Council approves a hideous new building in Hammersmith Road

bechtelHammersmith and Fulham Council’s Planning Applications Committee has approved plans for Bechtel House at 245 Hammersmith Road to be demolished and for an equally hideous building, slightly taller (ten storeys instead of nine), to replace it.

Local resident Ned Pakenham commented:

“Much of the building is to be clad in concrete.  Not the brutalist finish of the 1970s, but concrete nevertheless.  In ten years rain and traffic fumes will have stained parts of it a mottled and dirty grey, and we won’t be able to clean it because concrete cannot be cleaned satisfactorily.  Surely this important site deserves stone or brick.

“The window reveals are to be clad in an unspecified red metal, and it looks like the architects/developers want aluminium powder-coated with red paint. Again, this is not a long-lasting material or finish and will degrade in twenty-five years to the point where another replacement building will be sought. Aluminium is cheap and looks cheap. If metal is to be used, let it be bronze which won’t deteriorate and will develop an attractive patina.

Sheppard-Robson-Hammersmit_636“Finally, the additional height of the proposed building is a small but significant skyline grab from Brook Green, Wolverton Gardens and Rowan Road. One has to question why a building no greater than the existing height cannot be insisted upon by planning officers. When did it become okay for developers to build higher just because they are replacing an uglier building?”

All the usual excuses for agreeing an ugly building are trotted out. The building it replaces is ugly anyway. It is not in a conservation area . There are already lots of other ugly buildings in the vicinity – although in their report the planning officers acknowledged that the “Brook Green conservation area is located to the north and the Hammersmith Broadway conservation area is to the west. There are several listed and locally listed buildings opposite the site on Hammersmith Road. Include the Sacred Heart Convent and School..”)

Another excuse is that it is for offices – as if such building must inevitably be ugly.

baker-streetfrancisThen there is the description of the building as “modern”. What the planning officer means is modernist. Yesterday’s future. These concrete slabs might have been modern in the 1950s, by the 1960s they were pretty routine. Since then the dreary design has persisted but has become increasingly dated, discredited and unpopular. It is nonsense to suggest that modern building must be modernist. The building on the left is a new office block in Baker Street (designed by Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects).

It is modern. It is not modernist.

One of the most absurd justifications is that the proposal gained a positive response from the Council’s Design Review Panel. But that is just one bunch of modernist architects approving the work of another bunch of modernist architects. Ditto with the endorsement with sometimes hear about from CABE.

Then we get into similarly circular territory with schemes where modernist planning officers in City Hall endorse the prejudices of the modernist planning officers in Hammersmith Town Hall.

Or the further tautology from the planning officers that modernism is fine because it says so – in the planning policies written by the planning officers. (“Contemporary architecture is encouraged…” “policies should not stifle innovation, originality or initiative through unsubstantiated requirements to conform to certain development forms or styles..”)

Then there can be the defence of the Bechtel House plans which is to challenge the premiss that the new building would be ugly. I would be surprised if anyone actually claimed that what was proposed was beautiful – modernism entails the rejection of beauty as a creative ideal. However the planning officer’s report says it would be a “sympathetically designed” building – which I think means in sympathy with the other concrete blocks.

A valid point would be that Legal and General should have been encouraged to produce a quite different design much earlier in the planning process. I have asked what design brief they were given. Had the planning officers told them to produce something ugly then it would have been understandable if they had then been a bit miffed at such an application then being turned down. The meeting note of September 15th shows their representatives went through the plans with three Labour councillors – Cllr Michael Cartwright, Cllr Andrew Jones and Cllr Guy Vincent. There is no reference to any of these councillors raising any concerns about the designs. They should have done.

Then we have the box ticking about the “key stakeholders” being squared. The routine here is for amenity groups to make footling points over the details and then to feel sophisticated and important when some of their efforts at turd polishing are grudgingly accepted. Thus we end up with Hammersmith Society in their newsletter giving the pronouncement that this is a “good scheme”. Who says so? The Hammersmith Society committee? One or two members of the committee? Good relative to what? Would you like to live in such a building? Or live opposite it? Or work in it? Or eat or shop in it? I fear that Society is setting their standards pretty low to offer such an emphatic endorsement.

More box ticking comes with a wider consultation. 20 people attended an exhibition over two days, eight of them left responses. Eight. The planning report then adds without apparent irony: “The comments made were largely supportive of the proposals yet some comments focused on the design of the proposed building.”

At this point it is usual form to scold the other residents for being too apathetic to attend the exhibition. But would it have made any difference if they had. As I have stated before the real way to empower residents would be to have offered a choice of designs, of broadly equivalent densities and financial viability, with at least one of traditional character. I am all for development and that means allowing the company that undertakes it to make a profit. I don’t think that means ten storeys, preferably it would mean below nine. There can always be some flexibility in making less onerous demands for Section 106 payments if a building is attractive.

So let us offer development choice. Let the people decide.

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