Max Gordon ,1966New Scotland Yard
|Borough||City of Westminster|
|Materials||glass, granite, steel|
New Scotland Yard is a well-accomplished building in its own right, but set against the context of its street environment and, more recently, the backdrop of an increasingly paranoid State, it exudes a kind of mild loathing. Home to the Metropolitan Police, it is not an anonymous structure despite its plain architecture. It is famous for many good and notorious reasons, the backdrop to scandal and outrage. One cannot separate easily its architecture from that of the official narratives inside and out.
The original New Scotland Yard was at Whitehall. In 1890, the Metropolitan Police moved into Norman Shaw’s celebrated purpose-built headquarters overlooking the Thames on the newly built Victoria Embankment. Described by one commentator as, ‘a very constabulary kind of castle,’ it was an eclectic building typical of the emerging Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century with numerous busy motifs. It was finished in striped red brick with Portland stone and characterised by a skyline of turrets and a steep roof patterned by dormers and lofty chimneys. The original building provided 140 offices and they were assigned according to rank. High-ranking officers were given rooms within the turrets overlooking the river or larger rooms close to ground floor, while lower ranking officers were consigned to smaller rooms higher up. The original single building was joined by two extensions both overseen by the Met surveyor and closely mimicking Shaw’s design. Despite the much-enlarged complex, as early as the 1930’s there were complaints of overcrowding and the force eventually left the site for the present building on Victoria Street in 1967.
The present New Scotland Yard was constructed as part of the near comprehensive redevelopment of Victoria Street, which began during the late 1950s onwards. Following the Second World War, the will to reconstruct Victoria Street as an office expansion district grew during the first post-war economic boom from approximately 1956 onwards and was encouraged by both the London County Council and Westminster City Council. This period saw huge growth in the demand for office space as service roles expanded to replace traditional manufacturing jobs in the city. For Victoria Street, development was hastened also by an expansion of government. Whitehall departments gradually moved their way down the street to new premises (curiously, closer to major oil companies). Developers at Victoria Street reinvented the streetscape to accommodate this boom. In 1971, as part of its modernisation, plans were unveiled for an aerial ‘Cabtrack’ system along its length in order to alleviate traffic. This was essentially a car based monorail system that would have been built above the pavements. It was during this era of newness that the ‘new’ New Scotland Yard was completed.
The 1967 building was, like so many along the street, built speculatively and was still under construction when it was taken as Metropolitan Police Headquarters. The complex is formed of two closely set parallel blocks. The first along Victoria street is an extremely long 9-storey block and to its rear a 20-storey slab with a link building between. All are made up of a concrete frame and finished in uniform glazing with stainless steel sheathing between replacing the original polished granite. The refurbishment of the facade was completed in 1986 and also included the installation of reflective one-way glass. The famous revolving sign was added in 1968 and apparently completes 14,000 revolutions each day. Pevsner poured much praise on the buildings, describing them as ‘memorable’ and the grouping towards Broadway as ‘excellent.’
It is now extremely hard to find quite what got Pevsner so excited. The straightforward arrangement of the blocks and their clean lines can still be appreciated, indeed against other blocks in the vicinity they present some clarity, but their scale and uniformity creates an overwhelming feeling of banality. Along Victoria Street such a long uninterrupted run of featureless offices is devastating for any pedestrian. Its relentless horizontalism serves only to make the misery appear unending. There is no shop or porch or even any human activity to break the lines; the selection of surveillance equipment provides the only excitement. Elsewhere, the requirements of the tenants means that any spaciousness at ground level, particular that between blocks facing Broadway, has been security fenced in and is now characterised by checkpoints, crowds of vehicles and twitchy police personnel.
The prevalence of security around the buildings is, in the case of New Scotland Yard understandable, but such measures, increasingly the norm, risk poisoning attitudes towards public perception of place and public participation. The dominance of Victoria by high profile public and governmental buildings has detrimentally affected the life of the street. It is not a comfortable place to hang around if you do not happen to have some immediate business to be there. Victoria is the civil equivalent of the Square-Mile in its suspicion of others.
- The London encyclopaedia, , London :, (1983) , p. 560
- Article, , The Architects' Journal, 03/1971, (1971) , p.636
- Metropolitan Police Service - History of the Metropolitan Police, , (2007)
- London 6: Westminster, , The Buildings of England, London, (2005) , p.560