Everything was new once – so why be frightened of the future? asks Paul Finch
The Grade I listing of Sandy Wilson’s British Library brought back memories of visiting the building with the great man before it opened in 1995. He told me a story about the library’s design, partly against himself, as a wry warning about believing what apparently authoritative people tell you.
The original site for the new library was, quite appropriately, opposite the British Museum. It meant demolishing a series of terraced streets, but at the time of the commission there seemed no great reason to worry about that. However, the conservationist tide was turning and, after a huge public controversy, the decision was made to switch sites and to build the library on the Euston Road next to St Pancras Station.
Sandy’s question to government was how they thought he should respond to the magnificent but empty St Pancras Chambers, George Gilbert Scott’s full-frontal addition to the station. ‘Don’t worry about that old chap, it’s been empty for 20 years, British Rail has no use for it and it is going to be demolished,’ came the advice. He believed what he was told, but wanted to acknowledge the building in his design. He did this by using bricks from the same Midlands clay pit that Scott had used on St Pancras Chambers. I was told subsequently that this was very expensive, because the pit had to be re-opened. But, in the overall context of the project cost, it may not have mattered much.
What did matter was the decision to save St Pancras Chambers, making the brick homage unnecessary. We will never know how much the appearance of the building might have changed if Sandy had known that demolition would not take place. In any event what was completed is a fine building in the round, even if it is not to everyone’s taste.
Prince Charles’s dismissal of the building makes its listing all the more piquant, but the main thing is deserved recognition of a major work by a major architect, with a magnificent interior built to standards one can only wonder at in the world of PFI procurement. It is certainly a building influenced by Aalto and what Professor Wilson described as the ‘alternative tradition’ in the Modern movement, the antithesis of the crudely diluted International Style, which had discredited Modernism in the eyes of the public at the time.
One might have thought that, after a long intervening period, yesteryear’s arguments about the evils of new versus old might have become more sophisticated. Unfortunately this is by no means the case, as the story of the Blossom Street development, by an assortment of good architects, demonstrates. Here, on the fringe of the City of London, a very sympathetic set of designs have been proposed for retrofitting and adding a mix of uses to some mainly modest existing commercial buildings from another century. Despite the support of Historic England, Cabe and the local authority planners, the committee turned down the proposal after vigorous local protest, in what looks like a clear breach of its responsibilities.
If I were one of the councillors who voted the scheme down, I would be hoping that the developer decides against applying for me to be surcharged and disqualified from holding office. This would only happen if there were a successful appeal, of course, and using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, or group of nuts, rarely looks that good. But I doubt if we have heard the end of this story.
Nor the one about Tracey Emin’s intriguing house addition by David Chipperfield, now getting preservationist darts aimed at it. It is time for a fight-back.