by Peter Franklin
Monday, 29
November 2021

Left and Right unite against M&S building plans

The planned demolition of Orchard House has angered traditionalists and environmentalists
by Peter Franklin
Orchard house, Oxford st.

The Marks and Spencers at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street isn’t exactly the grandest building in the neighbourhood. That honour belongs to the palatial Selfridges which is right next door.

So M&S may have thought that no one would mind much if they demolished Orchard House and replaced it with a new building. Indeed, the company was “pleased” to announce the final go-ahead last week. The horrified reaction to their tweet should have been warning of the bad publicity to come.

Initially the push-back came from organisations like Create Streets and the Twentieth Century Society, both aghast at the impending loss of a fine example of 1930s architecture. But now the furore has spread to the mainstream media. While the coverage is overwhelmingly critical, there’s an ideological split on exactly what different critics are objecting to.

The Mail emphasises the damage to Oxford Street’s heritage. Though Orchard House doesn’t have listed status, its Art Deco facade adds to the distinctiveness of the West End. The same cannot be said for the proposed replacement — a typical example of what Nicholas Boys-Smith calls “spreadsheet architecture”.

Meanwhile, The Guardian focuses less on aesthetics and more on the carbon emissions that would be created by the destruction and replacement of a structurally-sound building. It reports a claim by critics that 2.4 million trees would need to be planted to offset the impact of the re-development. For Marks and Spencer — which makes a lot of its green credentials — this is awkward. The new building may be more energy efficient, but old buildings can be made greener too if they’re refurbished properly.

Traditionalists and environmentalists should make common cause here. Indeed, what better symbol of sustainability could there be than a building that is handed down from generation to generation, century to century? And what worse example could there be than to replace it with a faceless structure than nobody will ever love?

The arch-modernist, Le Corbusier, once said that a building was “a machine for living in.” As per usual, he could not have been more wrong. Machines wear out and become obsolete; a great building is the opposite — it becomes more valuable the older it gets.

Orchard House may not be a truly great building, but it is a characterful one. Marks and Spencer — a brand that prides itself on specialness — should think again.

Join the discussion

  • Every time I am in London I go there, behind Selfridges actually, to The ‘Wallace Collection’, the best museum in London. Being interested in history, Military, and art it is the very best with its vast collections of Medieval arms and Art, and the building its self is much of the enjoyment, a vast house converted to this museum for the people, amazing place.

    I always love that part of London – the amazing coffee and cakes at Selfridges, just all of it – if M&S is to be torn down I hope it will not be replaced by ‘Spread Sheet Architecture’ or some Glass covered Ghastly architectural nightmare which London does so much of and so badly.

    If they could stay classic in design it would be good.

  • Far too often buildings are demolished to make way for something that is in no way an aesthetic improvement at great financial and environmental cost. Refurbishment should usually be considered first and foremost as the cheapest and most environmentally friendly solution. Too often a new build is simply a vanity project for the CEO.

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