A few weeks ago, I posted to Twitter that I’d managed to micro-optimise my commute home by heading through an alleyway between a hotel and conference centre, then through a car park, and finally passing through a department store and shopping mall, direct to the metro station.
It only saves a minute or two (although it’s slightly drier on the rare occasions when it rains), but I enjoy doing it partly as a minor piece of urban hacking. The land is almost all the weird hybrid of public but private, or vice versa. The section through the hotel’s car park feels least welcoming, but the municipal car park requires a walk by the internal ramps, and using a shop that you never buy anything in feels a little odd to me too.
In the wake of mentioning it, I pointed friends at the latest in a series of New Yorker articles written by those who aim
to walk from the Empire State Building, on West Thirty-third Street, to Rockefeller Center, on West Forty-eighth, without ever setting foot on Fifth or Sixth Avenue — to knife through tall buildings in a single bound, or at least in stepwise forays. A writer for this magazine accomplished the feat in 1956, and a photographic attempt appeared on our Web site last year.
I was reminded of all of this because there’s recently been a proposal to turn an area a little way from this - from Fifty-first to Fifty-seventh, between Sixth and Seventh avenue - into an official path.
The New York Observer has more on how this space came to be, and it also explains the tiny POPS logo in the bottom right of the map:
If it seems strange that all these public passageways should line up, that is how it was always meant to be. These spaces are a legacy of the same era that brought us Zuccotti Park. Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, as they are often called, have been much in the news lately, thanks to Occupy Wall Street. The spaces in Midtown are at once similar and different. While none are as big as Zuccotti, they were all built to add precious square footage to the towers to which they are connected.
Sometimes this meant little more than opening up the lobby to the public, while other times developers would build soaring open air arcades. The stretch contains one of the greatest POPS in the city, the UBS Gallery at 1285 Sixth, the southern anchor of 6½th Avenue, which houses works from the Smithsonian and not only runs north-south but also east-west.
The article goes on to note that the plan isn’t quite signed off yet, with the mid-block crossings the sticking point - also a problem on my walk, since I have to cut across Howard (Mission does have a mid-block crossing between the shops and parking). Still, it’s an interesting counterpoint to London’s declining highwalk system and its still-thriving backstreets, and I’m curious to see how it turns out.
The area to the north of London Wall was almost completely levelled during the Blitz and was essentially a blank canvas for reconstruction… work that is still going on and if you know where to look there are still some bomb sites waiting for someone to come along and fill the gap.
For inspiration the planners looked to Stockholm where, in 1946, a plan had been tabled to create a similar business area consisting of a line of five Modernist ‘slabs’ in the Hötorget (Haymarket) area – each a curtain-walled office block and all of them aligned alongside an arterial road. By the time construction began in 1952 the plans dictated that each should be 18 stories high (with all surrounding buildings limited to two) and all be of a very similar design… each was worked on by a different architect but the limitations imposed by the city meant that they looked pretty much the same.
Key to the scheme was the addition in 1953 of a series of raised pedestrian walkways, complete with shops and connecting bridges… which for anyone who’s been along London Wall will sound spookily familiar to the desolate raised pedestrian areas in the vicinity. London’s planners wanted their own Hötorget and similar restrictions were placed on the architects – as with Stockholm five blocks were built (Moor House (1961), St Alphage House (1962) and Lee House (1962) to the North of London Wall, 40 Basinghall Street (1964) and Royex House (1962) to the South) and each looked almost identical apart from slight variations such as the colour of the strips along the bottom of the windows, although the windows themselves were all identically sized.
First things first: for anyone who ends up here hoping for archeology, I’m not talking about the Roman wall, or the medieval one built almost entirely along the same path. No, I’m talking about the post-war development along the (new) road of the same name, just south of the Barbican.
The Blitz during the second world war hit Cripplegate hard, and there wasn’t much left beyond the street plan. As such, the area was a prime candidate for redevelopment, and the far south of the site was made into a dual carriageway, called Route 11 in the plans drawn up soon after the war, but named London Wall once it was constructed.
By 1960 the road was complete, and commercial development was stirring. As the excellent Post War Buildings site notes, as with the later Barbican development, the influence of modernists was strong:
The roadway ‘Route 11’was central to the expression of the ‘Martin-Mealand’ scheme as built. Six towers of identical proportion, sit at equal distance from one another at 45 degrees to the street on a raised pedestrian deck with lower slab blocks at right angles. It was a monumental scheme and owed much to Le Corbusier’s 1933 ‘La Ville Radieuse’ in its geometric vision. It was characterised by generous public spaces and the complete segregation of traffic and pedestrian flows of circulation.
Constructed between 1955 and 1977, the scheme - influenced by cities such as Stockholm, which already had podium-based towers and segregated walkways - must have been a real change from some of the heavy, masonry-based, soot-blackened buildings that surrounded it in the City.
When Michelangelo Antonioni wanted to show Thomas, the photographer played by David Hemmings, in modernist surroundings in the 1966 film Blowup, he had him drive eastbound down London Wall, with those new towers flanking either side of the road, and the pedestrian bridges clearly visible (along with a sign highlighting the newness of the dual carriageway). Within another ten years, the scheme would finally be complete, with the Museum of London sitting where the “car park” sign is in the photograph, and the last of the podium towers - Bastion Tower - rising above it. Another few years would see the completion of the Barbican, joined at the hip - well, high level walkways - to London Wall and hence the City south of it.
What should have been a plan and an area the city was proud of, though, turned sour. Unlike the Barbican to the north, which rapidly found a niche as a spot for city living, the London Wall towers were never quite loved the same way. Before they could age enough to get listed, the buildings - as has happened more recently to Mondial House, 20 Fenchurch Street, and Drapers Gardens - fell out of commercial favour. Built in an age before pervasive air conditioning and computing, they didn’t survive long when deregulation hit.
City Tower was refurbished (along with a recladding in blue glass) as early as 1986, but the biggest blow was in 1988, when demolition started on Lee House, the nearest of the towers in the image above. It was replaced by Alban Gate, a postmodern structure that retained the highwalks from the original scheme, but little else. In spanning the road, it blocked the sightlines that were one of the best features of the 1950s plan, and it also took up far more of the floor plan than the tower it replaced - another massive change between the earlier plans and the more commercially focussed post-1990 developments.
Within the last ten years, all but one of the original towers along the road itself have either been reclad, demolished, or are due to be replaced within years. The one holdout is Bastion Tower - now known simply as 140 London Wall - at the far eastern end, above the Museum.
As Post War Buildings notes when talking about the doomed St Alphage House,
The plans mimic the pattern of development elsewhere on London Wall, where cladding, reconstruction and decking over has been advancing for years. The emerging architectural arrangement has destroyed forever the architectural unity of the scheme and produced a series of graceless structures all competing for attention.
I’m sure the new buildings make a lot more financial sense than the old ones did, and that plenty of people are making money from them (the execrable Alban Gate was the second most valuable asset owned by Simon Halabi when his property empire collapsed). However, I very much regret never getting the chance to properly see the muted, but coherent, scheme as built. In a way, I see its casual destruction as more shocking than the loss of some of London’s Georgian and Victorian terraces. After all, there are plenty that remain, but London Wall was the only place of its kind in the city, and I mourn its passing.