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Architect defends plans to demolish London's 'best visual joke'


The architect behind plans to flatten a ‘tatty shop front’, described by Ian Nairn as ‘one of the best visual jokes in London’, has hit back at critics of the proposals

Buckley Gray Yeoman wants to pull down the remains of Spiegelhalter’s jewellers shop – a ‘holdout unit’ which splits the two Neoclassical wings of the former Wickhams department store in Mile End Road – as part of a new office-led redevelopment.

The Wickhams built the shop in the 1920s in the expectation that the Spiegelhalter family business of clockmakers would eventually sell up. But the Spiegelhalters refused, leaving the ‘plucky little structure’ as a ‘powerful and evocative symbol of East End indomitability’ for almost a century.

Now the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society are urging the public to sign a petition urging Tower Hamlets Council to locally list the building and halt Resolution Properties’ plans for the site.

But Matt Yeoman of Buckley Gray Yeoman has defended the scheme, saying that the two ‘sculptural shards that would replace the two-storey shop front, creating a new entrance, would pay homage to the Spiegelhalters’ resistance.

He told the AJ: ‘The Spiegelhalter story is absolutely key to our design. We have totally embraced that David and Goliath stance which the building represents.

‘We want that void to be at the heart of our development. With this Cor-ten artwork we can be slightly more sophisticated in telling this story.’

He added: ‘Of course, the counterargument is that there is no better symbol of this battle than keeping the existing building. But we say it can be commemorated in a contemporary way.

‘And frankly there is nothing left of that building other than its front wall and four openings. It is empty behind – you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the street.’   

More than 1,300 people have already signed the petition against the scheme, which includes a 1,500m² extension on top of the existing 9,300m² block.

Victorian Society conservation adviser Sarah Caradec said: ‘Spiegelhalter’s is not in itself the most architecturally important building. However, in its context it is not only amusing but it tells an important story about Whitechapel’s development.

‘Tower Hamlets should add Spiegelhalter’s to its local list, and do everything in its power to ensure that this building continues to tell its story to future generations.’

Spiegelhalter, East End - January 2015

Spiegelhalter, East End - January 2015

Ian Nairn on Spiegelhalter’s in Nairn’s London (1966):

‘Messrs Wickham, circa 1920, wanted an emporium. Messrs Spiegelhalter, one infers, wouldn’t sell out. Messrs Wickham, one infers further, pressed on regardless, thereby putting their Baroque tower badly out of centre. Messrs Spiegelhalter (‘The East End Jewellers’) remain; two stucco’d storeys, surrounded on both sides by giant columns à la Selfridges.

‘The result is one of the best visual jokes in London, a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won’t conform. May he stay there till the Bomb falls.’


Readers' comments (5)

  • The front wall and four openings are the elements that maintain the joke. "Celebrating it in a contemporary way" could also be a joke. Just not so funny.

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  • chris Dyson

    One is left wondering... what if rather than a modern building hiding behind the emporium the gap was plugged... rather like a dental implant?

    A positive gesture and a contemporary take on the distinguished emporium elevation IE bronze / cast metal cast columns and frieze to match the existing?

    In this way the story would survive as one would wonder why it is so and learn by questioning ...the existing situation has been a blighted building for many years.

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  • I agree wholeheartedly with Chris Dyson, using bronze or cast metal columns and frieze would be a significant improvement on what is a very shabby frontage

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  • Richard Griffiths

    The unique aspect of Messrs Wickham's emporium is that the story can be read architecturally. The cornice on the left is toothed ready to receive its anticipated continuation. By the time the right hand part was built, one infers, they had given up trying to buy out Spieglehalter's little jewellery shop, and the cornice is returned on itself in a gesture of architectural despair.
    The ensemble deserves to be retained just as it is as a monument to the defeat of architectural ambition by the man on the street.

    Richard Griffiths

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  • Such a shame if the little house goes. Tower Hamlets should CPO it for social enterprise below and affordable housing over. And/or the developers need to see it as a fantastic story, PR on a plate, rather than a problem and a hindrance.

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