Howard Fairbairn & Partners ,1962Portland House
|Borough||City of Westminster|
Portland House is quite simply huge. Although it reaches a relatively modest height of just 334 feet, it dominates Victoria completely and intrudes into many views of St James’s and Green Park. Upon exiting the nearby mainline station, any visitor is struck first by its grey bulk set against a ramshackle of remaining Victorian piles. However, despite its heavy looks, it has managed to prosper and now finds itself at the heart of a successful new shopping development.
The building was designed as the centre-piece of the Stag Place development built between 1959 and 1964. This massive scheme covered a 6-acre site and replaced the Watney’s Brewery buildings of the same name. The ‘Stag Brewery’ had been in operation on the site since the 17th century and was in production until its closure in 1959.
The post-war re-development of the site was the first in a successive wave of near comprehensive commercial reconstruction along Victoria Street, first muted in publications produced during the war. The street’s dour Victorian buildings had few admirers, while the role of the street was thought to be deserving of special treatment. It connects historic Westminster and the point of entry into the metropolis by rail from continental Europe at Victoria Station. The street simply wasn’t good enough. In Abercrombies’s County of London Plan of 1943, there are numerous recommendations for the reorganisation of its eastern end to provide a more satisfactory setting for the architectural monuments of Westminster Abbey and Parliament. The plan suggested a series of formal boulevard style streets forming a large civic space. In London Replanned of 1942, a high profile pamphlet by the Royal Academy, similar recommendations were made for the creation of a new civic space at its juncture with the station and its context to Buckingham Palace. Both plans are characterised by their formal pomp and Haussmann style gesturing.
Following the Second World War, none of the grand architectural proposals were adopted, however the will to reconstruct Victoria Street as an office expansion district grew during the first post-war economic boom from approximately 1956 onwards. 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 by an expansion of government. Whitehall departments gradually moved their way down the street to new premises and also, curiously, major oil companies. Developers at Victoria Street reinvented the streetscape to accommodate this boom and, in the case of the Stag Brewery, the road plans of the London County Council.
Like so many large-scale post-war office schemes there was a trade off between the developers and the planners of the LCC. At Stag Place the developer got its vast office blocks in exchange for providing the area with a much needed traffic improvement; Bressenden Place. The then new road cut across the south-west corner of the 1960’s development dividing the meaningless geometry of the blocks in two. To the west of the roadway is Elliott House with the Stag, an octogon pub and to its rear Carrier House. All buildings here are by Trehearne & Norman, Preston and Partners. Adjacent to the Edwardian Palace theatre is a rare survivor of the type of building once common along the pre-war Victoria Street. The isolated structure is all that remains of a long terrace that extended up towards Buckingham Gate. Around the east side of Portland House there was once a large pedestrian piazza flanked on its southern side by the now demolished Esso House and the recently refurbished Roebuck House to its east. Esso House was built in conjunction with the adjacent Kingsgate House and the two once formed a continuous whole along a vast section of Victoria Street.
The shape of Portland House is characterised by the tapering of its footprint towards its ends. This created a loosely octogon cross-section and owes much to the influencial example of Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower in Milan of 1958. Another notable block in this tradition is Taberner House in Croydon. Tapering of the block provided a departure from the straight-forward slab and went some way to reducing the devastating impact of so much rigid geometry. Portland is finished in reinforced concrete with fins at its penthouse to shield service elements from view and double height arches at its base.
In 1993, Stag Place and Portland House were subject to a series of refurbishment projects led by owners Land Securities. Portland gained a curved glass canopy entrance and ancillary blocks at its base by T.P. Bennett Partnership and was joined by a new building, Eland House, to its north-west by EPR Architects in 1995. Effort was made to soften the impact of the 1960s scheme by providing light-hearted relief from the hard landscaping. One example of this is the 19-metre high, brightly coloured ‘wind-baffle’ or environmental screen by painter Patrick Heron erected in 1998.
In 2002, comprehensive redevelopment of the site began with EPR Architects. Most of the 1960s scheme was swept away including the vast Esso House, the pedestrian piazza and all of the low-lying buildings immediately surrounding it. In 2006, the site reopened as Cardinal Place: a major new office, shopping and leisure destination. The new development is defined by a large sweeping glass office and retail building along Victoria Street, which dramatically tapers into a nose-dive at the junction with Bressenden Place. This descent aims at a landmark architectural statement, but also preserves sight lines of Portland House and ensures its full height is unchallenged at street level. Elsewhere, Roebuck House has been refurbished and there are two new intimate public spaces on the sight of the 1960s piazza: a raised garden and shopping arcade protected from the elements by a large glass canopy open at all sides. The highlight of the development is the extension of the vista of Westminster Cathedral first opened up by the development of Ashdown and BP House in 1975.
Cardinal Place demonstrates how it is possible to integrate a potentially unappealing post-war building into a contemporary scheme without having to resort to dressing it up in the popular aesthetic garb of the day. Portland has escaped the kind of vulgar clads that destroyed for example, Basil Spence’s Thorn House on St Martin’s Lane in the early 1990’s. The architectural variety, or diaspora, at Victoria means there would be no point attempting to disguise it: there is no context. The huge scale of the building means that any commercial redeveloper would have been foolish to get rid of such a large bank of lettable units. A similar building today would almost certainly be denied planning permission. A recent feasibility study into the redevelopment of the west side of Bressenden Place by Hamilton Associates will almost certainly encounter planning difficulties owing to its focus on towers.
Although Cardinal Place suffers from the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of secured commercial space and an overdose of flimsy looking glass-fronted premises, its straightforward and legible pedestrian routes makes it an extremely easy space to use. Portland House has been saved by a combination of commercial imperative and good landscaping.