‘Ta-daa! Here we are!’ … view of the new Union Street district, London.Photo: Oliver Wainwright
Lurking down a side street, in the warren of alleys and railway viaducts south of the River Thames, is one of the strangest new sights in the capital. Look up at the corner of Union Street and O’Meara Street and you’ll see a white brick building with a large gouge in the facade, as if it had been attacked with a giant ice cream scoop. It’s a real architectural WTF moment that has been stopping passersby since the scaffolding came down a few weeks ago.
Follow the direction of the two-story gouge and observant onlookers will discover that it frames the exact shape of the rose window of the church next door, making it look a bit as if the building might have been melted by holy rays emanating from the stained walls. glass: a facade sculpted by the power of the Lord?
“We wanted to respect our neighbor,” says Jonny Plant, architect of this remarkable new concave office building. “The church, located in the side street next to the railway viaduct, has always been overlooked, so we wanted to celebrate it and draw people’s attention to it.”
His firm, Lipton Plant (now merged with Corstorphine & Wright), had been commissioned to extend the four-storey red brick building on the corner with a side extension and an extra floor on the roof. The ground floor of the building had always occupied the entire footprint of the site, but the upper floors had been recessed from the street, to fit neatly with the facade of the Roman Catholic Church – a Romanesque building built on the second place, built in 1892 by prolific church architect Frederick Walters.
“The developer originally wanted to cover the entire site and bring the building right to the edge of the street,” said Father Christopher Pearson, priest of the Church of the Most Precious Blood. ‘But we had just spent a lot of money restoring the church, and we didn’t want to stay hidden. They were very accommodating and listened to our concerns – and we are happy with the outcome. It’s as if the building is saying, ‘Ta-daa! Here we are! ”
There’s a reason the church has always been somewhat remote. More than two hundred years after the Act of Uniformity in 1559, outward observance of the Roman Catholic faith was illegal in England. Even after Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the further relaxation of the laws in 1850, Catholic churches were often pushed away down side streets and located far from the road. More than 130 years after its completion, Most Precious Blood is now more visible than ever, theatrically framed by an extremely precious viewing cone.
History is awash with “spite buildings,” architectural monuments to neighborly resentment, designed to obscure views and block daylight. But this is the opposite: a surreal tribute to love for one’s neighbor, made in glazed bricks. Using 3D modeling software, the architects extruded the shape of the rose window into an imaginary cone back to a precise point on the street corner, from where it is designed to be viewed – which happens to be just outside an espresso bar, so you can have a good yawn while queuing for your coffee. “The council has been so helpful,” says project director David Crosthwait. “We even talked about a special paving stone on the street that encourages people to look up.”
It’s a simple (some would say crude) concept. But it was terribly complicated to implement. A sturdy steel frame allows for architectural acrobatics, with a series of large curved ribs containing shelves that support the 10 different types of specially shaped glazed bricks. “It looks like a big steel wine rack,” says Crosthwait. It looks eye-wateringly expensive, not to mention the extra carbon in all the steel, but Plant says the extra floor space that makes the gymnastics feat possible “provides a good return on investment.”
The project is perhaps the most literal example of building around a sightline in London, but it stands as a microcosm of the city’s long tradition of picturesque planning, in which buildings are sculpted by a matrix of invisible ley lines, designed to form a to maintain reach of beloved vistas.
For generations, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral has been the sacred point before which everything else had to bow, creating a radial web of protected views over the capital. The system was first developed in the 1930s by Godfrey Allen, then surveyor of St Paul’s, who established a grid of height limits around the cathedral, mainly to preserve views from the south bank – many of which are from outside his favorite pubs.
The rules have since been expanded and codified into the London View Management Framework, which sets out the precise coordinates of the 27 protected views and 13 protected vistas – even taking into account the curvature of the earth, so far away are some of the precious perspectives. They are divided into four categories, including London panoramas, such as the view from Parliament Hill; Linear views, such as the Mall to Buckingham Palace; River Prospects, including the Victoria Embankment; and views of the cityscape, including Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster. But St Paul’s still reigns supreme, enjoying protection not only from buildings that obscure the foreground, but also from things that pop up in the background – at least in theory.
Conservationists’ eyebrows were raised in 2016 when it was discovered belatedly that the expensive shaft of Manhattan Loft Gardens, a 42-storey tower of luxury apartments in Stratford, stuck out like a pudgy middle finger behind the dome of St Paul’s. The fact that this was only visible through a telescope from a hill in Richmond Park, twenty miles away, where a hole in a hedge has been specially cut to preserve the view, mattered little to outraged critics with telephoto lenses. (The LVMF protected view stipulates that the background must be protected up to 3 km behind St Paul’s, while the tower is 7 km away.)
More clearly, the odd shapes of many of the City of London’s skyscrapers are determined by their need to avoid the views of St Paul’s. The angular wedge of the Cheesegrater, from Richard Rogers’ firm RSH+P, is shaped to lean out of view of Fleet Street – fittingly from just outside Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. It was an engineering feat that required twice as much steel as the Eiffel Tower. Likewise, the Scalpel, from KPF, leans in the opposite direction, slanting back south in a mirror-image slope, the duo lurching away from the dome as if trapped in an awkward dance of social distancing.
Perhaps the clumsiest expression of all St. Paul’s restrictions comes from the French architect Jean Nouvel. His galloping One New Change mall teeters east of the cathedral, twisting and turning its brown glass walls as if drunkenly trying to get under the height limits.
The story goes that the architect came to the first meeting with the planners with an Airfix model of a Stealth bomber in hand. Just as the plane’s shape was modeled to avoid detection, its building would also be given dexterous facets to stay under the radar of the viewing matrix. It’s not hard to see why he was tempted to indulge in a bit of sculptural carving. The city’s additional planning guidance positively encourages this, talking about how the elevation grid around St Paul’s actually “represents a complex three-dimensional surface of sloping planes and occasional ‘cliffs’ where significantly different sight lines coincide” – catnip for one architect struggling with ideas.
As Peter Rees, then chief planner of the City of London, said at the time: “There is only one development control tool that really works – and I own it – and that is a low threshold for boredom.”