55 Victoria Street
This grand 19th century London boulevard suvived the Blitz only to be the victim of 1950s redevelopment. Now it is being reinvented once again
I have always found Victoria Street slightly disorientating, it runs east-west but feels as if it is running north-south. It is a relatively new thoroughfare, carved through the 19th century slums, nicknamed Devils Acre by Dickens in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. Conceived of as a grand boulevard that linked monarchy to parliament via Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, it is almost contemporary with Haussmann’s re-planning of Paris. Importantly Victoria Railway Station at its western end was, at the time, the gateway to Europe.
Victoria Street was originally lined with tall fairly utilitarian residential and office buildings, Artillery Mansions is the only survivor, and it gives us an understanding of the scale and quality of the original street. Surprisingly Victoria Street survived the Second World War fairly well, while it was not unscathed it was not the Blitz that lead to its wholesale redevelopment, it was the planners.
As the economy improved in the mid 1950s, the demand for office space increased as government departments grew, and Victoria Street was lined up for its first major redevelopment. The bustling mixed-use street was replaced with a string of bland office buildings that eradicated the public realm, reinventing it as a transport thoroughfare.
The bustling mixed-use street was replaced with a string of bland office buildings that eradicated the public realm, reinventing it as a transport thoroughfare
A lot of the buildings were designed by Burnet Tait, including Westminster City Hall, but perhaps the quality of the vision for Victoria Street is defined by New Scotland Yard. Max Gordon and Chapman Taylor’s building seems to suck the life out of the city. By the 1970s retail uses were being introduced to the buildings at ground level, and EPR’s 123 Victoria Street marks a break from the linear slabs and towers of the 1960s. Whether it is an improvement is debatable, the boxy stacked cubes rise and fall like a rights of light envelope, but the building at least opens up a decent public space outside Westminster Cathedral. This block has just been refurbished so I would expect it to be with us for some time.
The third incarnation is now well under way, the north side of the street will soon have been comprehensively rebuilt 50 years after the 1960s boom. Whilst there does not seem to have been a masterplan, a planning brief was set by Westminster City Council in 2011. It envisaged a lively public realm, many more shops and restaurants, new grade A office space and an up-lift in the quality of the architecture. Most of the north side of the street is owned by Landsec, which has invested hugely in the area.
We can now begin to see the results. There is absolutely no doubt that the new developments have restored the public realm at street level, they have also created retail areas away from the thoroughfare and these tend to feel less successful. The new architecture varies in quality. It is at its weakest when it adopts curtain walling, colour and twisted aluminium fins, these cannot disguise the generic meanness of the solution. The Nova building by PLP, Cardinal Place by EPR, and 62 Buckingham Gate by Cesar Pelli could be anywhere in the developed world. There is a whiff of Dubai about them.
What we are building today is a big improvement on the post-war redevelopment, but it is essentially just an exercise in replacing those outdated buildings, there is no masterplan, no big idea
Patrick Lynch’s Kings Gate and Zig Zag buildings are altogether more successful, they have depth and texture, they are made of materials that relate to the City, and the public space around them is well planned and varied. Importantly they introduce some residential space too. The New Scotland Yard redevelopment will be next, it is a big block for one architect so let’s hope that Squire and Partners continue this richer theme.
Perhaps inevitably the optimism and vision of the original 19th century street is lost forever. The Victorians used planning to create a place out of slums. What we are building today is a big improvement on the post-war redevelopment, but it is essentially just an exercise in replacing those outdated buildings, there is no masterplan, no big idea.
Is it too late for that to be addressed on the southern side of the street? The Army and Navy store and number 1 Victoria Street must be redeveloped soon. There is perhaps a chance to develop a more solid architecture that is recognisably part of London, with Artillery Mansions at its heart. In a small way we have attempted this with our residential block at 55 Victoria Street, a modern mansion block.
Mike Stiff is a director of Stiff & Trevillion
10 August 2017
28 November 2016
25 October 2016