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How 5 Broadgate could still be a good neighbour

Aesthetics become a matter of opinion when it comes to the business of architecture, writes Christine Murray

You can criticise the design of Ken Shuttleworth’s 5 Broadgate, as many of you have done via the AJ website. (‘Abysmal. PFI hospital comes to Broadgate,’ comments Andy Bramwell. ‘If this is supposed to be the future, God help us!!! Truly hideous!’ adds Richard Mullins.)

But you cannot argue with the success of Shuttleworth’s practice, Make, in winning this commission. They have designed a low-energy building with the ‘total support’ of both a high-calibre client and CABE, and have won planning permission for the significant and radical redevelopment of a prominent swathe of London.

Aesthetics are reduced to a matter of opinion when it comes to the business of architecture. It is difficult to challenge success without sounding like sour grapes. If Make has a happy client in Swiss bank UBS, what does it matter if some people find the building ugly, or too big? In his exclusive interview with the AJ this week, Shuttleworth says, ‘The design reflects the values and aspirations of the client’. From a business perspective, that sounds like a job well done.

So where do aesthetics come in? Buildings of this scale are never private, especially when they sit next to Liverpool Street Station – a very public place. When creating mega-buildings, we expect projects to contribute to the urban fabric and our personal experience of the city. Every building makes its contribution to the greater urban project. 

Critics have seized upon the early visualisations of 5 Broadgate, in which the building appears as a hulking behemoth – a massive block out of scale with its surroundings, with stylised cut-outs expressing windows, balconies and stairs, but doing little to break down its scale. An easy target, according to Shuttleworth, who says critics are simply resistant to something new.

But from these glossy, overhead views, it is difficult to tell whether 5 Broadgate will effectively contribute to the city on the level that truly matters – the street. The new building cuts off a public pathway and blocks one end of Broadgate Circle. In making its contribution to the city, what happens on the ground floor of 5 Broadgate will matter most.

CABE’s design review expressed concerns about how 5 Broadgate’s ‘uninterrupted floorplate and lack of public access make it difficult to integrate into the surrounding grain’. For CABE, the building’s scale and facade seem less important than how it touches the ground.

The aesthetic argument regarding the massing and facade of 5 Broadgate is lost. But there is still time for Make to ensure the public realm of this building makes a generous contribution to the City. I suspect this would elicit more positive comments from the profession. In the words of Francis Salway, chief executive of Land Securities, speaking at last year’s BCO conference, ‘Let the public realm take some of the pressure off building design. Good street design makes architecture look better.’

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