The clamour to list Number One Poultry plays into preservationist hands, says Paul Finch
Most of the architects associated with Stirling Wilford’s Number One Poultry have backed demands from the Twentieth Century Society for it to be listed. Since I know, like and respect many of those seeking listing protection, it pains me to say that I think they are wrong, and that they run the risk of turning to arguments which, had they been adopted by the planning inspector who supported the Stirling design, would have resulted in its refusal.
Using the listing system to try to prevent change is a dangerous game, and one that could very easily backfire in other circumstances, to the detriment of contemporary architecture. Buckley Gray Yeoman’s proposed amendments to the building are thoughtful and to my mind respectful of the Postmodern (how James Stirling hated that word) monument that sits at the heart of the City of London.
Buckley Gray Yeoman points out it is only amending 9 per cent of the facade, but as a general argument I don’t think this is relevant. You could wreck any building by altering that percentage. In this instance, however, the changes improve a building that has significant drawbacks as a piece of mixed-use commercial architecture.
The retail doesn’t work properly, the offices are way below standard, the impressive corner entrance leads nowhere, the pub is perverse. The current owners and tenants are very unhappy with the building as it now operates, and telling them it may not work but is a great piece of architecture is the sort of arrogance that gets architects a bad name.
The building still has the power to shock and delight
The reality is that the building already enjoys heritage protection in the sense that it is in a conservation area, and nobody is proposing willy-nilly destruction of the building’s key features. The building still has the power to shock and delight because it still looks so different. I am glad it is there.
But that is not to say that improvements cannot be made. The proposal now with City planners increases light, space and volume. It is true that the ‘arcade’, or rather the hint of one since it didn’t exist in any meaningful way, makes way for glazing which is brought forward; it is also true that there are more windows. Can anyone say with certainty that had Stirling been alive to be involved in the details of the building it would have been delivered as it now stands?
Tom Muirhead, who worked personally with Stirling on the Venice bookstore, the great architect’s final work, believes strongly that it would have been different, and he is an opponent of listing. I don’t entirely buy his argument, since it was clearly delivered by the office of James Stirling, which makes it interesting for art and architecture historians. But his point about personal involvement and amending designs at a late stage, still stands.
So is attempting to obtain a Grade II* listing (necessary as a minimum for buildings less than 30 years old) a sensible way to oppose a planning application? Is Number One Poultry as important as the Leicester engineering building, or the Cambridge history library? Didn’t Stirling say all he had to say about Postmodernism at the Staatsgalerie? And didn’t he envisage retention of Mappin & Webb (the site’s previous occupant) in an alternative to the approved design? – a very different proposition.
Objectors to the new proposals are starting to sound just like some of the people who opposed both Mies and Stirling. Number One Poultry is not under threat (cf Robin Hood Gardens), and is more than robust enough to accommodate the improvements now proposed … without losing its power to shock.