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Understanding Transactions


by Richard MacCormac

This article first appeared in the Architectural Review, March 1994

This is a speculative study in its infancy. What has seemed important to me is to convert rather static observations about the nature of the European city into an understanding of it as a process, not simply as a product that exists in stasis. This would allow us to make better judgements about the nature of change and how we should guide change in old fabrics. I think that the unpopularity of what is called the ‘modern environment’ is partly to do with a deep sense of incongruity and a feeling that the nature of change is such that instead of affirming what exists and adding to it, the modern environment is perceived to have destroyed what was good and not to have improved on it. I want to investigate why.

The idea of looking at cross sections is to test a proposition about the traditional nature of the West End of London; it’s hard to do in the City for reasons of rapidity of change. The validity of the proposition is yet to be established, though I have a sense that some of the things I am going to discuss were intentional in the development of the great land holdings, like the Bedford Estate.

The first example is north of where I work and live, in Spitalfields. In Cheshire Street market the Victorian houses are in multi-use. I managed to get them listed about three years ago to stop them being demolished – the borough planned to demolish everything here to build warehouses – partly to ensure the preservation of a social characteristic of this part of London. The key characteristic of this environment is that it supports what I call ‘local transactions’: people living behind their own front doors, restaurants and shops of all kinds and small local businesses and, of course, pubs. Local transactions are threatened if people who plan areas of this kind do not understand the threat which bland warehousing represents. Transactions such as distributive warehousing on the Bethnal Green Road, and such functions as wholesale markets, banks and office buildings, are destructive of local character because they don’t primarily serve local people and the transactions do not take place across the pavement. I call these ‘foreign transactions’ because they operate on a regional, national or international level. The warehouses do not belong to the road they are in because they abruptly interrupt its local character. They are incongruous.

I want to explore the way that cities can be made up of successfully co-existent functions of different sorts that find their right place. I want to try to understand architectural and urban structures as being rather like coral reefs that are re-inhabited over and over again. There seems to be a pattern in the relationships which recurs though the functions change. For example, in the eighteenth-century city, large houses on primary streets were inhabited by high income families and the mews behind serviced them. Today the houses might be offices of an international/national kind with a mews inhabited by people selling services to the primary users, like printing, employment agencies or sandwich bars.

Observations of this kind have prompted me to think about how to resolve the problem posed by the warehouse development on Bethnal Green Road. You organise the development so that the frontage to the road contains local transactions: chambers like buildings of a modest scale which have frequent access from the pavement and which contain small businesses, retailing, whatever. All these uses facing onto the road sustain the idea of the road as a place in which people can transact, and the regional or national distribution function of the warehouses is relegated to its own hinterland. So there is a precinct or service area behind the street. This belongs to the activities around it and confines them. The sections through the street and service yard are symmetrical while the section through the block between them is asymmetrical. So my proposition is that, traditionally, similar uses housed in a similar scale of building, faced each other across streets and the change of use and scale occurred within the block enabling a succession of adjacent streets to be different from one another. The symmetry in the street affirms its character as a place. It follows that the symmetry across the block characteristic of so much modern development produces either uniformity across the urban fabric as a whole or a series of places of ambiguous function and scale.

Disconcerted by the local borough planning policy for the Cheshire Street area, our office looked at how these ideas might be applied. We discovered that the existing section was intriguing, with the railway in a cutting going into Liverpool Street, bounded to the south by run-down warehousing looking into an existing plot of public open space called Allen’s Gardens. We showed how the lively street character could be kept by preserving buildings and functions and how the hinterland could be developed for servicing warehousing without affecting the street scene.

We considered housing to be a more apt use to border the public open space which becomes the enclosed garden its name suggests. But we also perceived an economic side: that housing primes the site value, giving confidence to potential small scale investors in the little workshops and businesses between the housing and the railway. There is a sequence here, railway, small businesses giving acoustic protection to the housing, and the housing making an appropriate edge to the garden, to which it has a claim which small businesses don’t. There’s an idea here which is analogous to the game of dominoes where certain values attach to each other and certain ones don’t and it is this expression of congruity that is also part of my investigation of certain sections through the West End of London.

I would like to focus on two sections. The first is across London from the Thames to Centre Point. There is a general sense of congruity across the river with the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre, County Hall and so forth facing the Savoy Hotel, Shell Mex and Embankment Place on the north bank. All are equivalent kinds of set pieces. So there are symmetries of intention even across a river. All are responses to the symbolic status which the river carries into the city. For example the Savoy Hotel free-standing, with its palazzo section, is a type of Thamesside building that goes back to Roman times when villas were built here. If we look at what’s happening sectionally on the north bank we find that on the slope from the Embankment itself up to the Strand we get an enormous change of scale, and a change of type through the section.

What happens is that the hotel changes from being a palazzo with all the other ones looking across the river to being a terraced structure which subsumes its rhetoric into that of the Strand and becomes equivalent to most of the other buildings lining the Strand – mostly stone or stucco clad structures, five to seven storeys high. The Savoy Hotel itself is very interesting because there is a series of transformations within; it’s actually rather like a.Parisian HoteI de Ville which invites you to get into the centre of the block where a lot of thing’s are offered including the theatre. It gets its identity when entered from the Strand from its place of access. It.has a special identity as a place rather than as an elevation to the street.

In this argument I am not concerned with architectural style, but with purpose and use, probably material to some extent, and with scale. I think many different architectural idioms are reconcilable with those conventions. Moving one street to the north, we find another character in Maiden Lane, which is a service street with solicitors, chambers, flats, occasional pubs, small businesses, a few shops, where the scale drops down from the Strand. The whole street is quite distinct and again there is a symmetry of use across the street and asymmetry across the block. And then another asymmetry occurs when you come up in scale to the much more public situation of the Covent Garden Piazza. Very little survived of the buildings of Inigo Jones’s Piazza which was a symmetrical space of substantial scale into which the market was introduced. The church is on the axis of a wonderful central aisle through the Piazza. North is Long Acre, and here is a sectional change which goes from the large scale of the Piazza buildings down a bit to Floral Street which is a service street. (I don’t know quite what relationship it had to.the Piazza originally but clearly a service function) and then up to Long Acre, a major street nearly equal to the Strand. We are beginning to see an alternation of scale and activity which while not universal is often a characteristic of these West End developments of seventeenth to nineteenth-century origin. Just briefly think of CanaryWharf, and the Isle .of Dogs Free Enterprise Zone, and imagine whether you could find any equivalent arrangements.which allow primary, secondary and tertiary activities to find their place. There is nothing of the sort.

Then we go through a series of warehouse blocks north of Long Acre which are another environment altogether and sometimes the exception to the rule, being asymmetrical across the street. This warehousing served the fruit and vegetable market originally and has now found a new use in housing small professional businesses, or impoverished professional activities (like architects).

And then you get a curious thing in Neal’s Yard where the arrangements invert themselves. The service space which would have been for carts and dray-horses, at the back of buildings that looked out onto streets, has become an oasis of traffic-free activity. So the old coral reef, the old structure has suddenly been reinterpreted and inverted in a very positive way to create another kind of place.

Monmouth Street and Shaftesbury Avenue form the boundary to this area. This part of Shaftesbury Avenue is curiously without local transactions and dominated by large impersonal office buildings and to the north backs onto a desolate hinterland. Character changes again to small intensely used service streets off Charing Cross Road which are abruptly terminated by St Giles Circus. A terrible thing happened when Centre Point took out the end of the block of St Giles High Street, and joined onto the intersection of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road. Consequently the fabric has been absolutely destroyed and amputated. The amputation is hidden by advertisements: commercial bandaging on the end of the block. It’s that kind of disruption without any healing, which makes our modern interventions so crude, unresolved and ghastly. Which is not to say that you can’t find places for this type of building. I actually rather like Centre Point, but the problem is contextual, a question of congruity – whether or not it should be there. Even if one were to argue that it should be there, there should be ways between the planning process and architectural process of establishing an environment for a total change of scale and of use.

The second section is of a very different sort and runs from St James’s Park up to Golden Square in Soho again. The proposition gets a bit rough to the north of Regent Street, but what’s interesting about thinking about London in this way is that you start to ask questions which produce very unexpected answers. Nash’s intention was to have another ‘Carlton House Terrace’ on the other side of the Mall, a proposal which would have made the North boundary of St James’s Park rather different. In other words the Mall was going to be a ceremonial axis to the Palace like a great boulevard in St Petersburg. Carlton House Terrace has the rhetoric of facing the Park, but it is not entered from the Park side. A lot of modern buildings have a back and front, but country houses generally have two ‘fronts’, because they are entered from one side but they address themselves to the landscape park on the other. Nash’s building does this very successfully. The garden at the back of the Pall Mall clubs is a slightly strange space, but it’s very quiet and does have a special character, it is not entirely symmetrical – you don’t enter clubs from this side, you enter them from Pall Mall.

Then there is a very strange thing, the block between St James’s Square and Pall Mall is actually very thin – thinner than the depth of the block containing the clubs. This is because when St James’s Square was developed in the 1660s, Pall Mall was already established as a primary street so the buildings on the south side of St James’s Square originally presented their fronts to Pall Mall and their backs to St James’s Square. Now some of them are back to back in peculiar contrast to the social and architectural ambitions of the Square. St James’s Square has its general symmetry, and then to the north you get the service condition, Apple Tree Yard, which is a mews between St James’s Square and Jermyn Street, which again is symmetrical. So there is a symmetry of section through the block, from the primary activity of the square through the mews and up again to the scale of Jermyn Street.

Then we come to Norman Shaw’s Piccadilly Hotel. In plan it is the meeting point between Piccadilly and Regent Street which forms a wedge-shaped block. So the hotel is constrained absolutely by an urban proposition which is to do with its palace-like relationship to Piccadilly and the crescent of Regent Street to the north. The hotel presents itself as such on its entrance side to Piccadilly but is entirely subsumed by the uses and rhetoric of Regent Street. Then you cut through Regent Street to the back of Glasshouse Street, and you get the sense that even cities of the commercial power of London cannot sustain commercial activity in very long sections. There has to be quiet, and Glasshouse Street is very quiet, not a transactional street. It is a relatively low rental office street which collides with the old bit of Soho and then this part becomes dissonant.

Symmetries across places are perhaps generally a good thing, but my proposition does not depend upon symmetry occurring all the time. Off Regent Street, everything is dissonant and strange and interesting. Golden Square is full of amazing one-offs, talking very fast at each other, in a manner very uncharacteristic of the eighteenth-century urban ideal. Generally the surveyors, for example on the Bedford Estate in the eighteenth century, were sure that the long term value of the estates depended upon the style of the estate being maintained and upon leases that constrained people so that things like this couldn’t happen which is, in retrospect, interesting to our own situation.

I want very briefly to refer to the way these problems affected me when I was trying to work on the Spitalfields Market project. The rhetorical question is ‘can one reconcile very different perceptions of how cities are going to be; perceptions of what exists of the past and perceptions about the forces that change cities?’ The second scheme was complex in its attempt to come to grips with these ideas, but introduced other more metaphorical conceptions. I will just concentrate on certain things. There was to be a major retail area, and as with the Savoy, a series of Hôtel de Ville-like courts which belong to huge offices. Some of these courts are on Brushfield Street, the street with Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields at the end. The terrace by Allies & Morrison consists of small stone and brick chambers buildings, four or five storeys high, for retail use, backing onto further shops to relate to the little alleyways. The tall offices behind and above are quite different: prestigious and belonging to the world of New York, Tokyo, London. The scheme was an attempt to reconcile incongruities of use and scale using asymmetry through blocks to protect the character of Brushfield Street and to allow very different kinds of places to co-exist in an incredibly dense commercial development.

One last point: for 10 years or so I’ve had reprints from Booth’s London Poverty maps of 1889 on my wall. I suddenly realised that Booth’s demographic record of wealth is always symmetrical across streets and shows change occurring across the block.


This is an edited version of a talk given by Richard MacCormac to the Thursday Club in London