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‘I don't regret the change’: Renzo Piano and Irvine Sellar on Paddington Quarter

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Will Hurst asks the developer and architect behind Paddington Quarter why they revised the designs, the importance of public realm and what Brexit means for the London market

Irvine Sellar: ‘Our revised scheme will be a catalyst for regeneration’


Describe how the Paddington Pole concept came about.

Renzo and I were discussing the Royal Mail site and we both felt it has such tremendous opportunity for redevelopment. There are also many similarities between Paddington and London Bridge Quarter, both are neighbours to major transport hubs and major hospitals. Our Shard building at London Bridge Quarter has been a great success. The office elements of the Shard and the News Building comprise of one million square feet of space and are now over 90 per cent let, the convenience of being right next to a transport hub has proved such a success and I am also proud that the Shard has become a global symbol for London and not just the area.

A tower at Paddington would have also worked; it was a beautiful design and something I think this part of Paddington would have benefited from. However, I don’t regret the change; our revised scheme will be a catalyst for regeneration surrounding the Royal Mail site.

How do you explain the backlash against it?

There was a relatively small, but vocal, minority that opposed the development of a tall building. The locals see the site as a personal asset; we consider Paddington to be both a national and local asset. Of course, it is all these things. What we were trying to create with both the public realm and transport connectivity was not fully appreciated and the backlash focused on the height, rather than the building set within the wider context of the regeneration and improved connectivity we were providing.

How will this new design contribute to Paddington’s public realm and to public assets nearby?

By raising the building off the ground we are able to open up the space at street level and create more public realm. The hospital has wanted to redevelop its site for a number of years; they have created a number of schemes but haven’t as yet been able to bring them forward. We continue to collaborate with the hospital as neighbours and we of course know there is a synergy between our scheme and what they want to do. Good communication is key to provide the best outcome. However, we are not in a joint venture and our schemes are independent of each other.

The Paddington Pole was residential-led and the new cube building is office-led. How would you characterise these two markets in London right now?

There’s been a softening of the residential market since we conceived our original scheme. This has been exacerbated since Brexit, creating a degree of uncertainty in the residential market – and markets do not like uncertainty. However, the office market appears more resilient and we’ve just announced three new lettings in the Shard, so Brexit doesn’t necessarily mean exit. The residential side is perhaps a little softer but overseas buyers are now finding it 20 per cent cheaper to buy in London than two months ago, so there is still significant interest.

’Renzo is very special. He has the ability to understand me and read my mind very well’

What’s it like working with Renzo Piano?

He’s very special. He has the ability to understand me and to read my mind very well. In other words, he can interpret architecturally what I have in mind. I do enjoy working with architects generally and enjoy the thought process that this involves. In Renzo’s case we’ve developed a very good working relationship and I trust him. He comes from a family of builders and that helps, because he understands construction, costs and money.

What do you like about the Paddington Quarter?

I like the fact we are creating a much-needed new public realm, we are vastly improving transport connectivity and creating a stunning office building, all of which will create around 3,500 jobs. In my view our proposals will, for the first time, open up Brunel’s true vision for Paddington. I also like the fact it is only five minutes from Hyde Park and seven from Marble Arch. It’s a great location.

Renzo Piano: ‘There’s a lack of love for towers in England’

160905 image renzo portrait

How did the Paddington Pole concept come about?

The first idea was to have a very slim tower. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea because this left a lot of space on the ground for the public realm – there was this possibility to give back to the city precious open space on Praed Street close to Paddington Station. It also comes back to this idea of intensifying cities. For sure, that doesn’t always mean towers, but I’m convinced of the need to intensify cities.

What did you make of the negative reaction to this tall building?

Architecture is a public art and you have to accept when you design something that you must listen to the reaction, listen to the community. As an architect you have a civic duty to stand and listen. Criticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be interesting even when it’s irritating. This scheme wasn’t accepted by the local population and a decision was taken by Westminster City Council not to allow a tower. I was a bit surprised by the criticism but there’s a lack of love for towers in England where they’ve long been seen as symbols of power and of arrogance. I do think we shouldn’t be too negative about taller or bigger buildings because they’ve become a necessity in the city.

‘I’m convinced of the need to intensify cities’

What options for the design did you then explore?

One option was to make it a lower tower and we did try that. But of course the tower then becomes fatter and you lose the public space you were aiming to give back to the city. So we started discussing something very different, something lower and more compact. I was happy about the tower scheme and thought it was good and interesting. But cities are not designed by architects but by politicians, by critics and many others.

Tell me more about the Paddington Quarter.

It’s extremely compact and efficient and it does give back space to the city, especially on the ground floor. We wanted to find a solution that wasn’t a compromise but was something else. The building has an interesting skin and here we’ve looked at the lace-like vaults and roof of Paddington Station. Movement of people is also crucial to the design and the building will be very visible and very accessible. We’re still working on the detail of how the building will touch the ground. We recently submitted a planning application and then three or four months of discussion with Westminster will follow.

Won’t the design give back less to the public realm because it has such large floorplates?

A thin tower would have given back more space and that’s the reason we’re still working on this aspect of the cube design. I want to give more public function to the ground floor. We’re also in constant dialogue with the station, with London Underground and with St Mary’s hospital in this regard.

This interview was first published in AJ 15.09.16 as part of a sponsored feature on Paddington Quarter

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