PROFILE: Westminster Council’s deputy leader Robert Davis talks to Will Hurst about his views on skyscrapers and why the Paddington Pole morphed into a cube
As Westminster City Council’s head honcho when it comes to architecture, planning and development, it’s fair to say Robert Davis’s stance on tall buildings has confused a few people in recent months. Notwithstanding the fact that the powerful local authority has spent most of the past 30 years blocking almost every skyscraper plan to come its way, Davis – who is deputy leader and its longest-serving councillor – was also an early signatory to the capital’s Skyline campaign.
Back in March 2014 when the AJ and The Observer launched the campaign, Davis publicly agreed that the capital’s tall buildings were ‘out of control’ and that many of the new towers on the horizon were ‘hugely prominent and grossly insensitive to their immediate context and appearance on the skyline’. The following year though, he gave his backing to a radical plan within Westminster’s boundaries for what would have been one of the largest and most controversial skyscrapers in living memory.
The 72-storey ‘Paddington Pole’ – from the Renzo Piano/Sellar Properties dream team and billed as west London’s answer to the Shard – was unveiled last October but then pulled from planning in February following a huge public backlash led by Barbara Weiss’s ongoing Skyline campaign plus opposition from the likes of Terry Farrell and Historic England. The project has since been substantially revised as an office-led, rather than residential-led, building, which now takes the form of an 18-storey cube.
So what on earth’s been going on? Meeting the Cambridge-educated councillor in his rather quirky office at Westminster City Hall, which is adorned with pictures of himself alongside the great and good, he swiftly acknowledges that both he and Sellar seriously underestimated the public hostility to a building of this height.
‘We misjudged the fact that people were appalled by the idea of this massively tall building,’ he says. ‘People could see it from all over west London and we realised straight away that this was not popular at all – people were offended by it.’
But given Davis helped launch the Skyline campaign, should this really have come as a surprise? Isn’t he saying one thing and doing the exact opposite?
‘What I was against was the tall buildings that threaten the historic city,’ he calmly counters, explaining that he campaigned against David Chipperfield’s Elizabeth House at Waterloo because it will ‘dwarf’ views of Big Ben and had similar reasons for opposing other tall buildings in Nine Elms.
‘I have no problem with the Shard because it didn’t affect these historic views, yet has brought regeneration. The Paddington tower was also going to bring something iconic and it was worth exploring whether that was a sensible thing to do.’
Renzo piano paddington
Some may question whether it was worth exploring, given the months of effort and money spent on a scheme that went nowhere but Davis is determined to see the positives. He reveals that Westminster is now planning a public consultation on tall buildings this autumn, explaining that he’s still unsure of the exact reasons people objected so strongly to the Paddington Pole. He says some residents moaned about the foreign buyers they expected to snap up the flats and muses on whether this factor is influencing views on skyscrapers. He is excited by the new plan, which is also being worked on by Shard project architect and former Renzo staffer William Matthews, and says it will bring to the area all the regeneration benefits that the tower would have provided.
‘I call it the ice cube because it’s going to make Paddington the coolest place in London,’ he says with delight. ‘Sellar [originally] wanted to create a masterpiece building as famous and important as the Shard. This would game-change the area. Praed Street is not one of our better streets and one of the advantages of [the Sellar plan] is that the whole area can be changed.’
Davis explains that this includes major public realm improvements, including transforming the shabby entrance to Paddington Station, improving the retail and restaurant offer and – since the project changed from a ‘pole’ to a cube – upgrades to nearby St Mary’s Hospital.
‘Sellar is having to work with the hospital … this has become a larger plan and this area will become a whole new quarter.’
One architect, when told we didn’t like his design, smashed his model in front of us
Turning to architecture in general, Davis says he is planning to refresh the council’s design excellence initiative, which he originally launched between 2008 and 2010, to raise the bar on design quality. Since the launch, he believes the bar has slipped a little and planning officers are in danger of accepting design proposals that are merely ‘OK’.
He says: ‘Once again, I’m starting to see second-rate designs coming through. From this autumn, we’re going to be much tougher and hold workshops and lectures to bring together architects and developers. They need to realise that unless they give us exemplar architecture, we’ll have no hesitation in sending it back.’
I ask if this means signature architecture – not necessarily, Davis responds. ‘I do get excited by famous architects but a lot of lesser-known architects can be superb,’ he says, mentioning his admiration for Matt White, who worked at Make and Foster + Partners before setting up MATT Architecture in 2011 and going on to design a variety of schemes including the redevelopment of the former Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road.
Working with starchitects can also create problems – Davis chuckles as he recalls one awkward encounter at a planning meeting. ‘Certain architects out there can be very precious and there was one – whom I won’t name – who, when told we didn’t like his design, smashed his model in front of us. That is difficult to work with.’
Davis really won’t reveal the identity of the prima donna but divulges that they were ‘very famous’ and the incident took place a couple of years ago.
So, as model-smashing is a no-no, what’s the secret to getting Westminster and Davis on side?
‘We’re looking to engage,’ he says. ‘We have some of the highest qualified design officers who understand the issue of design and architecture in the context of Westminster, and we try to work together with architects.’
As the Paddington cube demonstrates, the council is also keen to promote office developments, not least because so much existing office space in the borough was flipped in recent years to become high-end residential units under permitted development rules.
‘We were heading for a position where all the gains in offices over the past 20 years were going to be lost if all the office-to-resi was implemented,’ Davis says. ‘The West End is the engine room of the economy, and offices and the services that support them are essential.’
We were being negative, we need to grow. But we’re a historic city and there’s not an inch of ground that’s free
The council wondered whether the market would correct the growing imbalance but eventually moved to stop such conversions in its ‘central activity zone’. Since that move, of course, the market has indeed shifted, making luxury residential projects substantially less attractive to developers. Davis now predicts that many unbuilt residential schemes will metamorphose into other beasts.
What’s clear is that he’s hugely keen to promote development and densification of all kinds in Westminster because he sees it as lagging behind other London boroughs to the east.
‘We were being negative, we need to grow,’ he says. ‘We want to attract big, successful businesses here and we want people to live here. But we’re a historic city and there’s not an inch of ground that’s free.’
I suggest a more proactive planning approach might help and Davis admits this is being considered.
‘Should we be choosing areas?’ He asks. ‘If so, where should they be? These are crucial issues and in years gone by of course we have said, for example, that Victoria and Paddington are areas where you could have tall buildings.’
It looks like Westminster City Council is in need of architects in more ways than one. It certainly boasts a deputy leader with a genuine passion for design. As the interview comes to a close, Davis tells me he’s off to Majorca on holiday and is taking copies of the AJ with him to peruse in the sun – surely beyond the call of duty. Architects thinking of working in the heart of London would do well to take note.
Who is Robert Davis?
- Westminster councillor since 1982. Deputy leader of Westminster City Council and the council’s cabinet member for the built environment, with specific responsibility for planning including chairing Westminster’s principal planning application committee
- Chair of the London Mayors’ Association; chair of the board of trustees at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; trustee of Mousetrap Theatre Project, the Savoy Educational Trust and the Sir Simon Milton Foundation, this last of which was set up in the name of his late civil partner and former deputy mayor of London
- Educated at Gonville & Caius and Wolfson Colleges, Cambridge, before training and qualifying as a solicitor
- Favourite new buildings in the borough include Make’s St James’s Market buildings for the Crown Estate and Stanton Williams’ Riverwalk residential project for Gerald Ronson’s Heron International
- Not a fan of Hopkins Architects’ Portcullis House, which he reluctantly approved for planning the first time he chaired Westminster’s planning committee