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Contentious Hall McKnight plans set for approval

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Planners are set to approve a contentious scheme for King’s College London by Hall McKnight, which objectors say would ‘erode a significant element of glory’ from neighbouring Somerset House

The university has applied to demolish five historical buildings to create new facilities which it says are needed to maintain its position as a world-leading education institution.

A raft of heritage bodies have lodged objections to the scheme, which includes a new tower block, attacking the loss of the buildings and raising concerns about its potential effect on views including some from the famous Fountain Court at the grade I-listed Somerset House.

However, a planning report which will go before a planning committee at Westminster City Council next week says: ‘Whilst the proposals do cause some harm in terms of the loss of the unlisted buildings of merit and the impact of the “tower” on views from Fountain Court, it is considered that this harm is less than substantial to the heritage assets affected.

‘[This] degree of harm caused is considered slight and is outweighed by the public benefits of the scheme.’

The application would see the demolition of a number of properties, designated as’unlisted buildings of merit’ within Westminster’s Strand Conservation Area.

Planners said that the applicants had rejected the option of retaining the façades of these buildings because additional storeys required would cause design problems. The application also proposes the removal of two grade II-listed buildings, while retaining their facades.

Clementine Cecil, director of campaign group SAVE Britain’s Heritage said: “The character of central London depends on a balance between large institutional and commercial buildings and smaller scale buildings on narrow plots.

‘These buildings are in an important conservation area. They contribute significantly to its specific character and must be retained.’

Cecil added: ‘These proposals will erode a significant element of Somerset House’s glory.’

The Somerset House Trust also said that one of the proposed replacement buildings would ‘adversely affect the setting of the Somerset House listed buildings’ while the Victorian Society said it had ‘strongly objected’ to the scheme, arguing that the ‘damaging plan will lead to a ‘blander London’.

In response to comments on the application, Hall McKnight has amended the scheme, increasing the amount of Portland stone used in order to mitigate the visual impact, as well as reducing the amount of glass used, to reduce glare.

Planners also dismissed objections relating to loss of daylight from the neighbouring Courtauld Institute of Art, saying ‘the impact on neighbouring properties is not considered sufficient to justify a refusal on planning grounds’.

English Heritage (now known as Historic England) is supporting the scheme, saying that its benefits outweigh the loss of significance caused by the demolition of the unlisted buildings.

The council’s planning committee will vote on the application on Tuesday (21 April) and Hall McKnight, which won the project following a competition in 2012, said it would not comment on the proposals until after the meeting.

Earlier in the year, Kings College released this statement about the proposals: ‘We are very proud of our heritage and are sensitive to the architecturally significant environment in which we operate at the heart of London.  At present, too many of our greatest historic assets – such as the Chapel and the Anatomy Museum – are hidden away and the various buildings which make up the campus are difficult to navigate and not fit for teaching, research or public engagement activity.

We intend to continue to engage throughout the process

‘We aim to develop the Strand Campus into a welcoming, flexible and connected hub for staff and students, the public and our partners across the arts, science, public policy and legal arenas.  Ahead of submitting our planning application we held numerous meetings and follow up discussions with neighbouring cultural organisations, local businesses, politicians and heritage organisations, as well as hosting a public exhibition. We took all the feedback we received on our draft plans into consideration before submitting our final application.

‘We intend to continue to engage throughout the process with all those who have a shared interest in the future of the Strand Campus.’

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Readers' comments (2)

  • How can heritage impact be 'slight' if the heritage in question is going to be demolished. I don't think harm gets more substantial than that.

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  • This reminds me of the bad old days in Edinburgh, when the university did so much damage to the character of George Square - assisted by the clout of big-name architects - but I thought that we'd moved on from the attitudes that prevailed in the 1960s. Maybe not.

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