Category Archives: An urban view

Goodbye Piccadilly

180px-Simpsons_of_Piccadilly_2005 When was the last time you had your inside leg measured? Or for that matter you were asked rather discreetly “and on what side does Sir dress?”

One of the last bastions of sartorial elegance is hanging up its tape measure for the last time at the end of the year.
Baron of Piccadilly one of London’s quirkier outfitters is to close, as Crown Estates their landlord plans to pull down their block for re-development.

Further along the road was Simpsons of Piccadilly, now a Waterstones book store. Simpsons opened in 1936 in what is now a listed building, the Art Deco design was the first shop in Britain to have an uninterrupted curved-glass frontage. This new style was made possible by arc-welding a wide-span steel frame, rather than earlier techniques which involved using bulky bolted joints.

[T]he company built as a quality clothing store specifically for men had the ethos that Simpson of Piccadilly was to be a purveyor of ‘quality clothes for the well-heeled’. Indeed, the store regularly attracted the ‘tweed set’ including Royals, MPs, dignitaries and country landowners.

During the early 1950s, scriptwriter Jeremy Lloyd was employed as a junior assistant at Simpsons; he drew on his experiences to come-up with the idea for the highly-popular television sitcom Are You Being Served?

At least Fortnums are still in Piccadilly, the store that gave you such exotic foods as Harts Horn; Gable Worm Seed; Saffron and Dirty White Candy, and incidentally were the first in 1886 to stock the entire output of a Mr Heinz’s newly invented canned food.

An Open House

85 Swains Lane 220px-St_Pancras_Old_Church_2005

[A]rt can be expressed in many ways; painting, drawing, sculpture, but none have the visual impact more than architecture. Done badly it can blight people’s lives and ruin neighbourhoods. One only has to look at some of the housing estates designed in the 60’s by trail brazing architects to see its impact. Conversely good architecture can capture our imagination, change the way we relate to our community, create employment, revitalise a neglected part of London and improve our physical and mental health.

Good design will produce a more attractive environment, stronger communities with a sense of ownership and pride in their local area. Well designed buildings and public spaces are therefore vital in creating and sustaining a vibrant London.

The obsession to design glass boxes has rightly been criticised by Prince Charles, who it seems has continued his one man crusade against these hideous un-English buildings being forced upon us. Hardly a week goes by without one architect or another attacking him for his interventions against this ugliness.

Well, as an antidote to all that is ugly, this weekend sees the annual Open House event where a range of buildings open their doors for free public viewing. From the newly constructed Royal Institute of British Architects 2009 Award Winner; 85 Swains Lane to St. Pancreas Old Church believed to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. The owners of these properties are proud to show the contribution they play in the shaping of this great City.

CabbieBlog derives some satisfaction reading this year’s programme to find that many of the buildings criticised previously on CabbieBlog have not had the courage to open their doors to the public.

America takes flight

On this day when America is in our thoughts, I am returning to the security of their embassy in Grosvenor Square and their proposed move to Battersea south of the river.

In the late 1950s the Duke of Westminster agreed to allow the United  States to demolish the whole of the west side of Grosvenor Square so they could put up the terrible building we see today.

But the siting of the American Embassy led to one of the most bizarre and protracted processes of negotiation ever seen in London.

[T]he Americans have embassies all over the world and in every single case they buy the land first and then build their embassy. They assumed that this would be possible in England so they asked the Duke of Westminster, who owned Grosvenor Square, how much they would have to pay to buy the freehold of the land. What they didn’t know is that the Grosvenor family never sell. Their vast wealth is based precisely on this simple fact: they own three hundred acres of central London including most of Belgravia and Mayfair, not to mention land holdings all over the world. All the houses and offices on this land are leased; their freeholds are never sold.

When the Americans were told they couldn’t buy their land they insisted that was unacceptable and that they would petition Parliament to force the Duke to sell. Questions were asked in Parliament; the Grosvenor family were heavily leaned on but all to no avail.

Then the Duke thought of a good compromise. He told the furious Americans that if they were prepared to return to the Grosvenor family all those lands in the United States stolen after the American War of Independence then he would allow the Americans to buy their site on the west side of Grosvenor Square. The Americans knew when they were beaten (they would have had to give the Duke most of Maine and New York) and being unwilling to hand over land they themselves had stolen from the Indians anyway, they backed down and the Duke of Westminster allowed them a 999-year lease. And that explains why the embassy in London is the only American embassy built on land not owned by the America.

The Embassy building was then constructed in the late 1950s, opening in 1960; it was designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen. It is a nine-story building, of which three are below ground. A large gilded aluminium Bald Eagle with a wingspan of over 11 metres is situated on the roof of the chancery building, making it a recognizable Knowledge of London landmark for Cabbies.

Fast forward to 2009 and the United States Embassy now plan to move from this site because of security concerns. Even though that building is extremely heavily fortified, the Embassy has been refused permission, by Westminster City Council to close surrounding streets as an added precaution to stop the threat of a lorry bomb.

America’s plans are for a new 5-acre embassy site to be located between Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges (completed by 2016), which will be concealed behind a giant mound of earth. But The Mayor wants the boundary wall to be ‘visually permeable’, allowing the 97 metre embassy building to be seen from the road, not blocked by a four-metre concrete wall, as part of the embassy’s tight protection scheme, which includes a 30-metre ‘blast zone’ and a detachment of US marines. Security is so tight that only American based architects are being allowed to design it.

Draft plans have been submitted to Wandsworth Council, which has welcomed the embassy because of the prestige it will add to the borough. The building would be used by 800 staff and attract 1,100 visitors a day. The Americans hope to select an architect by early next year from the shortlist of four, including the 92-year-old designer of the Louvre glass pyramid, I M Pei.

But The Mayor says he is prepared to reject proposals for the £500 million complex in Battersea known as the Iceberg if it breaches his planning vision for the capital.

Mayor Boris, who was born in New York, is also under pressure to force America to pay £3 million in congestion charge fines it owes London before agreeing to the embassy. America has refused to pay the charge since it was launched in 2003, claiming its diplomats are exempt.

Ken Livingstone, Boris’s predecessor, was less than diplomatic when confronting the previous American Ambassador, Robert Tuttle, at his refusal to pay his diplomat’s fines and zone charges, directing his anger at the ‘former used car salesman’ calling Mr Tuttle a “chiselling little crook”.

The man who will now have to steer through the planning application and the negotiation with the Mayor’s office will be Louis Susman, 71, whom Barack Obama recently appointed as his new American ambassador to Britain. Be lucky Mr Susman! The Duke of Westminster wasn’t a pushover and nor is Boris.

As a footnote: A lot has been said of our MP’s expenses of late, particularly of their second home allowances. When the Americans move out of their embassy, all our politicians could apply to have apartments situated inside the most fortified building in London. With only a 10 minute journey to the Palace of Westminster it’s the perfect location. Then we could stop paying these inflated housing allowances to our underemployed Members of Parliament.

A Phoenix Arises

Supreme Court As part of a CabbieBlog series with the imaginative title The Buildings of London we focus on another London architectural delight.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, to give it its full title, is emerging like a phoenix from the old Middlesex Guildhall, on the south side of Parliament Square – and what as little gem it promises to be.

Little did Tony Blair imagine, or care, when he was ingratiating himself with the Americans to guarantee his healthy income stream for when he left office, that copying their idea of a Supreme Court would bring that neglected building to life.

[T]he name Middlesex comes from the kingdom of the Middle Saxons, and has been around for over a thousand years and the Guildhall symbolises that civic pride. The building was built between 1906 and 1913 in an art nouveau gothic theme, and decorated with mediaeval-looking gargoyles and other architectural sculptures. The Guildhall also incorporates in the rear a doorway dating from the seventeenth century which was a part of the Tothill Fields Bridewell prison and moved to the site to be incorporated in the building.

The conversion has attracted much controversy from conservation groups, which claim that the conversion will be unsympathetic to such an important building. The Middlesex Guildhall is a Grade II* listed building and English Heritage classed the three main Court interiors as ‘unsurpassed by any other courtroom of the period in terms of the quality and completeness of their fittings’. But the conversion works have involved the removal of many of the original fixtures and fittings with a vague promise to display a few key pieces in the basement and find a home for the rest in some other building not yet designed or built.

Outside the building stands a statute of George Canning whose total period in the office of Prime Minister was at 119 days the shortest on record. If only Tony Blair tenure had been so brief, Britain might not be in the sorry state it finds itself today.