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Property developer Irvine Sellar dies aged 82

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Fashion retailer-turned-property magnate Irvine Sellar, best known for his determination in developing London’s Shard, has died, aged 82, after a short illness

Sellar’s career in both retailing and property stretches back more than 60 years, beginning in Petticoat Lane, where he took over his father’s stall selling gloves. 

He was at the heart of the Carnaby Street revolution and the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s, going onto create Mates by Irvine Sellar, the UK’s second-largest fashion chain and the first to catering for both men and women from the same store.

Sellar sold the fashion business in the early 1980s and moved into property. Within a few years he headed up the Stock Exchange-quoted Ford Sellar Morris, which at its peak generated a pre-tax profit of £25 million and held a widely spread investment and development portfolio.

His fortunes were hit, however, along with many other companies in the property sector, during the economic collapse of 1991-93.

His resurgence began in November 1998, when he and two partners bought the headquarters building of PwC at London Bridge. Following a government white paper which recommended that planners should look favourably at tall buildings close to major transport hubs, Southwark Towers became the kernel for The Shard and London Bridge Quarter.

Plans for a near-1,400ft tall building were released in April 2000. A few months later  internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano was appointed to design a multi-use building that would not only be commercially successful but also enable visitors to see London ‘as it had never been seen before’.

The scheme was finally given the go-ahead in November 2003 following an intensive public enquiry. Construction got under way in 2008 and The Shard was inaugurated in July 2012.

The Shard, together with the wider London Bridge Quarter, was developed in partnership with the State of Qatar, a partnership which continues today as construction of the third building, Shard Place, begins.

In the past two years Sellar had moved his focus to Paddington, again with Piano as his architect. The pair originally came up with plans for another major tower for London but, following a backlash from heritage groups, the scheme was revised and re-emerged as the Paddington Cube.

Westminster City Council has approved the £775 million development but last week communities secretary Sajid Javid issued an Article 31 direction, preventing the authority from officially issuing the permissions until he had consider the proposals.

A statement released by the Sellar Group described its founder and chairman as an ‘immense and irreplaceable character’ and said his death would leave a ‘huge void in a sector known for big characters’.

It continues: ‘Irvine was not a traditional property developer – he had no formal training in the industry, just a sharp business sense and the ability to see the wider picture. He would often remark that he was the conductor of an orchestra of professionals.

‘Few, if any, in the property world ever believed The Shard would be built. They thought he would never get planning consent and when he did they thought he would never be able to finance development, which he did after securing two major pre-lets. It was then thought that he would never build it – but, of course he did. And then no one thought it would be a commercial success.’

Sellar, who died on Sunday morning (26 February) leaves a wife, three children and five grandchildren.

His son James, who has worked alongside Sellar for the past 20 years, will take over the running of the Sellar Group.

Interview from AJ 15.09.16

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

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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

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • Such terrible news, and a great loss to the property industry. The completion of the Shard was a monumental time in the UK history, an elegant symbol of confidence in its economy after the recession of 2008. My condolences.

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  • Terrible news, great loss for skyscraper community as a whole. He was the conductor of an orchestra of professionals. Great outstanding conductor. My deep condolences.

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