Paul Finch finds much to admire in Renzo Piano’s Paddington masterplan
Not having paid too much attention to the Paddington Tower controversy, I was under the mistaken impression that the scope of the project was essentially the provision of 72 storeys of apartments and some shops at ground level.
Talking to the design team and client last week was an uplifting experience. This project is in fact a significant infrastructure-led, mixed-use development, funded by a first-class residential tower, with substantial public benefits. Given the sorry current condition of Paddington for millions of transport users and the likely exacerbation of problems when the new Crossrail station arrives in 2018, the Renzo Piano masterplan (pictured) looks like a godsend. What’s not to like?
Quite a lot, according to some critics. The arguments against what is formally known as 31 London Street have largely concerned the effect on views, but there have also been complaints that a wider masterplan for the area is required, and that towers of this sort do little to help solve the housing crisis. The (anti) tall buildings campaign has gone into overdrive. Historic England is flexing its muscles, though it should heed its predecessor’s track record in losing battles over tall buildings.
Past failure to operate an effective tall building policy does not invalidate the case for good towers
In principle there is nothing wrong with height. The failure to operate an effective tall building policy by two mayoralities does not invalidate the case for good towers. I have always liked the idea of tall building clusters around major transport hubs and/or town centres and would be quite happy if we just drew some red lines and declared the rest of London a tower-free environment, maybe using 10-12 storeys as a maximum height.
As far as the Paddington Station area is concerned, it is one of the few areas in Westminster where serious height can be countenanced: no protected views and not constrained by conservation areas. Affordable housing is being provided in the Renzo scheme via an existing charity off-site. There is nearly an acre of new public realm. There are three pedestrian levels, which include substantial natural light.
There is also new separate access for the Bakerloo Line, and huge improvements in circulation for the Underground generally. Brunel’s main-line station gets a proper entrance for the first time. There is co-ordination with the new Crossrail station. No wonder Network Rail and Transport for London are supporting the proposal.
It is worth bearing in mind that previous mega-schemes, one by Grimshaw for Network Rail and another by SOM (initially) for St Mary’s Hospital, have both fallen by the wayside in recent years. The current proposal is not comprehensive, but that is rarely the London way. However, it anticipates redevelopment at the hospital and makes intelligent provision for eventual re-routing of heavy vehicles. It is comprehensive in respect of what can be delivered on land owned by the client and transport providers.
The tower is elliptical in plan (I call it the Paddington Tube) and will make an elegant addition to the skyline; it will have a public roof garden open to the elements, with free public access (note to Westminster: ensure you condition this. Maybe it could be managed by the equivalent of Jubilee Gardens Trust).
Can Westminster change its policy restricting tall buildings in the area? Southwark Council did in respect of the Shard, where Piano and developer Irvine Sellar have immeasurably improved conditions for millions of commuters and created a London landmark. I trust them to do the same with the ‘Paddington Tube’. As is often the case in London, it is better to seize the moment than to assume something better will turn up.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s proposed Paddington tower