The site that saw off Seifert
By Chris Rogers, Aug 10 2021 12:50PM
It often seems that nowhere in central London can escape redevelopment. To find a location that has managed to fend off successive schemes for fifty years, even as the bulldozers chip away at its immediate context, is remarkable. But just such a place emerges if you delve into both my own past and that of the site itself…
Today’s Edgware Road tube station on the Circle, District and Met Lines was built in 1928, a reconstruction of a stop on the world’s first subway that had originally opened sixty years before. Its platforms were just below street level and open to the sky, a result of the cut-and-cover method used to create the line which here paralleled the route of Marylebone Road as it ran east across the capital; the long, north-south road from Marble Arch to St Albans that gave the station its name was a short walk away to the west. Staircases led up to the two-storey station building on the corner of Cabbell Street and Chapel Street by rail company architect Charles W. Charles, clad in faience. Abutting this was a terrace of Georgian houses, its end wall to the junction with Lisson Street soon decorated with a great hand-painted sign. Beyond that side road a second terrace met Griffith House, an industrial block facing Old Marylebone Road at the eastern limit of the plot.
Post-war development came to the area with the first tower, erected in 1961 on the other side of Cabbell Street. A few years later the newly-formed Westminster council mandated three more, one on each remaining corner of the cross-roads formed by Edgware Road and Marylebone Road, to make a ‘gateway’ to London from the west and north. The Marylebone flyover was built during this time, its ramp cutting Lisson Street in half and causing the Chapel Street stretch to be renamed Transept Street.
The earliest plans for redevelopment of the Edgware Road Underground site date from this period, when in 1973 a building of stepped form (four, five and six storeys) was proposed to house flats, offices and a new station; Griffith House would remain. Enough work had been done two years later to validate the planning grant and the eastern-most terrace of houses was demolished in 1977 but nothing further came of the scheme.
A larger building of seven storeys throughout was given permission in 1980 and the architectural practice of no less a figure than Richard Seifert was responsible for the design, which was developed at least until 1982. Perspectives show a ground floor of glazed shopfronts framed in pale concrete or stone, two floors of offices in what is probably brick whose bronzed, boxed-out windows carry through both levels and four floors of balconied flats above that, set back to reduce their bulk. A loading bay is visible, which might also have provided access to the approved car park. Entrance to the station itself is relocated to Chapel Street roughly in line with Transept Street (which was in turn permanently closed the year of the grant) and marked by a neat treatment of the Underground roundel. This, too, did not proceed but the concept had not been forgotten.
In 1988 a planning brief issued by Westminster council required the entire site to be considered, ‘a gain in residential accommodation’ to result and better circulation through the station and immediate area to be provided. Developer Taylor Woodrow partnered with London Transport and engaged another major commercial architecture practice, RHWL, to try to achieve it. They brought forward an even bigger scheme that exploited the air rights principle by decking over the railway tracks. Three buildings, still of different heights but now reaching 12 storeys at the western end, were of ‘overtly modern’ form and clad in ‘sinuous flowing’ glass. They were connected on the upper floors and by an internal street. Brick-faced blocks held the residential component and ground floor arcades were provided as a public amenity which also linked new entrances to the station. A modest car park, shared between the uses, was squeezed into a basement alongside the tracks.
Considered by the council to be a ‘rational response’ to a difficult site and ‘acceptable’ thanks to its overall form and detail, its size was nevertheless recorded as ‘the absolute maximum that can be recommended’ and a warning sounded that ‘the sheer scale of the building threatens to overpower the architectural devices designed to enclose it.’ For the same reason an entirely brick façade – on the face of it more suitable for the context – was not requested as this was thought to risk a ‘clumsy agglomeration’ of traditional motifs when deployed to cover so great a volume.
Various amendments took place over the five years that followed, addressing the impact on light and views for the council-owned flats on the other side of Marylebone Road and adjusting the balance between commercial and residential elements. At about the same time the terrace of houses abutting the existing station building was demolished. Failure to secure a pre-let for any of the new blocks coincided with the recession to halt the project in 1993.
In 1998 yet another attempt was made to build out the site with a concept that placed elliptically-planned towers at either end of a mid-rise block but this did not even get as far as planning. This was despite the comprehensive redevelopment of Paddington Basin beginning just a few hundred metres to west, a project that continues today. The Edgware Road station site thus remained stubbornly untouched with its Edwardian building now standing alone and the wider area used as an Underground depot and car park accessed via the now-gated Transept Street.
In about 2012, though, activity could be seen in the railway sidings to the south of the station platforms, used for stabling trains and until then backed by a simple brick wall. In Chapel Street above hoardings went up and plant arrived; excavation ensued, followed by lots of concrete being poured. Finally, after a couple of years, a boxy arrangement of volumes in a striking wallpaper-like finish appeared, rising from those sidings and baffling me, commuters and passers-by alike. Too small for an office block or apartments, with no windows anyway and no obvious way in either, what on earth is it?
New trains on the Metropolitan, Circle, District and Hammersmith & City Lines are mechanically more effective, feature air conditioning and electronic signage and as a result require more electricity than their predecessors. This comes from bulk supply points, a type of electricity sub-station that takes power from the national grid and manages its introduction into users’ own networks. It’s one of these that has been built at Edgware Road. Comprising two sub-basements housing cableways and switchgear topped by a double-height space for the transformers, the engineering is impressive. A diaphragm wall made from sheet piles 17 metres deep enabled the excavation, which in turn meant taking away 1,200 lorry loads of earth. Innovative fibre-reinforced concrete brought fire protection and waterproofing, reduced the amount of steel and allowed thinner walls for increased space. Those transformers, housed in a 10 metre high space, weigh hundreds of tonnes.
Nevertheless Pringle Richards Sharratt, the practice responsible for the project, ruefully notes that such a workmanlike structure failed to possess ‘its own aesthetic’ when completed. In such cases ‘the architect is faced with the choice of a bland box or an ornament’ so they have chosen the latter, with client subsidiary Art on the Underground commissioning a work by Jacqueline Poncelet called Wrapper. Its patterns and colours seek to echo those of local transport, flora and trade and were made using vitreous enamelling, screen printed ceramic inks that were baked on to 1,500 square metres of steel panels. Produced in Wales, they took nine months to install via an aluminium frame.
So now you know. It’s a bold idea and whilst I’m not sure it is fully effective, it does give diversion for the eye and the mind. Whether its presence will finally put a stop to development plans for the wider site is perhaps another question. Electrical sub-stations are often incorporated within new buildings, but they are usually re-clad to match; it’s hard to imagine the opposite, a building being re-clad to match a sub-station. On the other hand, Wrapper is billed as a permanent work of art and presumably cost a fair amount of public money too, so it’s surely unlikely to be ripped off and thrown away like its paper namesake. Another fifty years will probably tell.
Chris's first book examines the career and works of British architect Michael Pearson, the third generation to head the practice founded by his grandfather in 1904. Pearson's presidency of the Architectural Association and his pioneering and prescient Burne House building are covered.
"Throws light on significant achievements"
– Patrick Duerden, Practice Director, Donald Insall
Black Dog Publishing, 2010
ISBN 978 1 906155 73 5
Become an architectural detective with Chris's second book, investigating the styles of a thousand years of building in the world's most visited city from the middle ages to the present day. Illustrated and with photographs, maps and addresses, also included are a list of resources and a two-part introduction.
"A little gem"
– Terry Philpot, Tablet
Ivy Press, 2016 with Larousse (French edition) and Akal (Spanish)
ISBN 978 1 78240 406 4
Chris's third book - a publisher's best-seller - reveals the hidden gems as well as the iconic landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village. Covering the West End, City and Docklands, the book follows the same format as How to Read Paris.
– Don Brown, The London Society
Ivy Press, 2017
ISBN 978 1 782404 52 1
Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is illustrated with its own collage-style spread.
Ivy Press, 2018
ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3
Commissioned from Chris by the Chief Magistrate for England & Wales to mark the closure of Bow Street Magistrates' Court, this pamphlet celebrates the world-famous institution and its final home. It was given exclusively to guests at a commemorative reception.
"I really like both the research behind it, and its clarity and accessibility"
– Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, Her
Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service
Private press, 2006
The Twentieth Century Society’s new peer-reviewed Journal on commercial architecture in Britain since the 1920s includes Chris’s piece on Fitzroy Robinson's pioneering atrium buildings in the City of London. The piece is founded in original research including archive imagery, interviews and site visits.
Twentieth Century Society, 2020
ISBN 978 0 955668 76 0