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The Smithsons’ best and last remaining London building deserves better

Ellis Woodman
  • 5 Comments

The intentions of the Economist Building’s original architects warrant more respect than DSDHA’s remodelling allows, says Ellis Woodman

One of the longest-fought conservation battles of recent years will draw to a dispiriting conclusion next month when demolition work commences on Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens estate. Its destruction will leave London with just one building designed by the pre-eminent British architects of the post-war era but it is, at least, the project universally recognised as their best.

So the news that a planning application has been submitted for the remodelling of the 1964 Economist Building is unlikely to be welcomed widely.

Commissioned by The Economist magazine for a site fronting onto one of the most prestigious streets in Westminster, this project remains a textbook model of how to integrate a substantial new programme into a historic setting. It comprises three towers, of varying heights and uses, but which share a façade treatment characterised by large areas of glass framed between mullions and spandrels of Roach Bed Portland stone. The intimate, elevated yard caught between these volumes is a place of magical stillness and material homogeneity, set apart from the bustle of St James.

A controversial remodelling undertaken by Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) in the 1990s saw the lobby of the principal office tower expanded and a secondary external stair reoriented. But to a great extent the experience of being here has changed little in 52 years.

However, at the beginning of last year, US property company Tishman Speyer bought the building from the Economist Group for £130 million, and soon after appointed DSDHA to draw up plans for its refurbishment. The American firm has an impressive track-record of managing mid-20th century buildings of architectural significance – its other blue-chip assets include New York’s Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Centre – and the choice of a practice of DSDHA’s talents suggests an understanding of the cultural value of its new acquisition.

And yet the list of changes proposed in the current submission extends well beyond that of a mere conservation and technical upgrade project.

Among the most significant are the introduction of a dramatic spiral stair and circular skylights within the surface of the plaza, serving a new gallery created below. Meanwhile, the lobby of the residential tower is to be expanded to accommodate a coffee shop, with trees in planters introduced alongside. And the stair that SOM installed on Duke Street is to be replaced with another, even larger one in further contradiction of the Smithsons’ conception of this as the yard’s secondary entrance.

For the Smithsons, the yard was a quiet territory … closer in conception to an Oxbridge quad than to a European public square

Indeed, underpinning all this, one senses a fundamental misreading of the original design. For the Smithsons, the yard was a quiet territory, which served as a threshold between the city and the towers. It was closer in conception to an Oxbridge quad than to a European public square. The current proposal seems predicated on a belief that the yard’s relative emptiness represents a failing.

The project is therefore directed towards luring in passers-by and giving them new reasons to stay. In place of the two hierarchically determined entrances to the yard that the Smithsons designed, we are therefore offered three routes in, all of a comparable expansiveness.

And what the visitor finds when they get there will be less of the stern, mineral space – or ‘charged void’ as the Smithsons described it – and something a good deal visually and programmatically busier. Peter Smithson once bemoaned the English incapacity for imagining public space without the presence of trees, and the current proposal confirms that suspicion. 

DSDHA’s project has a compelling logic, but it is one that operates in direct opposition to the Smithsons’ intentions. In dealing with a building that is both Grade II*-listed and commercially viable, those intentions deserve more respect than they have been given.

Sketch plan

Sketch plan

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • Chris Rogers

    The Smithsons - in line with the thinking prevalent at the time - may well have so imagined the piazza, but thinking changes, doesn't it? And architectural purity sometimes has to be relaxed to accommodate it. I used to visit the below-ground space when the Architecture Foundation occupied it, but then as now I was never entirely convinced about the public experience above ground. That said I did choose the complex for inclusion in my new book, 'How to Read London - a crash course in London architecture', and learned a lot more about the project as a result.

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  • I visited the plaza once a few years ago to find out what all the fuss was about and wasn't all that impressed to be honest. I like the idea of a quiet plaza without yet another coffee shop (and planters??? Really??) but the podium didn't feel very deliberate to me. I think it would be a great idea to try and achieve the original intention of a stern quiet space through thoughtful and subservient intervention (perhaps this is in fact what the proposals are intended to do, although I do find myself wondering "why not an orthogonal stair?". That said I think even die-hard supporters of their them must admit that the Smithson's work has more in common with theory than reality and that negotiating the territory between these two poles presents rich opportunities for the most skilful and thoughts architects. I'd like to know what Jose Maria Sanchez Garcia would have done for example...

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  • 'It was closer in conception to an Oxbridge quad than to a European public square' - yes, but I'd be surprised if the secluded raised courtyard at Alvar Aalto's Saynatsalo Town Hall wasn't also an influence, however different the materials and ambience.

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  • The Economist Plaza a space of "magical stillness"? Come along. Only in the mind of a Smithsons lover, the pair who designed the grotesque Robin Hood Gardens estate, then complained that the tenants shat in the lifts. Who can blame them?

    Ellis Woodman grants that DSDHA’s Economist project " has a compelling logic, but it is one that operates in direct opposition to the Smithsons’ intentions." Indeed. This will be seen by all but the tiny band of Smithson acolytes as a Very Good Thing.

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  • Julyan Wickham

    It is quite puzzling to have witnessed in recent years the defeat of those who should have done much, much, more to save Robin Hood Gardens.

    Think of it; with absolutely no effective movement on finding a resolution to the chronic housing problem in the UK, it is sad, bordering on the criminal, to see the current players in the architectural profession remain so lacking in influence and any strong action when protesting the loss of the many very good and workable housing buildings in the big cities many of which, including Robin Hood gardens, with a little imagination could certainly be reused.

    Robin Hood Gardens is still there, just, and its retention should be used to make a strong point about the extreme shortage of affordable housing. Retention and restoration of this well built housing would be quicker, less costly than building anew. The present government should be made to squeal when it is pointed out how wasteful it would be to destroy perfectly viable housing stock. Needless to say the site of Robin Hood Gardens could also stand a substantial planning gain in addition to restoring the existing structures.

    The replacement scheme by Metropolitan Workshop Ltd is of such poor quality it is hardly worth speaking about except to say it achieves a mediocracy that would be hard to compete with.

    I tried on several occasions to contact Simon Smithson to see if there was anything that could breath some new life into saving his parents best and seminal housing project, but without success.

    I did however meet one of his sisters and a nephew (also an architect) in Rotterdam recently and agreed with them that something should and could be done by those who understand and have influence on these issues.

    Maybe its now time to abandon architecture and architecture schools altogether and let the building industry and future governments continue their blind, unfortunate and quite possibly corrupt goings on within local authorities like Tower Hamlets. who are out to destroy the environment.

    Does any one in the UK understand exactly how much damage the mendacious, cheating opportunist - Boris Johnson - caused while he spent eight years as the Mayor of London doing very little other than making a lot of ineffective noise and raising his own profile when his job was to keep the UK’s capital abreast of events, safe and appropriately prepared for all of those who have a right to live and are needed in the city.

    Don’t ask me about Johnson, just read Steve Hilton who has said, “I honestly struggle to think of what his (Johnson‘s) legacy is.” Hilton was Cameron’s former director of strategy and has remained close to both Cameron and his chancellor.

    The truth is amongst others in power, Johnson left London in a total mess with a massive £20+ billion housing deficit, the biggest since 1945, which will take many, many, years to correct. And worse, he, in doing so, did nothing to house those people without whom London and other cities would come to a complete standstill.

    I wonder how long it will be before the rich and powerful will decide housing ghetto standards for the poor will be aligned with those of penal institutions.

    Julyan Wickham

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