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The only thing that matters at MIPIM is the deal

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Like Nouvel and OMA in the City, private development should make a public contribution

Enjoying the surreal world of MIPIM for a few days requires a suspension of normal human faculties (except at lunch and dinner) in favour of a pure market mentality where the only thing that matters is the deal, and where the only real interest in buildings is whether they can be produced more cheaply, or contribute additional measurable value to the deal under consideration.

That, at least, is the cynical view often stated by people who have never been to the Cannes beanfeast. Yet private interests can be both profoundly affected by, and may profoundly contribute to, the public realm. That is the basis for the Architectural Review’s MIPIM Future Projects Awards, for example.

As it happens I had been thinking about this subject of private and public interests in relation to two buildings in the City of London – the first now getting into its stride, the second recently opened. The buildings have several things in common, but one overarching similarity – their contribution to the street life of the City.

One New Change and the Rothschild Bank share a similarity - their contribution to the street life of the City

The first in fact won an AR MIPIM award a couple of years ago: the One New Change office and retail development designed for Land Securities by Jean Nouvel with Sidell Gibson Architects. The second is the Rothschild Bank’s New Court headquarters, by OMA with Allies and Morrison, fit out by Pringle Brandon (pictured).

In both cases a non-British lead architect was working in the Square Mile for the first time and the developments were mixed-use; a further critical issue was the appropriate response to a Wren building. Nouvel had the tougher task here, since he had to think about the prospect of St Paul’s Cathedral from both ground and roof planes, in addition to producing a commercial building suitably deferential to London’s greatest icon. His spirited response, a cut through the building at the ground floor opening up spectacular views of the cathedral, is a coup de théâtre. At roof level the views are truly splendid, though there is something rather banal about some of the materials deployed.

OMA had to respond to what some would argue is a fine piece of Wren architecture, albeit at a tiny scale compared to the cathedral – St Stephen Walbrook, or rather the rear of the church and its garden, hitherto more or less hidden. There was little opportunity to attempt anything spectacular at the ground plane (that was reserved for the stacked boxes at the top of the mini-tower). But the undercroft, with the entrance and offices on one side and the family archive on the other, opens up views of the garden which make a walk down St Swithin’s Lane a little City pleasure.

By contrast, the Nouvel design is very explicitly about the public experience of the area east of the cathedral, and in particular Cheapside, where the shopping in the LandSec scheme complements other shops which have been bringing new life to this key route in recent years, at the prompting of city planning officer Peter Rees, who is another linking factor in the stories.

It is tempting to see in these two very different pieces of architecture some sort of reconciliation between culture and commerce, modernity and history, sacred and secular. And in OMA’s case, they have achieved what Mies van der Rohe’s undelivered design for Peter Palumbo aspired to: a tower at the heart of the City, indeed in the Mansion House conservation area.

There are explicit references to Mies in the scheme, for example the use of travertine, which might be seen as tweaking you-know-who’s tail. The latter tried but failed to get Nouvel’s scheme scrapped. Times are changing.

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