4 October 2020
On Wednesday more details of the proposed new City of London Law Courts building, police headquarters and commercial block by Eric Parry Architects were released on the consultation website, including photo-realistic CGI imagery, diagrams and text. Though undeniably welcome, additional information seems to have been provided only to the trade press and as in July’s announcement questions are prompted as often as they are answered for anyone seeking to meaningfully assess this major new scheme.
Its central element, the new courthouse, is still poorly illuminated. Just four CGIs have been provided, two of which match the viewpoints chosen for the drawings (probably by Parry himself) published in July. A third is encountered as a thumbnail illustration to the sustainability section before being seen at full size only on the feedback page; the last is merely a night-time version of the same picture. There is a ground floor plan of all three buildings and the associated landscaping and street furniture (note the line of bollards along Fleet Street, just as I predicted 18 months ago), and a new drawn aerial view of the scheme from the west. Renaming what was called the Fleet Street Estate project ‘the Salisbury Square Development’ suggests a change of emphasis that may explain these presentational decisions and other findings, as I’ll discuss.
The extent of building losses along Salisbury Court on the eastern edge of the site is now evident; both number 8 and 1 Salisbury Square on the south east corner will go. A “new public house” will be installed within the listed 2-7 Salisbury Court with an outdoor terrace stepping down to the square. This will be remodelled and, it is said, enlarged although without dimensions it’s impossible to tell, especially as Salisbury Court itself will be re-laid as a shared surface to blur the distinction between square, pavement and road. Flora will be dispersed rather than focussed as July’s “new public green”.
The east-west pedestrian routes between the new buildings are set out, although the axial perfection implied by the paving design is curious given the doorway of 2-7 Salisbury Court is not actually aligned with it and the spire and nave of St Bride’s. More seriously, the new commercial block will touch its pre-existing neighbour to the south of the square, whilst no replacement for the current (albeit blocked) passageway beneath the building it will replace is shown. These decisions – both of which I cautioned against in 2019 – run counter to an avowed wish to open up what was termed an “impermeable” site, and may imply a change in the target tenant. Indeed, all references to the commercial block having a retail component and encouraging movement toward the Thames have been removed from the website. What, then, of the new buildings themselves?
The courthouse does, as I noted in July, strongly echo the massing of the Reuters building next door, particularly at its upper levels. Lutyens’ masterpiece is clad in Portland stone and the court, too, will be sheathed in limestone. It will have “a substantial civic presence on Fleet Street”, the description asserts, though as it is seen only obliquely, cropped or at a distance in all of the images, this claim is virtually impossible to judge. The principal façade is somewhat facetted in plan, a gesture that emphasises the entrance, but it will have minimal articulation. Neither responds to the location. The overwhelming majority of buildings facing Fleet Street do so with flat frontages and most of these are highly modelled even if limited by the conventions of their era. As the courthouse is already dramatically wider than any other building on the street, this must be a concern. How, too, the building will be a “contemporary reworking of the historic civic buildings that pepper the Square Mile”, given the above and when no examples of that very wide chronological and stylistic spread of predecessors are cited, is also uncertain.
We are told that “public art at the base of the building will be commissioned and used to create a truly civic space”, but not how, whether this is inside or out nor to what degree it will be integrated with the architecture. True, there intriguing depressions visible in the granite plinth reminiscent of the great circular windows carved from polished black stone in the former Coutts bank building at nearby 188-190 Fleet Street (Anderson, Forster & Wilcox, 1963-7) as well as passages of what might be carving between the windows on an upper floor, but no other clues.
It’s worth noting that ‘civic’ is defined on the consultation website as a place with connections and art rather than one with inherent quality in its buildings. And repeating that, two years ago, the City announced this as the City’s “second iconic courthouse after the Old Bailey”. On the admittedly scant evidence supplied to date, it is difficult to agree with either statement.
At the rear (the south elevation), the oriels that I identified in my summer post are also confirmed and multiplied across the façade, giving a pleasantly Mid-Century feel recalling St George’s Hotel, Portland Place, London or Deans Court and Cumberland House, Crown Square, Manchester. Reference to “A large public entrance foyer” that will include a “processional” staircase validates the rest of my analysis of that same drawing, though in the CGI equivalent its curvature – if any there is – is much less pronounced. In stating that this stair’s presence will be “reflecting both the history and the importance of the building’s function” there is again no real substance, not least as few courthouses actually have such a stair.
There is an awkward reference to “the different courts – each jurisdiction with its own design requirements”. Justice system insiders will know that ‘jurisdiction’ in this context refers to the criminal, civil, family and tribunal arms of the law, and they do as I explained before have varying physical requirements within a building. With not a single interior image available, however, the exact impact on this design is not known, though the crown court hearing room option mentioned in 2019 but omitted in the summer is now firmly back in play.
There is confusion about the number of courtrooms it will contain – 18 is mentioned on the website, but 20 in the trade press – and it is a surprise to read that underground parking will be permitted, as this was banned in the 1990s’ court design guide. That it will be “resilient” is comforting and hopefully addressed my points about cyber security (it would be ironic if not, given the stated focus of the complex on this crime).
Moving to the City of London Police headquarters, the primary material here will weathering steel, broadly as I divined. Its surface oxidises on exposure to moisture but then stabilises, providing protection against further corrosion and its own finish. Usage here is justified by its “distinctive colour” that “complements the brick of the neighbouring listed building”, as well as notions of longevity. It is though tempting to speculate whether it also alludes to cell bars or even the oversized chains that once decorated the front of Newgate Gaol, located where the Old Bailey is today. Vertical planted ‘bays’ bring interest to the public alleys, as is becoming common in such developments.
It is far larger than initially suggested, with ten or eleven floors above ground depending on how they are counted that include a roof terrace and a greened hamper level that probably screens plant. Three additional storeys in the basement will no doubt house the reported firearms range, vehicle parking and custodial suite, not to mention the usefully imprecise “specialist spaces”. Also picked up from the media is the only structural contribution highlighted – a 24-metre clear span at ground floor to give a more visually clean lobby, though I wonder about the security aspects of this when considered in conjunction with a pedestrian alleyway immediately outside, not a great deal of ‘stand-off’ from Whitefriars Street to the west and the apparent lack of bollards or other hostile vehicle mitigation covering the approach from the square to the east. Slightly disingenuously, it would seem, a greened area off of Whitefriars Street that appears to be part of the public realm on the plan (which item is titled as such) is in fact overhung by the building’s upper floors and adjacent to the secure van dock entry.
Finally, the commercial block. Glimpsed in one of the images it will be shorter than the police building though with its own roof terrace and a façade “formed of panels of pressed unglazed terracotta, above a precast concrete base of a similar tone to the steel of the police headquarters.” Also emerging as a wider trend, it and the rest of the scheme will benefit from a ‘consolidated servicing’ hub located outside of the City of London.
That, then, is the plan as you and I can see it today. Feedback on July’s initial concepts has influenced the plans, apparently, and further comments are encouraged at this second stage before a planning application is submitted “later this year”. That being so, the lack of explicit details for the courthouse is even more puzzling, but taken together with the imagery bias toward the square and the other changes mentioned it is obvious that that central open space is now driving the scheme, almost to the exclusion of the rest and at least as far as the public consultation in concerned. Is this a welcome realignment that addresses the lack of public space in the City, especially in light of Covid-19? Perhaps. Might it reflect a certain nervousness at the security aspects of the project, or commercial concerns? Again, maybe.
For now, the last word is that of the developers: “If a consent is granted, our intention is to start on site in towards [sic] the end of 2021.” But when the planning application that seeks that consent is filed, it will be yours and mine.