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Personal problems with Paternoster piece


Like a naughty boy letting off a squib on bonfire night when all have gone indoors, I am impelled to take issue with 'Squaring up' (AJ 30.10.03), heralding Paternoster Square in its new guise by Sir William Whitfield.

The history of this important London site since its devastation by bombing during the Second World War and its resurrection in the early 1960s by eminent planner Lord Holford with Trehearne & Norman was, contrary to the opinion of journalist Kenneth Powell, good both in urban design and architectural terms (see picture). Well-mannered and self-effacing, it would, I venture, have pleased Wren more certainly than Whitfield's, which in parts it resembles.

We need not worry, however, that Whitfield will have had any difficulties with CABE, for developer Stanhope (Sir Stuart Lipton - CABE's chairman) has been involved with the site since 1985. According to Lisa Jardine, in her superb biography of the architect (On a Grander Scale), Wren had trouble with critics - a CABE of his day? 'Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose'!

In his article - which, like the curate's egg, is good in parts - Powell also denigrates Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, famed for The Buildings of England and much else. This, and his dismissal of the 1960s, makes me wonder if he has joined the noisy claque busily running down buildings of that era.

He is, of course, correct in supposing that the square will continue to be windy and, in that respect, no more successful than its predecessor.

All of us must rejoice in the abandonment of the revivalist schemes, which crassly supposed they would be 'in keeping' with Wren's masterwork. Timid and banal, even in the 19th century they would have been howled down. In the 20th century and today, should any have been realised, we would have been the laughing stock of the Western world!

So where does this leave us, so far as Paternoster Square is concerned? In my judgement, with the destruction of a distinguished scheme that, with relatively modest expenditure on refurbishment, would have served a further term at least as long as that we now have. There is one plus for me: long an admirer of Whitfield's little gem in Whitehall, from Powell's profile I now know about its architect. By the way, the vent to the car park below the piazza is a 'column' not an 'obelisk'. It should be noted, too, that this necessity was handled unobtrusively in the now historical scheme, by incorporating it within the perimeter buildings.

Further on in your same issue, Swiss Re is illustrated. Its phallic form, which might be considered objectionable by those of a Mary Whitehouse persuasion, is an essay in bad manners. Perhaps in the days of his training Lord Foster might have come across Good and Bad Manners in Architecture by Trystan Edwards.

Written in 1923, it has much for us today. Monuments of unbridled commercialism, your picture shows how Swiss Re and its neighbour overwhelm the adjoining earlier buildings. Can we wonder that our true client, the man in the street, finds unacceptable much work by architects today? And of course, Swiss Re and its like impinge on the main subject of this letter:

Wren's St Paul's.

John Bancroft, Haywards Heath, Sussex

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