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June 2019, No. 1395 – Vol 161

Building in the shadow of history

Editorial

Building in the shadow of history

Two eminent architects who have died this year offered very different solutions to the perennial question of how new buildings should be designed in the context of the old. I.M. Pei and William Whitfield may seem to have had little in common apart from advanced old age: Whitfield lived to be ninety-eight and Pei was a hundred and two. Born in Canton, but with a career spent largely in the United States, the internationally celebrated Pei crowned his career with the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, which opened in 2008. Whitfield was born in Britain, where he practised all his life, and his buildings were the sort that garner high praise from critics without ever making their creator’s name widely known. Yet both preserved their loyalty to Modernism during the decades of its rise, fall and renaissance, and both thought deeply about the way in which their buildings were integrated into historic settings.

Pei won global fame for his glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the most prominent element in a reconstruction of the museum in 1983–89. His assertion that the axial placing of the pyramid (with the three smaller pyramids that cluster around it) owed a debt to the tradition of French formal garden design helped win over public opinion. Yet, judged simply as architecture, the Louvre pyramid is less impressive than Pei’s East Building extension to the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Built on the National Mall, a scarcely less sensitive site than the Louvre, its monumental Modernism avoids being overweening thanks to the intricacy of its planning (prompted in part by an awkward triangular site) and to its cladding in the same Tennessee marble that was used for John Russell Pope’s original building. Although it was already becoming unfashionable when it was completed in 1978, Pei’s building is now widely recognised, in the words of Andrew Saint’s obituary of the architect, as ‘arguably the noblest art gallery of the last half-century’.1

A decade earlier Whitfield had captured public attention with an addition to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in the City of London, in which he took great care over the way his bush-hammered concrete extension, in a Brutalist idiom influenced by Louis Khan, was linked to John Belcher’s festively Baroque building of 1890–93. An even greater challenge was the design of Richmond House – the offices for the Department of Health and Social Care – in Whitehall, immediately south of the Cenotaph. Whitfield had to preserve the remains of a Regency terrace on the site and so had only a relatively small opening for his façade. His solution was remarkable: a cluster of narrow brick towers (banded in stone in homage to Norman Shaw’s buildings for Scotland Yard that lie behind Richmond House), linked by canted oriel windows. The result is a sort of postmodern Tudor that evokes the late-medieval Gothic idiom of Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey and even the Houses of Parliament; Whitfield acknowledged the influence of the Holbein Gate, built in 1531–32, which stood in Whitehall until it was demolished in 1723. By contrast, the interiors of Richmond House are in a very sophisticated classical style, with touches of a Secessionist idiom.

Most of Whitfield’s building now seems destined to follow the Holbein Gate into oblivion. The decision by Parliament in 2018 that it would move entirely out of the Palace of Westminster while the building was being repaired has prompted an urgent search for temporary sites for the two Houses of Parliament. There appears to be a consensus that the House of Lords will move across Parliament Square into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. In May, as part of Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Programme, a consultation document was published setting out the intention that Richmond House – with the exception of its façade – should be replaced by a temporary debating chamber for the House of Commons together with its associated facilities.2 All the other options that have been suggested – such as the insertion of a new chamber in another building on Parliament’s estate or the erection of a temporary chamber (Norman Foster has provided a design for such a structure on Horse Guards Parade) – are dismissed, although comparative costs are not given.

Although Richmond House is listed Grade II* and a number of bodies, such as SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Twentieth Century Society and the Georgian Group, have come to its defence, Whitfield’s building is highly vulnerable because, apart from its façade, it is so little known. Completed at a time of high security during the IRA bombing campaign in London, public access has never been encouraged and the only substantial contemporary record of its interiors was made for an article in Country Life.3 Whitfield was a no less skilful architect than Pei, but his reputation will not be enough to protect the building.

Parliament has decided that the Restoration and Renewal Programme will abide by existing planning legislation (rather than be carried out under its own powers) and so the fate of Richmond House will be decided by the Planning Committee of Westminster City Council. By a quirk of timing, the Council is currently considering an application to build another controversial new structure in the shadow of the Palace of Westminster. This is the National Holocaust Memorial, which the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation wishes to erect in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park overlooking the Thames immediately west of the Palace. There has been strong public opposition to the scheme, designed by Adjaye Associates, which incorporates an underground interpretation centre that will occupy around a quarter of the park even after having been redesigned to accommodate criticism that it was too large. The wish to include an interpretation centre has never been adequately justified, especially as the Imperial War Museum, less than a mile away, possesses a permanent Holocaust memorial exhibition. It would be a sad irony if a building that demonstrates how not to approach the task of designing a new building in a historic context is allowed to go ahead just as one that rose so successfully to this challenge is demolished.

 

1 A. Saint: ‘I.M. Pei’, The Guardian, 17th May 2019, available at www. theguardian.com /artanddesign/ 2019/may/17/im-pei-obituary, accessed 20th May 2019.

2 Available at https://northernestate.uk, accessed 20th May 2019. As part of the public consultation, the plans will be exhibited at the Harvey Goodwin Suite, Church House Westminster, Dean’s Yard, Westminster, on 1st, 7th, 8th and 10th June.

3 R . Gradidge: ‘New corridors of power’, Country Life (3rd March 1988), pp.84–87.