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Westminster savages Ellis Williams' Pimlico scheme

Westminster City councillors stunned Ellis Williams Architects last week by branding its scheme for a new Pimlico School reminiscent of the ‘outskirts of Warsaw’ and ‘Minimalist rubbish’. They delivered the ‘pathfinder’ pfi initiative to demolish and rebuild the 1970 school plus 169 luxury flats a serious and costly blow by overturning the planners and demanding a total redesign.

The meeting, last Thursday night at Westminster City Hall, had Pimlico top of the agenda because of its controversy and because most of the packed public gallery had come to hear the fate of the building. But, after presentations of the design of the new building and the contentious slated ‘Cubitt’- style, extremely dense, residential tower proposals, Conservative ward councillor Kit Malthouse swung the meeting by attacking the architect’s designs. ‘A lot of hard work has been put in to come up with a scheme which is acceptable to the local community,’ he said, ‘but that objective has obviously not been achieved.’

He attacked Ellis Williams’ proposals for the school building as ‘at best mediocre but probably poor’, and the housing design which he felt was ‘not in sympathy with its surroundings’. He also criticised potential effects on traffic and disabled access and poured scorn on the potential loss of 19 trees. ‘It is indicative they’re not meeting the council’s tree officer until tomorrow,’ he said. The bulk and layout of the main building is ‘extremely inflexible’, as is the location of the building on the site, and the architect had done little to reflect or enhance surrounding conservation areas. Neither did it do much to retain the openness of the original, he added.

Malthouse said he was opposed to permission being granted to the scheme, but accepted the need for a new school. ‘It’s not an attractive building and is deteriorating with time.’ Neither was he convinced that refurbishment would work, as the building could well be ‘too far gone’. He also cautioned against the possibility of it being called in, saying that the decision should be made locally. The gol, meanwhile, is keeping a watchful eye on the scheme.

Conservative committee chair Alexander Nicholl agreed with these views and added that he was unhappy with details above the parapet level. Fellow Conservative committee member Harvey Marshall added: ‘The last time I saw a building like this, it was on the outskirts of Warsaw.’

English Heritage also chimed in with criticisms of the scheme in a late letter which stated, surprisingly, that the building ‘could now be considered for listing at Grade II since it was 30 years old’ - even though the dcms claims it has already rejected the building for that grade. Elsewhere in the letter, however, eh says that it is not opposed to redevelopment of the school, possibly as part of a repair and refurbishment scheme. It believes the flats to be of ‘insufficient quality, distinction and sensitivity’ to enhance the area, and ‘remains sceptical about the possibility of securing a successful development that seeks to incorporate both a substantially scaled new school and two large housing blocks on the site’. eh’s historic buildings and areas inspector Steven Robb also wrote that the housing ‘represents a deeply unhappy compromise between facsimile and contemporary architecture’ with a lack of detail, and distortion of Classical proportion. He recommends a ‘facsimile approach to St George’s Square’ and a ‘freer, contemporary approach to Chichester Street’.

John Tibbitts, general manager of the St George’s Square Partnership bidding to build the pfi scheme, said he was ‘disappointed’ at the setback, which he estimated would add eight to 12 weeks to the timetable because of the extra consultation on any changes. ‘But we’re regrouping and remain fully committed to the scheme,’ he said.

Engineering awards honour some architectural gems

Some of the world’s best buildings, from Chek Lap Kok airport to a glass reading room and a 330m-high tower, have been hailed in the Institution of Structural Engineers awards held last week.

Foster and Partners’ Hong Kong international airport, where Ove Arup & Partners worked on the roof and envelope and Mott MacDonald on the concrete superstructure and foundations, was commended for a special award.

A structural achievement commendation went to Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners’ glass reading room for the Arab Urban Development Institute in Riyadh. London’s Nabil Fanous Architects worked on the laminated-glass portal frames with friction-grip connections.

Other winners included the conical Landmark Theatre in Ilfracombe, designed by Tim Ronalds Architects with engineering by Harris & Sutherland (pictured). The 200m Flintshire Bridge over the Dee Estuary in North Wales, engineered by Gifford Graham & Partners with architectural advice from Percy Thomas Partnership, was also singled out.

A winning 13-year project, the Guild Hall Yard East, was built on top of an undisturbed Roman amphitheatre designated an Ancient Monument. Oscar Faber described the work as ‘like building on top of Stonehenge’. The architects were D Y Davies Associates, and later W S Atkins Associates. Awards also went to Auckland’s Sky Tower, a 334m-high observation and telecoms building, engineered by Beca Carter Hollings & Firmer with architect Craig Craig Mollar. A 100m-diameter exhibition dome in Sydney by Ove Arup & Partners and architect Anchor Mortlock Woolley was also praised.

The institution’s gold medal went to Professor Frederick Michael Burdekin of umist’s civil and structural engineering department, for research into fracture and fatigue of welded-steel structures.

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