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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Net zero sum game

A large, prominent commercial block on a major London street is to be demolished. The decision is criticised by professionals and campaigned against by charities as the carbon impact is significant, even without the architectural loss. Quickly called in by the secretary of state, a public enquiry is held to fight the rapacious developer… But unfortunately River Court on Fleet Street, a building barely twenty years old and designed with real consideration for its context, never got that level of attention and so will soon be knocked down in favour of one much bigger than Marks and Spencer Marble Arch. You should be asking yourself and your favourite architectural pressure group or writer why.

Marks and Spencer occupies a trio of buildings on the corner of Oxford Street and Orchard Street. None is aesthetically distinguished, the oldest was built nearly a century ago and the services, as I found out on a shopping trip just a few weeks ago when the men’s section (only) was not being cooled by hired-in aircon units, are failing. Oh, and watch your step as you move between sales areas on the same floor because the levels don’t align. Better architecture has been lost along Britain’s premiere shopping street alone in the last dozen years, and for bigger schemes – the hulking Park House, just across the road, for example, or the swathes of buildings swept away for Crossrail further east or even the new Primark near Tottenham Court Road. I didn’t see anyone moaning when all of these went up.

Just two and a half miles further on lies River Court, designed by Hurley, Robertson and Associates and opened in 2000 – yep, the Millennium – as part of the redevelopment of the historic Daily Express site. Replacing a crude extension of Owen Williams’ listed Moderne landmark from the Seventies, its white, rectilinear form is the quiet inverse of the Express (black, rounded) and so lets Williams's work breathe. With the whole project widely acclaimed, it jump-started the practice now known as JRA and brought a dusty old relic with no viable use back to life.

Unfortunately developer CO-RE, acting for owners Chinese Estates, have now hired architects Bjarke Ingles Group (shortening, highly appropriately, to BIG) to replace River Court in turn. BIG have designed an even larger building that will – at 21 storeys high – swamp Williams’s gem in a crude simulcra of itself far worse than that Seventies effort. As bad is that constructing this monster will require the complete demolition of a contemporary building designed with real care, which is perfectly usable today and indeed was fully tenanted by none other than Goldman Sachs until just before the pandemic. Oh, and it really is big: at 544,000sq ft, the new 120 Fleet Street it will be far larger than Marks and Spencer’s planned new building, designed by Pilbrow + Partners, whose office and retail space combined will only cover 430,000 sq ft.

And yet the BIG scheme was waved through the City of London planning process last autumn with barely a whimper from anyone with clout, despite objections from local businesses, residents and others (including, in the interests of full disclosure, me). Certainly no-one moaned at the devastating carbon impact of flattening a building so massive and that didn’t exist as we all sung Auld Lang Syne in 1999, nor at the loss of its considered and carefully specific architecturally form.

In a zero sum game, one side’s gain equals the other’s loss for a net benefit of zero. It seems that in the war to stop overdevelopment and the associated carbon disbenefits, unless those gifted with the weapons to fight chose the right battles, it’ll soon be game over.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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