Guy Morgan & Partners ,1958Bowater House
|Materials||brick, marble, plate glass|
|Borough||City of Westminster|
Bowater House was easily one of the most problematic buildings in London. It was an awkward looking thing, very much the carbuncle, which sat heavily on its site, overlooking and completely dominating the junction at Knightsbridge. It was an undistinguished block and a terrible misreading of the principles of the modern movement. In 1959, on his way to collect a gold medal from the RIBA, Mies Van der Rohe was taken past Bowater in a taxi. His companion Ernö Goldfinger motioned towards the building and said, ‘This is all your fault.’ To which he replied, “I was not the architect of that building.’ Its demolition in 2006, was greeted with universal enthusiasm.
It was built quickly by developer Harold Samuel between 1956 and 1958 at the beginning of the first post-war office boom in London. The London County Council (LCC) had earmarked Knightsbridge as an area suitable for large-scale commercial redevelopment around its own plans for the reorganisation of the traffic junction. Throughout the late 1950’s there were various discussions about how this would be achieved and the LCC produced its vision in 1959. An image of the proposed scheme appeared in the Architects Journal in January and essentially mimicked those by William Holford for Piccadilly Circus published the year before. Knightsbridge would become a vast oblong roundabout stretching from the Green in the west to Harvey Nichols to the east. The roundabout would be home to a sunken pedestrian piazza, the same size of Parliament Square, with numerous small-scale commercial units, connected by subways to a vast 320 ft office tower on the southern side and by a link building bridging the road scheme. The image shows a completed Bowater House flanking the entire northern side of the proposed square.
Bowater’s architects, Guy Morgan and Partners, produced their own designs for other sites in Knightsbridge and their building anticipates the new scale of redevelopment of the area. In 1962 they produced another, more ambitious, scheme based on the recommendations of the LCC’s road scheme. The new enlarged proposal, produced for the Capital and Counties Property Company, was characterised by a cluster of taller towers of 279ft, 324ft and 413ft, centred on a new piazza away from that of the roundabout that would be bordered by double height commercial arcades. The comprehensive development was to include shops, office and residential blocks, underground car parking and a 506 room hotel. It would have destroyed Basil Street and taken up the complete site defined by Brompton Road, Hans Crescent and Sloane Street. Despite the enthusiastic backing of the LCC, the scheme faced huge hostility from local businesses and residents and was abandoned from the mid-1960s. Hugely increased traffic volumes in central London meant such schemes had become undesirable and risked further grid lock. Bowater was a reminder of a thwarted commercial vision and was left isolated on a largely untouched junction.
The form of Bowater House went through several revisions. The first scheme was for a more spacious design based on a tower. During the mid 1950s when this appeared there had yet to be a tower built in central London and there was unease about its impact on Hyde Park. The LCC and the Commission worked closely in the early post-war years to develop a policy document aimed at keeping all developments at the Park’s edge to 100ft. The intention was to maintain the sense of pastoral expanse at the heart of the city or limit tall buildings to approved clusters away from its edge. The LCC and the Commission favoured a lower block that would be more sensitive to the landscape of the park. Bowater was forced into a redesign in order to gain planning permission, but also by the LCC’s road widening scheme on Knightsbridge and its desire to create a new road entrance to South Carriage Drive from the junction. Bowater therefore was a compromise, ‘a trade-off’, and its final design suggested the developer was happy to get something or anything built so long as it could get permission and the architects were happy to oblige.
The building was formed of two parallel low lying slabs bridging a new road- Edinburgh gate. The block facing the park was a fairly inoffensive continuous unit of 8-storeys , while at Knightsbridge a slightly lower unit, on columns over the roadway, was flanked by two more blocks placed at right angles with one of them rising to a stumpy tower of 17-storeys. The tower provided only a very weak sense of focus. Between the blocks were a series of empty courtyard spaces, dominated by deliveries and at both ends severe spaces for accessing underground car parks and services. The steel frame was clad in panels of plate glass, marble and brick. The overall effect was heavy, functional and utilitarian. Bowater provided pure office space, with no consideration of the pedestrian at ground level or aesthetic detail. It looked cheap on a giant scale - the sort of building one might expect to find in a Gerry Anderson production, forming the backdrop to some future non-place or the bloated landing pad for Thunderbird 2. The later additions of aerials and several large-scale satellite dishes at its roofline added to this illusion. The one piece of enlightened thinking was the later (1959-61) inclusion of an Epstein sculpture of a family group with the god Pan, facing the park. Had it been at the Knightsbridge side, this sculpture might have provided some sort of sense of a public realm at the buildings base. As it was, it was largely ignored.
In 2006, demolition began and Bowater House has disappeared from the Knightsbridge streetscape. By 2010 it will be replaced by a large-scale residential scheme by luxury developers Candy and Candy with a series of blocks designed by Richard Rogers Partnership. The new scheme will be formed of 4 parallel blocks, housing 80 apartments sitting at right angles to the park. Each of these is tapered to provide each unit with a view of either the park or Knightsbridge and finished in materials sympathetic to the particularly fine adjacent 1891 Hyde Park Hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, also co-developers). The development is being sold as, ‘one of the finest residential addresses in the world.’ At street level the apartments blocks will have retail facilities with Edinburgh Gate paved over to provide a small pedestrian space and the Knightsbridge junction redesigned to a simpler arrangement.
- Citekey AJ1959-02 not found, 184
- 21st March, , The Architects' Journal, 03/1962, (1962) , 614