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London’s Centre Point – first hated but now listed 15 November 2014

A fascinating article in the Evening Standard on Tuesday 11 November – What makes one tower worth saving and another wrecking? – celebrates (if that is the right word) the effect that architect Richard Seifert had on the London skyline.  The NatWest Tower (I still can’t get used to calling it Tower 42), Centre Point, the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington and the iconic but outrageously out-of-scale Tolworth Tower, as well as the redevelopment of Euston station (involving the destruction of the Euston Arch) are all examples of his work.  Few people have a good word for him nowadays although of course he was not working alone.  The modern planning legislation was already in force and he would not have been able to do it without the support of the local authorities.  But in the 1960s and 1970s Georgian terraces were out and concrete skyscrapers were most definitely in, the taller the better.

The author of the Evening Standard article, Robert Bevan, writes that Seifert “did more to alter the London skyline than any architect since Sir Christopher Wren”.  The reason for focusing on Seifert at this time is that one of his buildings, Copyright House in Berners Street, is about to be demolished.  It failed to win listing status from English Heritage.  Others of his buildings have similarly been rejected – including Tower 42 – but the article says that Space House, off Kingsway (the home of the Civil Aviation Authority), is likely to be listed shortly.

One building that is already listed (as long ago as 1995) is Centre Point, above Tottenham Court Road station.  This is already a busy place, and once Crossrail opens in a few years’ time it will be even busier.  The history of Centre Point is interesting: its developer, Harry Hyams, initially refused to let the building in parts, insisting on waiting for a tenant of the whole building to come forward.  As a result, the building sat empty for years.  According to the Wikipedia entry on Centre Point, Hyams eventually relented but the tower remained a symbol of the brutalism of the property development industry in the 1960s for years.

Centre Point was the subject of a recent court case, triggered by the new owner’s wish to repair the concrete exterior of the building using scaffolding for access.  In Century Projects Ltd v Almacantar (Centre Point) [2014] EWHC 394 (Ch), the tenant of the Paramount restaurant on the 33rd floor of the tower was seeking an injunction to prevent the landlord carrying out the repair works in this way, since the scaffolding would obstruct the “spectacular views across the West End and City of London” from the restaurant described by Mr Condou, the tenant’s director, in his witness statement.  The tenant wanted the landlord to carry out the works using cradles suspended from the roof of the tower.  The respective experts disagreed as to the wisdom and practicality of the different approaches.

Ultimately the court refused to grant the tenant an injunction, leaving it (if it believes it has a case) to bring a claim for damages against the landlord for breach of quiet enjoyment.  One of the key reasons for the decision was, as the judge explained, “it is a surprising submission that the tenant can tell the landlord how the landlord is to carry out works for which the landlord is responsible. This would cut across what I regard as the prima facie right of a landlord to choose for itself how to carry out works of repair.”

A sheath of scaffolding

The scaffolding that the tenant was trying to stave off is now up, as part of the new owner’s project to convert the tower from offices to flats.  As the Evening Standard article says, rather poetically:

“… the tower is now strapped into a sheath of scaffolding and a veil of green netting as repairs are made to its facade, a honeycomb screen of concrete made with crushed Portland stone.”

And once the scaffolding is down, I hope to be paying a visit, perhaps with my new food-loving blogger friend The Food Judge and and my non-blogging friend B, to the Paramount restaurant on the 33rd floor.  The restaurant claims to offer “the highest afternoon tea in London” – but I hope that we will be visiting for something more robust than tea.

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