Forty-two years ago a little known architect named Richard Seifert, acting for a provincial developer named Harry Hyams, obtained planning permission for an office tower with associated maisonettes, shops and showrooms at the junction of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road. The project, called at that time the Saint Giles Circus development, involved donating part of the site to the London County Council for a traffic circus in return for a plot ratio waiver that would permit the office tower to rise to an unprecedented 40 storeys, making it the tallest building in London. On completion the complex was christened Centre Point and for the next 15 years it remained vacant but steadily increasing in value - a symbol of the post-war property boom that began in 1945 with the redevelopment of London's bomb sites and ended with a ban on office building in London.
As a commercial venture Centre Point has always been considered a failure which - except in the value of the 152-year lease at a fixed rent that its architect wrung from the LCC planners - it still is, with its narrow floor plates and short floor to ceiling heights. But as the generator of the once awesome reputation of its architect it must be accounted a singular success. Once notorious, Centre Point is now a listed building and not even Richard Seifert's greatest achievement, the NatWest Tower of 1970, can be said to have spread his fame further.
Richard Seifert was born on 25 November 1910 into a Swiss Jewish family that moved to London. His desire to become an architect came to him early and in 1928 he won a scholarship to the Bartlett School of Architecture. In 1934, after an early apprenticeship as a trainee surveyor, he set up in practice on his own, designing a succession of north London speculative housing schemes in a traditional style. He first attracted attention as a designer in 1939 when he won second prize in the competition for a grand entrance to the Building Centre on Store Street.
Seifert served throughout the Second World War in the Royal Engineers and attained the rank of Lietenant Colonel, which gave him a nickname that followed him into the post-war world. After demobilisation he resumed practice in London. In 1947 he designed a factory for Rival Lamps, and in 1956 an imposing Neo-Classic building for Woolworths in Marylebone Road. But it was not until 1960 that his taste for spectacular Modernism emerged in the design of Tolworth House on the the Kingston bypass, a 22-storey reinforced concrete office building in an Anglicised version of the sweeping style of Oscar Niemeyer. The equally expressive circular Space House off the Kingsway followed in 1962, and then came Centre Point. Both Space House and Centre Point were prefabricated in polished precast concrete made with white cement which, in the case of Centre Point, produces a powerful impression of glowing marble when seen, as it can be to advantage, from the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street in low winter sunlight.
In the wake of Centre Point, Seifert's commercial commissions became larger and spread not only to provincial cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham but overseas as well. So successful was he at negotiating with planners that he accumulated critics, notably in the Royal Fine Art Commission. At one time he became convinced that the commission was advising local authorities to discourage clients from employing his office, and he made no secret of this belief. Whether or not this was true, popular and bureaucratic opposition did conspire to delay his work. Nonetheless, it was the fame generated by Centre Point that gave Seifert the opportunity to design the NatWest tower.
The original developer of the tower was a now defunct bank called the National Provincial. Both it and its successor, the National Westminster, really wanted a boxy ninestorey building on the site, not a 50-storey skyscraper. But in the 1960s the City of London planners were not in favour of groundscrapers. At that time they wanted a Manhattan skyline. When Seifert was appointed architect for the project in 1968, he broke through a 10-year planning logjam by trading site area on the ground for floorspace in the sky, as he had at Centre Point.
Completed in 1981, Seifert's NatWest Tower, engineered by Pell Frischmann, was the tallest unbraced building in the world. Its 50 office floors, served by double-decker lifts, housed 2,500 office workers in computercontrolled comfort. Outside their windows a patent automatic screenwasher system worked to keep 2,000m 2of glass cladding clean. But by the mid-1980s it was clear that the NatWest Tower's office floors were too small and too close together for the new American-style electronic financial services.
During 50 years in practice, Seifert built more London buildings than Sir Christopher Wren and, arguably, had as great an effect upon the city skyline. At the height of his powers he employed a staff of 400 and by the end of his career had designed more than 500 buildings. In the end he lived long enough to defeat the fickle finger of fate. In 1993 his former opponents in the Royal Fine Art Commission called for the listing of Centre Point out of respect for its 'elegance worthy of a Wren steeple'.