Maurice Sanders Associates ,1962St. Alphage House
|Borough||City of London|
St Alphage House is one of the last unaltered components of one of London’s greatest and most ambitious pieces of post-war urban renewal. It is a straightforward and lightweight building that owes its form to being part of the much greater development of London Wall.
Constructed between 1957 and 1976, London Wall was part of a movement of amazing optimism and faith in the ideology of architectural modernism and its promise of a new built form for the city following the devastation of the blitz. It demonstrates what was possible within the breadth of vision following the Second World War and the new powers of centralised planning control. The London that emerged from the ruins of war was to be the remedy to the haphazard milieu of previous. London Wall emerged as a segment of architectural clarity, symbolic of the efforts of the public body to exercise control over the built environment and crucially attempts on the private sector.
London Wall owes its conception to longstanding calls for a northern traffic bypass for the City of London. The first concrete proposals were put forward in the 1947 Town Planning Committee publication, “The City of London; A Record of Destruction and Survival” by C. Holden and W.G. Holford. In the document London Wall is referred to as Route 11 and shown as a dual carriageway running from Aldgate (east) to Ludgate Circus (west). The Holden/Holford plan espoused the virtues of new building forms in the city. It is a landscape characterised by the separation of traffic and pedestrian. New roads are lifted above new and intimate public spaces mimicking the City’s ancient lanes and courtyards. The plan suggests a continuity where people would relax and socialise amid gardens, shopping precincts and cafes. Crucially it also makes rather thorough recommendations on providing adequate daylight for workers through the reorganisation of the office building. This call was, “for something of an architectural revolution in the City.”
In 1944 a Town and Country Planning Act granted power for local authorities to acquire land through compulsory purchase to create a, “simpler and more expedious procedure for redevelopment of areas of extensive bomb damage.” In this year the City of London Corporation gained by compulsory purchase the 40 acre site north of St Paul's , which was to become London Wall and later the Barbican. In 1947 a further act nationalised the planning process and crucially granted the LLC planning control over the City Corporation, “much to the city’s disgust.”
In 1954, frustrated at the contemporary efforts of largely piecemeal reconstruction, a group calling itself ‘The New Barbican Committee,’ headed by architect Sergei Kadleigh, unveiled a plan of comprehensive redevelopment on the long derelict site north of St Paul's. The scheme proposed a vast network of interlocking hexagonal structures of towers and decks over the 40-acre site owned by the City Corporation. This utopian mega structure proved hugely influential and by 1955 a collaborative scheme of comprehensive redevelopment was unveiled by the City’s head of planning H.A. Mealand and the LCC’s Leslie Martin.
The roadway ‘Route 11’was central to the expression of the ‘Martin-Mealand’ scheme as built. Six towers of identical proportion, sit at equal distance from one another at 45 degrees to the street on a raised pedestrian deck with lower slab blocks at right angles. It was a monumental scheme and owed much to Le Corbusier’s 1933 ‘La Ville Radieuse’ in its geometric vision. It was characterised by generous public spaces and the complete segregation of traffic and pedestrian flows of circulation. It was anticipated that these ‘ped-ways,’ would eventually be expanded to provide a City-wide network.
To ensure this vision remained intact, strict guidelines were put in place for potential developers to follow. London Wall is a unique example of the application of planning controls to maintain an architectural unity. The LCC was keen that lightness and modern materials were encouraged and the City Corporation, as free holder, provided the paperwork and leases accordingly. The 28-acre site (the remaining 12 acres were given over to the Barbican development) was divided up into plots of land and sold speculatively. Developers would be responsible for adhering to rules on day lighting, density and car parking, but crucially were given a three dimensional architectural envelope as a precondition of the lease to work within. It was a type of control unseen in London since the Georgian Estates of the 18th century.
Developers would each be responsible for a portion of the continuous pedestrian deck and, while architectural treatment could vary, were to work within a set of rigid plans.
The towers were each to be of 16 floors (11 feet each) above the podium level and not exceed 140 feet in length or 58 feet in width. The finish was to be of a continuous curtain wall without interruption to be carried for two further floors to mask a variety of penthouse objects. This is to be finished with an upturned brim. The lower level meeting the podium should be set in by 3 feet 4 inches, while the podium itself be 20 feet high from street level. Additionally spandrel colours were to be selected from an approved range of twelve. One might expect this range of restrictive elements to deter potential developers, but building was swift and the scheme received critical acclaim as “architecture of the highest common factor.”
St Alphage House was the only plot not to be put out to tender. It resumed ownership to Maurice Wingate, “whose most valuable asset was a pile of rubble north of Route 11.” Wingate used the lease on a destroyed Victorian warehouse to amass a Limited company, which funded the development. A contemporary account praises its aluminium frame and, “ingenious,” upper storey skyline alternating with opaque and transparent elements. Like all others on the original scheme it is a plain rather Miesian block conceived with deliberate anonymity set on the spacious pedestrian deck. Throughout the past 20 years various economic booms have disfigured the other towers in various ways, while neglecting the deck buildings.
St Alphange is the only remaining tower to still have intact its original curtain-wall. Its retro fittings make it particularly distinctive and one can get an idea of the original aesthetic of the scheme with the remaining, but sadly decaying, pedestrian podium. Its comparative emptiness and raised level gives this area of the City a unique atmosphere. The feeling of spaciousness is unrivalled and one can get a glimpse of the planner’s intentions on a fine day. Its ground level at Fore Street, however, does not have the same vision. The dark deliveries entrances, the duplicated receptions and car park ramps create an unlovely space for any pedestrian unlucky enough to not be on the upper level.
In May 2007, property developers Hammerson announced plans for major reconstruction at the site for a new European headquarters building for international banking giant JP Morgan by KPF Architects. The new building is to be of 22 storeys and will approximately match in size the existing structure as its site falls within protected viewing corridors of St Paul’s Cathedral. Work is due to start in 2008. The plans mimic the pattern of development elsewhere on London Wall, where cladding, reconstruction and decking over has been advancing for years. The emerging architectural arrangement has destroyed forever the architectural unity of the scheme and produced a series of graceless structures all competing for attention.