Hit or Swiss?
Leicester Square is not one of central London's distinguished public spaces. Rather, it shares some of the tackiness of Oxford Street, and the crowds. Up to 250,000 people a day can pass through the square, enough to populate a medium-sized town. Why do they come? In the absence of definitive research, it looks to be a mix of reputation (allegedly the heart of theatre/cinemaland), its position as a node on routes to many tourist destinations, and its rarity. Central London has few pedestrian open spaces, apart from the parks. Almost every square is a traffic loop with gardens in the centre that are either private or whose planting leaves little space for public life. While improvements have been made to Trafalgar Square nearby, the traffic remains inescapable.
Leicester Square is part-defined by its tightly encircling buildings in multiple use - shops, cafés, hotels, offices and cinemas - and in multiple ownership. Change has to work progressively with owners and their interests. Transforming the public realm needs to be more than an essay in hard landscape, as local authority Westminster is well aware, though there have been radical landscape plans in the pipeline from EDAW. Westminster is seeking to steer future developments up-market, away from the 'Ibiza culture' of drinking and clubs to a more family-friendly venue, with outdoor cafes and the like.
Into this mix, seeking planning permission, come developer British Land and architect Avery Associates with plans for replacing the 1968 Swiss Centre, located in the north-west corner of the square, but very much of it. The Swiss Centre was designed to promote Swiss trade and tourism, a purpose the building has now lost. Today it hardly works as a building, with typically 1960s shallow floor-to-floor heights and constricted floor plates, in podium and tower form.
One shallow upper floor includes a cinema of sorts. The basement has three levels of parking. Urbanistically, it offers little. On two faces - Leicester Street and Lisle Street - it turns its back, closed up, where it meets Chinatown. And it is half-heartedly open on Wardour Street. Only the retail unit (with dated ceiling heights and steps in and out) addresses the square.
A key constraint on redevelopment is the strategic-view corridor between Parliament Hill and the Palace of Westminster. Topography around the square would require a development height limit of 25.5m above ground to protect these views. But as the photomontage shows, many nearby buildings (shown red) infringe this, some of them listed. The new proposal was negotiated in height up to a 'tolerance level' of 38m, in line with some neighbours, as the price of renewal, with the removal of the existing 53m tower part of the discussions.
Using most of the existing footprint (some space is given up to the public alongside the square), this and its height define a volume.
To reduce its bulk, the block is curved at the corners and tapered in section. And the repetitive stepped cladding of downward projecting shading, like an external Venetian blind (that could incorporate photovoltaics), and inward-sloping glazing between, at four repeats per floor, gives a scalelessness.
For building occupants this glazing looks down into the life of the square; if you do not want to be part of this there are cheaper office locations nearby. Internally, the plan is for a basement cinema, two levels of retailing - with one entrance facing into the square - and six levels of offices, plus rooftop plant, 14,000m 2 gross.
This is the most interesting thing to be offered to the square for a long time.
Whether it is to be part of Westminster's future picture, the planning committee will soon decide.