Simon Jenkins in his Evening Standard review of Renzo Piano’s designs for The Cube at Paddington attacked the new proposals while repeating the hoary old chestnut about the arrogance of architects: “Paddington Pole may be dead but the vanity of architects lives on”. My first response was something along the lines of “pot” and “black”; my second was that he had got things wrong, again: parading personal taste as informed criticism.
Unlike Helmut Jahn who resigned from the Bishopsgate Tower in the City of London because of the interference of the planners, or Santiago Calatrava who did the same over City Point, Renzo Piano has been the epitome of humility, willingly agreeing to abandon his tower design for a more modest and minimal design.
Jenkins makes fun of the Architect’s Journal’s description of the “clear floating cube levitating above the ground” which he calls “tosh”. If anyone can make a building appear to float, it is Renzo. One wonders even whether Jenkins has studied the designs in any detail. He talks of “street-crushing decks and walkways” to describe the £60million improvements to the ghastly exit from Paddington station and its link to the Bakerloo line. Although he might well enjoy a certain nostalgie de la boue in the slum conditions that currently surround the station, that is not something commuters whose daily lot it is to fight their way up to a crumbling Praed Street have said they would prefer.
I do however agree that it would be appropiate to see this development in the context of the wider site. The Cube should be viewed as part of the wider regeneration of the St Mary’s Hospital site next door, as well as the taller buildings located around the east end of the Westway. This has had a cluster of towers since the 1960s and is an appropriate place for more. Westminster planners need to give local communities and Londoners generally a better idea of what the future holds for the area. The Skyline Campaign has suggested the building is out of scale with its surroundings, ignoring the fact that the scale of the whole area is changing and densifying as directed in the London Plan.
The proposals also need to be seen in a wider economic context. Seventy five percent of Westminster is covered conservation area. Five designated viewing corridors cross the borough constraining the location of higher buildings. Much of Westminster’s recent additional office capacity has been provided within Paddington because it is one of the few places where it is possible to provide the large floorplates corporate occupiers require.
While many of the protests over the Pole proposals came from the well heeled Little Venice and Kilburn area, much of the North West of the borough suffers significant deprivation and has been designated as an economic development area to encourage growth and jobs.
The Paddington Opportunity Area has been a key part of the Mayor’s London Plan since the days of Ken Livingstone. The Plan decreed that development should take place next to transport interchanges like Paddington. Central Westminster suffers badly already from congestion and overcrowding, so new offices that allow commuters to go straight from train to desk are to be welcomed.
Over the last five years Westminster has seen a significant loss of office space due to the greater profitablity of residential space. This has been exacerbated by Government policies on permitted development which allowed conversion of offices to residential without planning permission. While Westminster successfully applied for exception in the central area, the north west area of the borough had no such luck.
The Cube is not as Jenkins might believe, a product of developer greed or architectural arrogance, but as part of the wider strategy to provide jobs in a part of Westminster where many people are less well off than is often thought.