There is now a smart huge new block of offices at Central St Giles, just off Shaftesbury Avenue, with the obligatory glass and steel construction and faced in green and orange – why such garish colors, we ask ourselves? This monsterous new building sits on what was an old Ministry building, which was once a hotel, probably pre-WWII, I believe. That’s all gone now. An archaeological excavation that took place prior to the rebuilding, noted by Camden confirmed that there was lots of human activity around this area post-medieval, including a brewery and cellars, not to mention earlier medieval remains of a horse skeleton.
The sentiments in the guardian article echo my own feelings about this edifice. I’ve been strolling around this part of London for 20 years. I feel like I’m being ‘sold’ the lame idea that bright colours can rescue a dumb building. Its a bit of a ‘marmite’ building. On his website, Renzo Piano poetically describes “chiselled volumes” and “shimmering facets”. Its all very well to wax lyrical, but IS it really? We wait to see if the courtyard attracts us in or not. Given the high rate of unemployment and the closure of a number of offices in the vicinity, what catering establishments will risk opening at this moment in time? How long will it remain empty? There are, apparently, 53 ‘affordable’ (read: pokey) apartments and 56 ‘private’ (read: luxury) apartments in this development. Most of it is owned by Legal and General.
I can’t help thinking that there’s a 21st century take on the old 17th century ‘rookeries’, the poorest of the poor living in abject poverty in what was described at the time as ‘rookeries’ on about the same site. I wonder if it was in the mind of the Italian architect, Renzo Piano when designing the outer look of this huge building. The small windows, tightly packed and now stacked high, could easily be imagined to be a new version of the long forgotten old. I found a sketch on Getty Images. This is how it might have looked.
From the air it looks enormous, and he intended to create a ‘joyful heart’ to the area, heaven knows it needed something! At ground level, it swamps the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, and hides Centre Point from view, something that was always visible from Shaftesbury Avenue. This new development can be seen rising above New Oxford Street. The Independent’s comment on the development echoes that in the Guardian (above). Now that the ‘internal’ parts are open for pedestrian traffic, it was quite pleasant to see how the shadows of the glass create some shade from the bright sunlight. A lone tree looks a bit pathetic and dwarfed by the building, though.
Central St Giles, and the neighbouring part of Bloomsbury featured in the famous Hogarth illustration of the consequences of Gin abuse, Gin Lane. St George’s church, quite close by, features in this illustration. It still stands, and has undergone some extensive renovation in the past few years. In earlier times, The Angel Inn on St Giles’ High Street was the last stop for miscreants to sip water before being hanged at Tyburn. So much history in this area now trampled beneath the 21st century’s monuments.
In Victorian times, 1852, Thomas Beames wrote of the inhabitants of the Rookeries of St Giles
” The inhabitants may be classed as follows:-
1st. Shopkeepers, lodging-house keepers, publicans, and some of the under-landlords of the houses, who make a considerable profit by letting the rooms, furnished and unfurnished.
2nd. Street dealers in fruit, vegetables, damaged provisions, and sundries; sweeps, knife-grinders, and door-mat makers.
3rd. Mendicants, crossing sweepers, street singers, persons who obtain a precarious subsistence, and country tramps.
[-40-] 4th. Persons calling themselves dealers, who are probably thieves, and the occupants of houses of ill- fame.
5th. Young men and lads, of ages varying from ten to thirty, known as pickpockets, and thieves of various degrees.
About one half of the inhabitants are Irish, chiefly natives of Cork, who for the most part have been long resident in London. About one eighth are of Irish descent, born in England; the remainder consist of English, some of whom have been in better circumstances. This last remark must be taken with some allowance, because of the obvious difficulty attending such classifications.”
“St. Giles’s… types – …the lowest conditions under which human life is possible.”
In those days, St Giles took on an altogether more menacing persona by nightfall. Tuppence for a room for the night, may be seven men crammed in together, a penny for a quart of gin. A hangout for felons and miscreants. Nice area, huh? I guess now it will be haunt of investment bankers, lawyers and accountants. Not much change there, then?
While of course we don’t want to return to that level of abject poverty (heaven knows there’s enough homeless selling Big Issue around the area still) but I can’t help feeling there is something soulless about modern architecture. Not only that, but there is an uncomfortable mix of 18th century stone buildings with excesses of moulding and carving, nestling against 1950s post-war utilitarian buildings, 1960s concrete monstrosities and 1990s sleek and stylish steel and glass. Bloomsbury has some genteelly crumbling elegant 18th century architecture which fits the wide streets and generous green and leafy squares. All the bustle and noise of Oxford Street and the massive Crossrail development is encroaching on everything east of Gower Street. Central St Giles is meant to become an icon building in London. I bet I won’t recognise the area in another ten years. Did Camden’s planners get it right?