the most grandiose in the country – and all feted Sir George Gilbert Scott’s turreted Victorian pile, a restored Grade I-listed gateway comprising station, 245-room hotel and upscale apartments.
It’s extraordinary to think that these exalted red bricks were going to be skipped in 1969. ‘There were serious proposals to get rid of it,’ says Elain Harwood, English Heritage architectural historian.
The survival of St Pancras proves architectural taste is as fickle as any fashion. Tate Modern, designed by Sir George’s grandson, Giles, was once condemned by one critic as ‘a gargantuan expanse of ugly brown bricks’. Now, it’s the third most photographed landmark in the world. St Pancras and Tate Modern are part of a roll-call of buildings that have made it from chronic to iconic.
‘It’s an extraordinary process,’ says Harwood. ‘Buildings can recover their reputations and gain new fans.’ Other carbuncles that have made a comeback include the Hayward Gallery and National Theatre (the latter being famously compared by Prince Charles to a nuclear power station) and Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower.
Not all design landmarks survive changes in architectural fashion or the developers’ demolition teams, of course. The 1970s Heygate Estate at Elephant & Castle is being torn down, for example. But what fiendish alchemy turns the survivors from beast into beauty? ‘It often happens when a building is threatened,’ says Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society. ‘A collective impulse then grows to save it.’
And sometimes, people simply change their minds. ‘For years the Barbican was dull, but it’s now fashionable,’ adds Harwood. Look at Centre Point, once described by architectural guru Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘coarse in the extreme’, and Harwood admits, ‘It had a bad reputation for ages.’ Yet the much-despised tower has found its mojo. It’s now listed, with a developer due to convert it into luxury apartments.
But you win some and lose some. ‘The Victorians knocked down Georgian and the Edwardians felled Victoriana,’ says Katie Gunning of the Victorian Society. Epochal losses include the Euston Arch, great rescues include Covent Garden Piazza.
Harwood thinks architectural taste is generational, running in 25-year cycles, so once-hated buildings might now be loved. ‘My contemporaries aren’t interested in the 1980s but younger people are,’ she says. So we could be saving those examples of 80s post-modernism: all pink granite and round baubles.
English Heritage considered listing Sir Terry Farrell’s 1983 TV-am building in Camden, but it had been altered too much. Still, Harwood is interested in the 1987 Marco Polo building by Battersea Bridge, ‘It marked a new approach to design and build.’ So look again at the carbuncles. Perhaps their beauty will shine through. And developers: think before you reach for the wrecking ball.
FOUR BEASTS TURNED BEAUTIES
Savaged by the tabloids in the 1980s as a breeding ground for crime and proof that vertical living simply doesn’t work, Ernö Goldfinger’s west London high-rise is now an icon for urban hipsters and design nuts. It’s listed too.
Completed in 1966, this 35-storey office block soaring over Oxford Street was a byword for civic ugliness and branded ‘coarse’ and ‘insensitive’ by critics. Today it’s listed and has been earmarked for luxury apartments.
Designed by National Theatre architect Denys Lasdun, these 1950s flats in Bethnal Green became known as ‘Keeling Over’ and closed in 1992 due to defects. Now listed, revamped and lived in by professional types.
Crystal Palace National Sports Centre was once proposed for demolition by the London Development Agency for being ‘obsolete’. Now Grade II* listed, the 1964 sports complex is seen as a design icon by experts.
Photography: Jens Marott
Source: KFH Completely London magazine