English Heritage chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens has infuriated architect Will Alsop and ruffled the feathers of construction minister Nick Raynsford by issuing an extraordinary demand for Sir Norman Foster's Greater London Authority headquarters proposals to be chosen in preference to Alsop's rival Bloomsbury scheme.
Stevens last week approved a press release featuring his extensive criticisms of Alsop's scheme and undiluted praise for Foster's London Bridge City proposals, even though the detr panel meeting to choose between the two has not yet made its final announcement. Raynsford, the chairman of the panel, is understood to be furious about Stevens' pronouncements on what may now appear as a fait accompli. The detr would not say whether eh had been 'cautioned' but admitted: 'We've made it very clear to Will Alsop that in respect of eh's views absolutely no decision has yet been taken.'
Stevens told the aj that the detr had specified that neither the Royal Fine Art Commission nor eh should publicly support either of the two proposals before the end of the consultation period, hence the timing of this latest release. However, an earlier press release in December, which Stevens said he was 'quite pleased with' for the way it 'did not favour one or the other', was headed 'The gla must have a landmark building' - a scarcely veiled reference to Foster's scheme - and said eh 'warmly welcomed using the brownfield site', with only a passing reference to Bloomsbury.
Stevens said his preference for Foster's scheme had been made public because the consultation period had now lapsed. He was adamant that his statements in the latest press release were 'absolutely well within the remit' of the government agency. But he launched an unprecedented assault on the differing merits of the two proposals.
'What Foster's done is designed a building for a vacant site,' he told the aj. 'Alsop's taken a listed building and altered it in a way we felt to be fundamentally flawed. As far as I'm concerned English Heritage is not a fighter of new excellent buildings - we don't say that all historic buildings must be surrounded by historic buildings. This is a new exercise - we're looking for the heritage of the future.'
In the release Stevens is quoted as saying that Alsop's scheme contradicts government planning guidance in ppg15 in neither preserving nor enhancing the appearance of the conservation area it sits in. He called it a 'most extraordinary scheme', which completely alters the integrity of the existing building across the public highway and alters the character of Bloomsbury Square. 'It took a quite distinguished listed building and completely and utterly mucked it up - the principal elevation is totally obscured by strange structures and the impact on Bloomsbury Square was to turn it into a kind of matchstick fairground. It was taking an old building and making it quite ugly.'
However, the rfac says that the Alsop scheme is on a 'highly suitable' site accessible by public transport, in marked contrast to the Foster proposal. Foster's scheme, said Lord St John of Fawsley, brought forth 'serious concerns' including the 'mistake' of intruding into St Paul's height limits; possible solar gain; and the way it presents its back to those approaching it.
It is not the first time Alsop and the eh chairman have clashed - Stevens once branded Alsop's Blackfriars station scheme 'a giant condom'. In the case of the Bloomsbury scheme, Alsop said Stevens had only seen an incomplete version, in November. He said that Stevens had 'overstepped the mark', calling his latest criticisms 'clearly biased', 'over the top' and 'none of the chairman's business', and is consulting his lawyers on the issue.
Stevens also criticised the procurement process chosen by the government for the gla building as 'not ideal' and 'unusual', adding that it should have chosen a site - he would still have opted for London Bridge City - and then held a competition to find the architect.
Ironically, if Alsop's scheme is not chosen, the developer, Blackfriars Development Trust, may well turn to its idea for a hotel on the site - which already has listed building consent from eh, involving substantial alterations.