One of Spitalfields’ most important and characterful conservation areas, with the largely intact early 18th century Elder Street at its heart, is now under threat.
The area’s distinct character – which make it an important part of this historic, much loved and visited quarter of London – would be fatally diluted if the current proposal by developers British Land gets the go-ahead.
The proposed scheme involves large scale demolition, the creation of large blocks of commercial space – incorporating a ‘plaza’ – and the replacement of a rich mix of relatively small-scale structures with bland, corporate open–plan office and retail space.
The Spitalfields Trust – which has been fighting for the historic buildings of the area since 1976 – and local residents feel that the scheme, if built, would blight Spitalfields and help to destroy those very qualities that make it such an attractive place in which to live and work.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CONSERVATION AREA LEGISLATION
Under law it is expected that developers and architects building in conservation areas respect and enhance the established architectural, historic and social character. It is the duty of planning authorities to ensure this approach.
In 2007 Tower Hamlets wrote in its ‘Appraisal’ of the Elder Street Conservation Area that:
“Overall this is a cohesive area that has little capacity for change. Future needs should be met by the sensitive repair of the historic building stock……..
Historic structures and buildings should be retained, and new development should respect the urban form, scale and block structure.”
This view is sensible, legally absolutely correct and reflects the generally accepted attitude towards, and the legal and planning status of, conservation areas.
Any new developments in the Elder Street Conservation Area should – as basic necessity and as Tower Hamlets outlines – retain the existing historic fabric, respect the established building heights, language of design, materials of construction and should respond sensitively to the established mix and balance of uses.
THE EXISTING CHARACTER OF THE AREA
The physical character of the Elder Street Conservation Area is easy to define. Although buildings within it date from a wide spectrum of time – broadly from 1720 to the 1980s – there is a broad coherence of design, materials and scale. Most buildings are of terrace construction, very few more than 4 storeys in height, almost universally with brick-built frontages, and virtually all are designed as permutations of the classical language of design.
The Conservation Area is largely residential with some industrial warehouses, a mix of private flats and houses and some housing association accommodation.
THE ‘TABULA RASA’ PROPOSAL
British Land’s current proposal for the large portion of the Conservation Area which it controls (under agreements from the freeholder, which is the City of London Corporation) envisage the demolition, mostly to basement level, of over 70% of the existing fabric, according to Spitalfields Trust calculations. Much of the fabric that would be destroyed is 19th century, but includes the total demolition of one early 18th century house and the gutting of another. None of the threatened buildings are listed but many are of h4 architectural character and make very positive contributions to the artistically vibrant nature of the Conservation Area.
If the British Land scheme is built – with the large scale of demolition, tall buildings and extensive commercial uses it envisages – then the established and much loved low-rise and residential character of the Elder Street Conservation Area would be radically and irreversibly changed.
In planning and legal terms this means that ‘substantial harm’ will be caused to the Elder Street Conservation Area – a ‘designated heritage asset’ –specifically including ‘harm’ to the setting of listed buildings within the conservation area.
Put simply, it would appear that what British Land is proposing to do to the Elder Street Conservation Area, and to the listed buildings within the conservation area, at the very least shows flagrant disregard for the law.
COMMUNITY UNDER THREAT
The Elder Street Conservation Area has long been a necessary buffer between the brash, high rise and commercial City of London and the low-rise, largely residential and non-corporate areas of Spitalfields and Shoreditch.
If British Land’s scheme is built the Elder Street Conservation Area will no longer be a welcome haven of residential and low-rise peace for its mix of residents – comprising an harmonious community of owner-occupiers and housing association tenants – but would become part of the corporate and commercial world of the City of London.
The most striking physical loss proposed by the scheme is the robust and handsome late 19th century warehouses on the west side of Blossom Street. The group has been much altered but is generally an excellent example of the stripped classical design that distinguishes much 19th century industrial architecture in Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Hoxton.
Some of the Blossom Street buildings retain excellent interiors behind their fine brick elevations, including cast-iron columns, large-scale timber roof trusses and beautifully patinated timber joists and floorboards. The interiors are also rich in industrial archaeology, with remains of hoists, cranes and the Nichols & Clarke showroom that once occupied a part of the buildings.
In the British Land scheme the warehouses are gutted, parts of the existing brick facades retained and some portions rebuilt in replica, and the windows largely replaced. Some elements of the interior will, pledge British Land, be re-used if possible, such as cast iron columns and joists, but only if compatible with the proposed design. Preservation of historic interior details in situ is, argues British Land, not possible because floor levels in the existing building are to be changed to tally with the floor levels of buildings proposed for the adjacent site on Norton Folgate – so as to provide one huge building, with floorplates stretching from Norton Folgate to Blossom St.
Any reasonable person might assume that floor levels in existing historic buildings in a conservation area should dictate the floor levels in non-existing, new buildings – especially since the floor to ceiling heights in the existing warehouses are generous. But developers and their architects evidently occupy a world in which ordinary common sense and logic does not prevail.
The proposed buildings, to the west of Blossom Street and fronting on Norton Folgate, are of utilitarian design, would be clad with brick and rise to 11 storeys in height. This part of the scheme involves the total demolition of late 19th century warehouses, which possesses a fine array of cast iron columned interiors and a characterful Art Deco faience façade.
Parts of a late 19th group of adjoining buildings to the south would be retained along with the façade of one early 18th century house. However this act of seemingly benign conservation seems hardly worth the effort for in the current proposal the retained facade of the 18th century house would do little more than screen a service staircase and stacks of lavatories, while the ground floor of two of the 19th century buildings is remodeled to provide an entrance hall to the site in general.
Buildings of comparable height – 9 storeys – are also proposed for the Fleur de Lis Street northern edge of the site, to which the original façade of the 1927 warehouse is affixed like a postage stamp.
A small triangular site on the north end of the Norton Folgate frontage of the site would be used for the construction of a 13 storey tower block. The smallness of the site means that a large proportion of this odd building would be service core. It seems a hardly practical proposition and more an act of architectural vanity or a determination – for corporate of commercial reasons – to give the development a visual presence among the range of intimidating towers currently proposed for this small area of London.
THE FATE OF ELDER STREET – THE JEWEL OF SPITALFIELDS
Elder Street itself – one of the finest and best preserved streets of early 18th century houses in London – is also directly entangled in this proposal. Views of the street looking west from Folgate Street and Fleur de Lis Street would be transformed by the back-drop of tall office blocks rising on Norton Folgate. But, more to the point, the scheme envisages the rebuilding of nearly one half of the most historic and visually important portion of the West side of Elder Street.
Currently the north-west corner of Elder Street with Fleur de Lis Street is occupied by a large 1970s 4 storey office block of reasonably scholarly neo-Georgian design. The existing building is sound, represents a significant amount of embedded energy and is clearly adaptable.
But in the current scheme site clearance is proposed – a highly polluting and energy –wasting exercise – so the existing building can be replaced by another, but less scholarly, neo-Georgian design.
Despite the advice of local historians the current Elder Street design remains a hapless and willful attempt to ‘up-date’ the Georgian and make traditional design a vehicle for a ‘contemporary’ architectural statement. Windows are too large, details unconvincing and the relation and proportions of window to wall unsettling. The degree to which the design is the result of arrogance or ignorance is uncertain. All that was necessary was some humility and the willingness to study, learn and apply the lessons enshrined in the existing Georgian buildings in Elder Street.
This neo-Georgian component of the scheme – stretching along the south side of Fleur de Lis Street to Blossom Street – contains the residential element of the proposed scheme. Currently 40 residential ‘units’ are proposed totaling 4,000 square metres of residential space.
The prime use of the proposed scheme is commercial –mostly offices, but with shops and restaurants between a redeveloped Blossom Street and Norton Folgate. This in itself represents a significant change to the character of the conservation area area that is currently largely residential in use, with one hotel, a range of warehouses and a scattering of offices and studios.
The scheme envisages the creation of 33,040 square metres of ‘commercial’ space. This is estimated to be an increase on the existing of around 65%
In addition the schemes envisages the construction of 3,550 square metres of retail space. This is a colossal increase in accommodation, commercial and retail, and reveals the profiteering nature of the proposal.
AN IDEAL SOLUTION.
To demonstrate how building in the Elder Street Conservation Area should be undertaken the Spitalfields Trust has commissioned an alternative ‘ideal’ scheme, with a master plan evolved by the eminent architect and planner John Burrell.
The resolve to commission an alternative scheme is in many ways a response to long, tedious, frustrating and ultimately fruitless discussions with the developer and their architects.
Preferring discussion over confrontation, the Spitalfields Trust initially agreed to enter the process of consultation suggested by British Land. The Trust made it clear that it was not interested in making reasonable and well-argued suggestions that were ultimately ignored or dismissed. Fruitful and creative consultation can only take place if developers and their architects are open-minded and prepared to concede a number of significant and strategic points put forward by informed critics.
However, we repeatedly discovered that the suggestions we made that related to critical commercial aspects of the scheme – or to the pet-projects of various architects – were ultimately ignored or derided.
Sadly, with little of consequence achieved and having several times gone in circles over discussion of details (particularly with the design of the proposed elevations for Elder Street), we then found the application submitted with no meaningful regard for our input.
Consequently, in a spirit of open and creative public debate, we now offer in a public exhibition our critique of the British Land proposal and our own vision of a future for Norton Folgate.
Our scheme does not adopt the developer’s brief , nor does it attempt to achieve the same inflated return on investment. Instead it takes its brief from the Conservation Area and from the special character of Spitalfields. It shows how new buildings designed with a respect for the past can enhance and reinforce urban historic character.
It shows how developments in conservation areas ought to be undertaken.
Existing building are repaired and adapted, with respect for their character. Gap-sites adjoining historic buildings are developed in self-effacing sympathy with the existing buildings. The architectural language of the neighbouring buildings is emulated – in some cases, through research, lost buildings of the area are brought back to life. Larger sites are developed in a more contemporary fashion, but with a deep regard for the building history and traditions of the area.
The 19th century industrial classical buildings of Spitalfields and Shoreditch provide excellent and relevant models. They are spare, minimal, almost abstract – with slender brick piers, framing wide areas of glazing – and with open-plan interiors. Designs inspired by this model can produce dramatic and beautiful street architecture that has a sculptural and contemporary feel, while being rooted in history. They also provide models for flexible and very usable interiors.
This local building tradition – well represented within the site by the buildings on Blossom Street – provides inspiration for the larger buildings in our proposed scheme.
These approaches to design reflect the belief that the role of new buildings in a conservation area is to enhance the existing historic buildings and character – not to challenge or overwhelm.
Dan Cruickshank is a trustee of the Spitalfields Trust.