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Why Piano dropped the Pole from his Paddington plans

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Paul Finch looks at Irvine Sellar and Renzo Piano’s new proposals for Paddington Station – a significantly reworked design without a tower

Sellar Property Group will be unveiling its latest proposal for a major development site in Paddington at a three-day public exhibition on Saturday (16 July), following the abandonment in January of the Renzo Piano-designed ‘Paddington Pole’ tower.

The original proposal (pictured below) provoked a storm of controversy earlier this year, leading to a complete rethink of the project. Now Piano has designed an 18-storey, 54m cubed office development in place of 72 storeys of high-end residential, which could house a workforce of up to 4,000 people.

The design revisions have been in preparation since February, following huge criticism of the original design by Westminster Council residents and skyline campaigners. Although the tower had both officer and councillor support during the design phase, the reaction forced a rethink, and developer Irvine Sellar agreed to defer a planning application to consider alternatives.

Because the residential market had gone off the boil and commercial space had started to regain value, the decision to switch uses made sense. So too did the dramatic reduction in height, which Sellar says makes the new proposal policy-compliant in respect of Westminster’s planning strategy for the area.

Renzo Piano's original Paddington tower plans - since abandoned

Renzo Piano’s original Paddington tower plans - since abandoned

Renzo Piano’s original Paddington tower plans - since abandoned

Value created by the commercial block, which produces about 38,000m² of floor space, means payment of a huge sum to upgrade facilities at Paddington Station, particularly in relation to the Underground, is assured. Some £65 million is being set aside for the infrastructure work, which will see a brand new concourse and access facilities for the Bakerloo Line entrance, described by Piano as the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’.

There will be additional public realm benefits in the new proposal, expect to be submitted for planning in September. The permeable ground plane has increased in size, partly because of a decision to close one road running through the site. The new design also includes a ‘piazzetta’ which opens up an additional route from Praed Street to the station.

The ground plane is animated by shops bars and restaurants, with two storeys (12m) of non-office space set back underneath the office cube, which will mainly be accessed by escalators. Escalators are also used to take visitors and commuters on simple routes to the mainline and underground levels across the site.

Discussions are also taking place in respect of future development of the adjacent hospital, with the possibility of a second phase of the Sellar/Piano project as part of a redevelopment for the hospital.

Sellar told the AJ this week that Brexit had not affected his decision to proceed with the project, which described as a ‘gateway to the world’, because of the Heathrow Express link. He also said an announcement about a start on a 26-storey sister tower between his Shard scheme and the News International headquarters at London Bridge was imminent.

Architect William Matthews has been brought in to help on the Paddington scheme, having been project architect on the Shard for Renzo Piano Building Workshop, before setting up his own practice William Matthews Associates. He said the opportunity to revisit the masterplan had been useful because the change of use had created opportunities to further improve amenities and public space, outside what is a notoriously crowded station.

Piano describes the architecture of the Cube as being the result of an obsession with light. ‘The facade will be crystalline, like a fine lace of steel and glass in a clear pattern like the beautiful arches and skylights of Brunel’s station.’

While acknowledging that the geometry of the office scheme is quite different to the station, he said the facades ‘speak the same language, light articulated and refined’.

Each floor of the offices (which could split as one, two or three areas) has a winter garden/viewing room on each corner. The top floor will provide restaurants and winter gardens, open to the public via an external lift, a feature being included not least because of the phenomenal success of restaurants in the Shard.

Unusually for a project of this significance, the usual pattern of London developer/planning conflict has taken an entirely different course. Instead of a prolonged public inquiry, as happened with the Shard, in this case a new proposal has been produced rapidly in response to the concerns of Westminster Council and to market demand.

However, there is precedent for this developer and architect having a change of heart and moving rapidly as a result. Few now remember that the News International building next to the Shard was the second scheme to get permission for that site. Piano’s first design was complete and set for development – until the architect had second thoughts about the design. ‘It’s not right,’ he told Sellar.

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten

It is a tribute to the strong relationship between developer and designer that Sellar agreed to a total redesign, now built. At Paddington the architect has produced two designs under very different circumstances, not necessarily bad for the practice bank balance.

‘He is not cheap,’ says Sellar of Renzo, but he cites Benjamin Franklin’s remark that ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten’

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