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The Value and Price of Development

Featured_The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current day ©Design Exchange

A selected feature is taken from our CHANGE edition

When Design Exchange Asked The Gentle Author To Pen An Opinion Piece On The Subject He’s Best Known For— The Politics Of Aesthetic And Cultural Change In East London— We Offered Free Rein On Focus And Angle. He Did Not Disappoint. 

Neverthless, we felt the finished article warranted a right to reply on the part of the developer. So we give a blow-by-blow account of the steps we took to make contact and publish counterpoints to represent those behind the Glacier Point project, which includes the Duke of Cambridge. In turn, the timeline alongside this article (in the printed edition) gives an insight into our journalistic process, while asking serious questions about transparency in the 21st Century UK property market.

Right: The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, 1997 ©Chris Dorley-Brown Left: The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current-day ©Design Exchange
Right: The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, 1997 ©Chris Dorley-Brown
Left: The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current-day ©Design Exchange

Words: The Gentle Author

It is rare that you cannot believe your eyes, yet that was my response at first seeing this East London chimera. When I initially examined the proposal for facading the Duke of Cambridge in Felix St, Bethnal Green, part of the planning application for a larger housing development by Heath Holdings, designed by Guy Hollaway Associates, I was astonished and appalled at how a new building appeared to have been forcibly inserted into an old structure. A kind of hybrid monster.

At the time, I dismissed this as dystopian fiction because I could not imagine it would ever be built, but the reality is so much worse than that proposal. Such is the ugly conflict between old and new, you can almost feel the humiliation and pain of the original. The experience is akin to your dear old grandpa with the Father Christmas physique having his trousers stolen, and you find him wandering bereft in the street, tricked out in a pair of garish lycra shorts because they were the only option available. 

The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current-day ©Design Exchange
The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade ©Design Exchange

It makes you wonder how anyone could have thought that this treatment of a gracious 19th Century pub was sympathetic, or how the finished results would be acceptable as architecture? It stretches my imagination to grasp the aesthetic which permits an architect to arrive at such a disastrous compromise.

On his website, the architect describes it in these terms: ‘A dynamic glazed box of ‘reglit’ glass tubes juts out of the top of the brown and red brick facade of the original building, creating a relationship between old and new.’ 

This statement got me thinking about the precise nature and quality of this relationship, and it is my consideration of this dynamic which forms the substance that follows…

The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current-day ©Design Exchange
The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade ©Design Exchange

THE CULTURE OF THE PUBLIC HOUSE

The earliest record of the Duke of Cambridge public house is when the land was purchased by William Brown, in 1825, for £2,200, including the ‘newly-erected tavern’ which was ‘being built in December 1823’. The Regent’s Canal had just been cut through East London and, a quarter mile to the north, the Imperial Gas Works— powered by coal delivered by barge— opened in the same year. 

Today, the Duke of Cambridge exists as one of the last vestiges from the early-19th Century in this neck of the woods, when the East End was transforming from a string of rural villages into an extended urban landscape.

Through the centuries in London pubs, taverns and inns have provided invaluable social spaces where people from all walks of life could congregate, in which the commerce and culture of the city has thrived to the degree that a greater part of the capital’s identity has arisen from its drinking houses. In the East End, these establishments constituted an extension of the domestic space as a focus of community life, where neighbours and members of extended families could rely upon meeting. 

In terms of the urban landscape, each street corner formerly possessed either a pub or a local shop and these twin locations were the foundations of neighbourhood society, followed closely by the church. You could argue the current increase in binge drinking, which links to alcohol being separated from its social context, and the fracturing of urban society into faceless anonymity may be directly attributed, at least in part, to the demise of London’s pubs.

Commonly, such watering holes carry the history of the neighbourhood where they are situated and their persistence is essential if London is to retain the distinctive character and quality of life which makes it an attractive place to reside and to work, and which constantly brings visitors from across the globe to experience its uniqueness. Two pertinent examples are The White Hart in Bishopsgate next to Liverpool Street Station, and The Marquis of Lansdowne, on Cremer Street, Hoxton.

The White Hart was originally a coaching house and tavern which dated from 1240  Alan Sugar’s company, Amsprop bought the site reducing it to a facade with a cylindrical office
The White Hart was originally a coaching house and tavern which dated from 1240 Alan Sugar’s company, Amsprop bought the site reducing it to a facade with a cylindrical office

The White Hart was originally a coaching house and tavern which dated from 1240, positioned just outside the gate of the City of London. Rebuilt in 1470 and then 1827, it retained its medieval cellars and was constantly busy, until Sir Alan Sugar’s company, Amsprop, bought the site, reducing it to a facade with a cylindrical office block surmounting the entire edifice. A grotesque monument to one man’s ego was created, indicative of a lack of respect for culture.

The Marquis of Lansdowne in Hoxton  dated from 1843
The Marquis of Lansdowne in Hoxton dated from 1843

The Marquis of Lansdowne in Hoxton dated from 1843 and became the focus for workers in the cabinet-making industry that flourished in the surrounding streets, and which led to the creation of the Geffrye Museum as a celebration of the furniture trade. In 2013, the director of the museum acquired Heritage Lottery Fund money, and announced his intention to demolish the pub and replace it with a concrete cube. 

Dismissing the contradiction of the Geffrye Museum (which describes itself as ‘the museum of the home’) setting out to destroy an historic building that constitutes an extension of the domestic space, the director justified his decision by explaining that he had ‘no interest in the culture of the labouring classes.’  

Fortunately, in this instance the scale of public objection prevented the demolition of the pub, which is now being restored with cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the museum’s regeneration, masterminded by Wright & Wright.

Across London, it has become all-too-common for pubs to become the prey of opportunistic developers, and their lack of protection is explained by the lack of appreciation for the cultural value they represent, both historically and in the present day. Yet pubs are necessary oases of civility in the chaotic urban landscape, rare public social spaces that permit the opportunity of fellowship. We lose them at our peril.

THE FACADING OF THE DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE: AN ARCHITECTURAL CRITIQUE

There are several ways in which the dominance of this new structure, crouching like an incubus on top of the old, expresses antipathy for the building it inhabits and denies the potential of any resolution of the diverse elements into a satisfactory architectural whole, which ought surely to be the object of the exercise.

Firstly, the scale, proportion, colour and idiosyncratic placement of the windows in the extension ignore the form of those in the Duke of Cambridge, which now have clunky new frames inserted that differ significantly from the originals, dividing the windows in half laterally and compounding the inelegance of the configuration.

The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current day ©Design Exchange
The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, ©Design Exchange

Secondly, the reglit glass tubes, with their strong vertical emphasis, give the extension the effect of being extruded from the building below. The industrial modernity of these glass tubes is alien in this context, disregarding the traditional brickwork of the pub and mitigating further against any integration of the different elements into a whole. 

Thirdly, the former mansard roof of the Duke of Cambridge was raked, tilting away from the vertical walls beneath and held in place visually by the symmetrical flourishes of the Dutch gable on the front of the building, but the new extension does not resolve the form of the building below. Instead, by avoiding any acknowledgement of said gable, this crudely disproportionate rectangular box exists in conflict with the rest of the structure to discordant effect.

There is no reason why an architect could not use overtly modern materials in such a project, if the proportion and form of the building unified them within the design. Similarly, I can see that by using traditional materials an architect could extend a building successfully in a form that contrasted with the pre-existing structure. 

The problem with the Duke of Cambridge is that the choice of form and the materials for the extension are both at odds with what is already there. These manifest deliberate decisions by the architect not to engage with the old building, delivering a visual eyesore.

I feel disingenuous pointing all this out because I hope that architects are blessed with a sensitivity for these essential concerns of their trade. I would like to imagine that the architect who chose to use the glass tubes on top of the Duke of Cambridge believed the luminosity of this material might impart a levity to the extension, as if it hovered above its predecessor like a cloud of light, or the beacon of a lighthouse. Yet, even if this were the case, they have failed for the reasons outlined above.

CONCLUSION

The explanation of why The Duke of Cambridge has been degraded in this way must lie with the two huge new buildings which are part of a larger development by the same architect and developer on the other side of Felix Street, where from a total of more than two hundred dwellings, it is intended that only around 25% will be ‘affordable.’ 

These vast curved blocks, which are the shape of irregular lamina, possess no meaningful relationship in form or scale with the brick terraces of the Hackney Road or the dignified Guinness buildings constructed as social housing a century ago on the opposite side of Felix Street. 

Such is the generic nature of their design, they could equally be placed in Minneapolis or Milton Keynes. Stylistically they do not belong anywhere, raising the suspicion that the form is dictated solely by an imperative to maximise volume and financial return, rather than entertain dialogue with the existing urban landscape. 

The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current day ©Design Exchange
The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, ©Design Exchange

It is profoundly disappointing to witness how the current housing shortage has delivered a field day for exploitative development across the capital, rather than impetus to address the real needs of Londoners.

Which brings me back to the Duke of Cambridge— because the anachronistic materials and forms which blight this formerly elegant structure, the reglit glass tubes and the idiosyncratic window placing, are prominent features of the development across the road. In other words, the Duke of Cambridge has been adulterated in an attempt to unify it with the new housing blocks resulting in a dysfunctional conversation between two incompatible languages.

Although the Duke of Cambridge closed in 1998, I am reliably informed that there were those who wanted to reopen and give it new life, which would not have been impossible in this increasingly fashionable neighbourhood with a burgeoning cultural life. 

A shining example of such an endeavour is The Marksman, just a half mile down Hackney Road, which has managed to maintain its traditional customers and bring in young professionals with the promise of classy cuisine. It has achieved a Michelin nod and a healthy turnover, while fulfilling the traditional role of the public house in London as meeting place where diverse members of the local community can share time together, relaxing in a social space that is common to all. 

An equal opportunity existed with the Duke of Cambridge, which might have functioned as the place where residents of the Guinness social housing buildings and the inhabitants of the new development could meet. But the opportunity of providing a social space for fellowship, as the pub had done for the previous 175 years, was denied by the developer for the sake of a few more flats, thus consigning it to the past, while retaining the original facade’s lettering as a mere historic relic. 

A reminder of life as it was, but is no more.

The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current day ©Design Exchange
The Duke of Cambridge, Bethnal Green, façade, current day ©Design Exchange

Rather than imposing a generic style upon the neighbourhood, the two new housing blocks would have been more sympathetically realised if they paid attention to the form and materials of the surrounding streets, treating the existence of The Duke of Cambridge as a functioning pub in its unaltered state as the keystone of their conception. 

This approach proposes a more integrated social landscape, rather than isolated blocks of new residents without any means or venue for direct connection to the existing community. Which brings me to the knotty question of how the financial imperative driving such ill-conceived developments may be reconciled with our need for a city we want to live in. One which serves the many, not just the few. 

The treatment of the Duke of Cambridge incarnates a metaphor of this conflict vividly and the ugliness of the outcome is a pertinent slap in the face, reminding us how often any concern for quality of life or good architecture is blatantly sacrificed for the sake of greed. This disastrous hybrid is an unfortunate totem of where we are now, an object lesson for architectural students of what not to do, and I’m sure future generations will laugh in horror and derision at the folly of it.

Read more about our discoveries and our journalistic process while asking questions during the research of this development in our CHANGE edition

The Gentle Author writes daily about the culture of London and the East End at www.spitalfieldslife.com is the author of several bestselling books including Spitalfields Life, The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism and The Gentle Author’s London Album, and is one of the founders of the East End Preservation Society.

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