notes.husk.org. scribblings by Paul Mison.

2009-05-10

In Praise Of: Drapers Gardens

text 14:15:00

[Contextual note: I started writing this three or four years ago, possibly for Smoke Magazine, but also maybe for the web. In the meantime, Drapers Gardens has gone from being condemned, to being demolished, and now the replacement building is structurally complete and being fitted out for opening within a year, so you’ll have to make do with photos on the web. Still, it feels as if it’s worth publishing this despite that.]

Drapers GardensI’d like to sing the praises of Drapers Gardens, while I still can. Not the historic guild’s flower bed, although that’s just around the corner, but the relatively small, certainly obscure 1960s tower block that overlooks it, but, perhaps, not for much longer.

If you stand at the north of Waterloo Bridge, looking upstream, towards the City, Drapers Gardens is the rather greenish skyscraper that sits behind St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s not tall by modern standards: at 100 metres, it only just makes it into the list of London’s towers that was carried in Smoke #1, next to an appreciation of the Empress State Building, another overlooked building. In fact, if you’re not looking for it, it’s probably lost amongst the cluster of similarly-sized towers that it sits amongst, notably Angel Court and the old Stock Exchange tower. (The equity traders abandoned it for the new Paternoster Square late last year, and it’s going to be reclad in glass, apparently.) It certianly doesn’t have to eyecatching qualities of 30 St Mary Axe (which, by law, apparently, I have to also refer to as “the Gherkin”).

No, the subject of my affections doesn’t make much of a mark. However, it’s the work of a man who did. The other City tower that you’re bound to notice is Tower 42, the old NatWest Tower, and its architect, Richard Seifert, also designed Drapers Gardens (and Centre Point). In fact, I’d argue that he did more to change the London skyline than anyone else, back to Christopher Wren, and certianly more then Norman Foster, who has admittedly changed the feel of the city, but with the exception of the aforementioned 30 St Mary Axe, done little that makes an impact on how it looks from its vantage points.

Finding the tower is a little tricky, although the same can be said for the Gherkin, in all honesty. The best way to approach is by passing under Tower 42 from Bishopsgate, then continuing down a little alley that runs westwards through a building, leading you out into a view of one of its broad sides. If you do this in the morning, the sun might be glinting from the incredibly green glass, in strips between the concrete of the floors.

Drapers Gardens From SouthHowever, it’s at the side that the architect really makes a statement. Follow the path round the south of the podium, then look up. There’s something of marine biology about the way the curved sides suddenly angle in to the recessed central shaft, again glazed in green. I can gaze up at this for minutes, and it’s certainly more interesting than the dark browns of the later tower directly behind you. Seifert is reported to have claimed Drapers Gardens, rather than the more famous towers, as his proudest achievement, and from here, I can see why.

A couple of years ago, you could walk back round to Throgmorton Avenue and walk up to the podium level, and around the base of the tower, which rears out of the central core, complete with orange lighting under the structural supports. This was meant to connect to the emerging network of highwalks, explaining the rather odd markings on the floor, to “Bank” and “Barbican”, when following the latter takes you to a wall overlooking an alleyway. As it turned out, the highwalks were only fully realised around the Barbican, but they also had a few outposts around Tower 42 and Upper Thames Street (although these too are falling to the wave of redevelopment that’s swept the City). Now, though, this is all taped off, in preparation for the demolition that’s surely to come.

The Bank, by cowfishFrom underneath, the odd floorplan of the tower is even more apparent. The tower takes up very little of the plot, which always surprised me until I attended a lecture on Seifert’s work, when it was pointed out that planning rules dictated the maximum ratio of tower height to plot taken, rules which Seifert knew better than the planners who were deciding on his schemes.

It’s the abandonment of these rules in the 1980s which has been part of the downfall of the tower; the new scheme for the site fills the volume far more effectively, and the floorplans will undoubtedly be better suited to the use of whichever bank or organisation takes it over. (The Seifert tower itself was previously occupied by the NatWest, before being abandoned.) 1960s buildings were also designed before the advent of pervasive desktop computing, and the expectation of niceties like air conditioning.

Still, for all that the reasons for the tower’s downfall are compelling from a raw economic perspective, I’m stil going to miss Drapers Gardens, along with other threatened buildings of its era, like 20 Fenchurch Street and Mondial House. Their replacements are invariably glass and steel boxes of dubious architectural merit, and with their plot-filling they lose the quirkiness that made Drapers Gardens such a delight. I’ll miss it, and perhaps, if you’ve noticed it, you will too.

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