create a new entrance at ground level. A more radical design, in which the recesses for stairways on its short elevations were to have been filled with additional lifts, was mercifully abandoned.

The bank which once sat at the foot of the tower seems to have lost its mosaic by Jupp Dernbach-Mayen, whose work also featured at Sandersons just off Oxford Street.

Finally, work to rebuild Tottenham Court Road station for Crossrail commenced in early 2009, resulting in the demolition of the pool and its triple-tined-Y-shaped fountains. This entire area will be replaced with new glass entrance pavilions to the station on a paved plaza.

And yet although the slim tower appears too slim for cost-effective occupation these days, its floors – enhanced with raised voids and suspended ceilings – are being let. Lift cores at each end allow running of a local/express service pattern to speed access to the higher levels. Astonishingly, though, the original wood-framed windows remain throughout, and they are also single glazed.

The open top floor has never been used as a public viewing gallery, but thanks to the presence of Paramount, who run it as a bar in conjunction with their restaurant on the next level down, there is now an enclosed counterpart on the floor immediately below that is accessible. Floor to ceiling windows that wrap around the entire perimeter – the only ones in the tower thanks to a lack of spandrel panels on this floor – provide unobstructed views of London from the most central tall building in the capital.

Though hampered today by the very vehicular traffic that it was clearly designed to sit comfortably within, Centre Point – grade II listed – is the very essence of 1960s cool. Had it been stranded like a hovering sculpture above a wide open piazza, it might have seemed remote and even Fascistic; as it is, standing on tip toe in its snazzy Carnaby Street suit above the dark Georgian and Victorian clutter of Soho, the tower is an elegant, attractive, funky building that to many Londoners is the West End, along with the nearby Post Office and Euston towers.

Those infamously-sporadic concrete flower fountains will be missed, though...

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Aspects of Centre Point (fountain image: skyscrapercity user TomTack)

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