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by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 17
August 2021

What’s gone wrong with London architecture?

The capital has never looked worse than it does today
by Peter Franklin
Artist’s impression of the proposed MSG Sphere. Photograph: The Madison Square Garden Company

Modernism is a civilisational catastrophe on a global scale. But pricing that in, one has to ask how London architecture has managed to sink to yet lower depths over the last decade.

A few examples:

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The giant glowing ball of Stratford

This one hasn’t been built yet — and hopefully never will. It’s a proposal for a spherical stadium, the height of Big Ben, whose illuminated exterior surface would display advertisements visible across a large part of east London.

It almost dares the critic to use the phrase “Bladerunner aesthetic”, but overgrown vulgarity is a likelier outcome here than dystopian grandeur.

The Marble Arch Mound

Speaking of monumental disappointment, here’s what happens when an obviously stupid idea gets off the drawing board. For reasons never adequately explained, it was decided that what the West End really needs is an artificial hill made out of scaffolding and astroturf. The visiting public disagreed.


So what to do it now? In ancient Sparta, there was a mountain where unwanted infants would be exposed to the elements. I’d suggest that the Marble Arch Mound is put to a similar use — only for misconceived municipal projects.

Nine Elms

Nine Elms was central London’s biggest brownfield site — a massive opportunity to show the future what we were made of.

Well, posterity won’t thank us. From the sinister Borg cube of the US embassy to the apartment blocks wrapped around Battersea Power Station like gangrenous bandages, this is less regeneration than degeneration.

Lewisham Gateway

Though especially egregious, Nine Elms is not atypical. London over the last few years has been holding a festival of spreadsheet architecture, with developments like the Lewisham Gateway and whatever they’ve been doing round the back of the Shell building.

You know things are bad when the modernists go quiet. Never happier than when rhapsodising some concrete horror like the Barbican, they’re oddly silent about latest outbreak of towers.

It’s as if London’s contemporary architecture fails on every criterion (except making money, of course).

Lambeth Palace library

I saved the most disappointing for last.

It’s not that the new Lambeth Palace Library is outstandingly hideous. It has some redeeming features — for instance, it’s use of bricks. Unfortunately, it also looks like three or four them, crudely arranged.

Given the architectural legacy to which the C of E is heir to — including the old library — is this really the best they could do?

The Government keeps on telling us that we should support new development because there’s no reason why new buildings shouldn’t be beautiful. And that’s right. They don’t have to be ugly.

And yet they are.

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Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

A city, a country, without faith or vision. London, as with the country at large, has absorbed everything, from everywhere, but can’t bare to look over it’s shoulder as to where it came from. A perfect NEW identity, for a brave new world, free from the baggage of the past. Narcissistic, self absorbed and without a soul.

Charles OJ
Charles OJ
2 years ago

1) Aesthetics is not taught at architects school. A friend of mine, headed for a professorship in Turkey, had never heard of Roger Scruton, or studied classical concepts of aesthetics.
2) Commissioning agents are philistines. Like the prat who commissioned the mound. No idea what he’s doing.
3) Cost. Crap design is cheaper
4) Architects prefer brutalism. As the Architects Journal notes, architects love square concrete stuff. The public prefer Georgian/Classical/proportionate designs. There is a huge divergence in opinion between the designers and the public.
5) Brainrot. Architecture is influenced by Young British Artists, Duchamp, and other 20th century influences, who rejected beauty and went for shock value. It’s terribly bourgeois to design handsome buildings. What would Damien Hirst say? Sadiq Khan’s advisor on architecture Dinah Bornat even argues Georgian architecture is colonial.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago

Perhaps we should get Artists to design the appearance of buildings, and Structural Engineers to make sure they don’t fall down. All Architects to be legally prohibited from any input.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

“Perhaps we should get Artists to design the appearance of buildings,”

!!!!! Do you know what artists do? Have you seen their stuff? Hunter Biden would likely be commissioned for two million to come up with some ‘Art’ design. That’s like getting a butcher to run a petting zoo.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

In architecture (as in art) Modernism is a cul-de-sac, with nothing to offer after the initial and bracing shock of the new.
I also blame CAD. Bring back drawing boards.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D