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Paddington Cube objections show some people will never be satisfied

Paul Finch
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SAVE’s call for a public inquiry into Renzo Piano’s revised scheme is revealing about the mindset of people who think their views are more important than anyone else’s, says Paul Finch

I have followed with some bafflement two recent debates – one general, one architectural – where cognitive dissonance seems to be the informing condition, that is to say you believe in two mutually exclusive things simultaneously.

One is about whether or not we should try to stay in the so-called ‘single market’ after we leave the EU. I have news for anyone who has been taken in by this proposition: you cannot remain in this market unless you are an EU member. You can of course have a relationship to it, subject to negotiation, but that is it.

The architectural debate – though that is putting it rather grandly – concerns the Paddington Cube, the 54m x 54m x 54m office-led, mixed-use development designed by Renzo Piano, which was granted planning permission by Westminster Council shortly before Christmas.

There is now a move by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, with Historic England and the Skyline campaign in supporting roles, to get the proposal called in for public inquiry. The reasons are quite revealing about the mindset of people who think their views are more important than anyone else’s (cf Remoaners).

SAVE argues that Robert Davis, then chair of Westminster’s planning committee, prejudged the application by (a) admiring it; (b) telling people he liked it; and (c) presenting it in a positive manner at committee. I do hope the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, doesn’t fall for this hogwash. The idea that elected councillors are not entitled to have an opinion about the merits of a major development application prior to its presentation at committee is so weird that it scarcely needs comment.

Barbara Weiss has another form of cognitive dissonance: if she thinks a building is too tall then it must be badly designed

However, let us think about the claim that Davis ‘predetermined his position and should not have taken part in deciding this application’. SAVE has never been strong on irony; if you want an example of an organisation with a predetermined position about anything new, here it is. SAVE does not of course reference the advice of the professional planning officers in relation to the Cube, which was a recommendation that it receive approval. I wonder what would have been said if things had been the other way round.

Lobbyists such as SAVE have a simple world-view: if you don’t agree with opponents of an application, then you haven’t taken our views into account. Oh dear.

Paddington cube crop

Skyline campaigner Barbara Weiss has another form of cognitive dissonance, which is that if she thinks a building is too tall then it must be badly designed. Hence her bizarre comments that the design is ‘of no great architectural merit or finesse. The much-vaunted new public realm – the carrot that is constantly brought up as the main benefit to locals – lacks vision.’

Actually the public realm improvements mainly concern an extraordinary £60-million-plus upgrade of transport facilities at Paddington station, particularly the Underground, which will benefit millions of commuters, not just locals.

She goes on to abuse the overall proposal: ‘It is shapeless (sic) and utilitarian, not the result of the thoughtful and skilled design we might expect from Renzo Piano for such a prestigious location; it is more about a utilitarian sorting out of the many conflicting circulation needs of the Cube’s surrounding neighbours, whether Paddington station, St Mary’s hospital, or the Mercure Hotel.’

As anyone who read the excellent AJ supplement on the project will know, this is a ludicrous denigration of sophisticated project that immensely improves Praed Street, and is a clever piece of urban masterplanning allowing for future additions.

The final complaint is that the scheme is 19 storeys high. So what? Wasn’t the Skyline campaign launched on the back of news about the number of London planning applications of more than 20 storeys? Double oh dear.

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