Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Some of these will stand immediately north of the Broadgate Tower and 201 Bishopsgate as development steps over Worship Street, the next road beyond Primrose Street, to fill another block. Hammerson rather than British Land own this area, however, bringing an end to the expansion of the Broadgate estate. A portion was acquired from Hackney council and collapsed bankers Lehman Brothers’s build option was also bought out in order to consolidate a larger plot. A pair of towers is intended, to be called Bishops Place and comprising offices, a hotel and flats. A campaign to preserve and incorporate the premises of the Light Bar, a pleasant 19th century generating station on the site, attracted media coverage in the mid-2000s.
 
Bishops Place will be a significant development, but there are two more potential sites in the area, both also owned by Hammerson, that will eclipse even this.

Immediately to the east lies the triangular Nicholls & Clarke site, defined by Shoreditch High Street, Commercial Street and Folgate Street and currently filled with attractive Georgian terraces and warehouses. A mixed-use scheme is suggested, without towers, but this is only a prelude.

With Nicholls & Clarke as a fulcrum, Hammerson’s proposals now curve around to the east to face the biggest prize of all: Bishopsgate goods yard.

A vast, truncated leg of mutton in shape, this former Victorian freight handling, shipping and storage depot was built on hundreds of metres of brick arch viaduct running out to the east and the docks beyond. It is – or was – one of London’s forgotten industrial heritage jewels. Converted from a passenger terminus rendered defunct by the opening of Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate goods yard filled three levels with a maze of rail lines, hydraulic wagon hoists and warehousing, and handled fish, fruit and vegetables. With its endless perimeter walls and closed nature, the yard was a mystery to many and a barrier to public permeability stretching for acres. In operation until the 1960s, dereliction followed a fire and the staggered closure of London’s Thames-side docks.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, plans were put forward to join up the capital’s discrete overland rail routes to create a long-awaited ‘outer Circle line’ of suburban mainline services. Demolition of the entire Bishopsgate goods yard was envisaged to facilitate the rebuilding of Shoreditch station on the old East London Line. With a listed section of the yard’s viaduct threatened and English Heritage objecting, a public enquiry followed before final approval was given to demolish all but this section. The new Shoreditch High Street station, built in an elevated concrete box running along the northern edge of the goods yard, opened in 2010 as part of the London Overground. The box design, though featuring decorative striations on its exterior, appears stark and is in fact intended to be enclosed by future building works, as was planned with City Thameslink station at Ludgate in the City of London.

With the new rail link in place and the goods yard already part-demolished, Hammerson now envisages placing a staggering 650,300 square metres – 7 million square feet – of new development across the site, including several large towers.

A 2009 Draft Interim Planning Guidance document from Tower Hamlets provides details of that borough’s own masterplan for the site. It calls for re-connecting the goods yard to the surrounding streets and opening up the site to community uses, but crucially also endorse towers as part of the architectural solution.

A combination of knotty below-ground structures, a strategic London view corridor from St Paul’s passing to either side of the central section of the site and local view desire lines has these corralled in the western centre of the site where they would permit the signalling of “the northern gateway from Shoreditch to the City with a key landmark building.” The Tower hamlets plan further explains that topography means there are “extensive linear views into the City Fringe along many of the key routes, for example Whitechapel Road, Mile End Road, Commercial Road and Kingsland Road. 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) appears at the end of many of these views, marking the transition to the City of London. Tall buildings located on Bishopsgate Goods Yard could have a similar positive impact”.

It’s a bold strategy, without question, seeming to go against traditional conservation views and intuition, and may be seen as going with the inevitable rather than fighting it. Unsurprisingly, the wish for ‘regeneration’ is often stated in the document, although one wonders at what cost. Certainly the details given as to how tall buildings should relate to the heritage of the district seem a little forced.

And what of the architecture? Very few specifics have emerged as yet, with the firms attached – KPF, Foster + Partners, Allies & Morrison – remaining quiet. A wireframe image illustrating the impact from street level of the indicative designs for the entire Hammerson holding in the area has been published in the professional press, whilst the developer itself has released (but latterly hidden) a striking three-dimensional aerial rendering depicting low-, mid-rise and two super-high towers aligned with Tower Hamlet’s plan and snaking along the path of the goods yard.

By extruding the City through the tight streets and abandoned railway viaducts of Shoreditch, something like Paris’s La Defense will arise, it seems.

Digby Flower from Hammerson advisor CB Richard Ellis has been quoted as saying that this forms a logical continuum with Broadgate, through whose presence “the whole axis of the City changed, running from Bishopsgate down to the Bank of England, as opposed to concentric circles around the Bank.”

It’s a compelling vision, but only if you believe this is what the City needs. Other approaches are possible. Groundscrapers, on sites such as this or Smithfield, can provide considerable volume with far less impact, whilst deep but low-rise structures on riverfront sites currently blighted by the likes of Baynard House could do the same.

As it is, the escape from the Square Mile represented by these three putative City developments will, whatever the local authorities attempt to the contrary, demand a loss of urban grain and the continuing march of private/pseudo-public space to achieve. It’s not even likely the permeability of the goods yard site desired by the council will be fully realised, given the presence of the new station and the remains of the old.

A city needs variety, softness of form, variations in texture, scale and period in its buildings. New architecture can co-exist with old, but that old must be there in the first place. And the new cannot be wholly different.

With dockland creeping west, will it meet the City as that moves east?

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Terra incognita; the view north from Worship Street to the site of the proposed Bishops Place, with the threatened Light Bar to the right of centre. Below is the view east over the former Bishopsgate goods yard, here in the process of demolition to accommodate the new Shoreditch High Street station (unrecorded website)

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This remarkable image from Hammerson reveals the extent of its ambition in what is termed the City Fringe, whilst the model below – from a local campaign group's exhibition – gives a clear idea of the arc cut through the area by the Bishops Place and Bishopsgate goods yard developments

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