1 Westminster Bridge

1 Westminster Bridge
London borough of Lambeth
12 February 2007

London’s staid, Edwardian baroque County Hall was rocketed into the 1970s with a six-storey concrete and glass annexe by the GLC’s architect John Bancroft.

The hexagonal structure was built between 1970 and 1974, on a roundabout on the south side of Westminster Bridge. An innovative building for its day, it was among the first open-plan office blocks and was fitted with energy-saving solar blinds. The island block was linked to the rest of County Hall by an enclosed elevated walkway and pedestrian subways under the busy traffic gyratory provided access from the surrounding streets.

After Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986, County Hall was sold off. The Edwardian buildings have been listed and have, in recent years, housed a Marriott hotel, the London Aquarium and — until he fell out with the landlord — Charles Saatchi’s contemporary-art gallery.

Together with the Addington Street extension, Bancroft’s island block was not included in the listing. It was left to fall derelict and be graffitied; its walkway was severed from the south block, since converted to apartments, and its “threatening and underused” subways were blocked off by Lambeth council.1

In early 2005, the County Hall annexe was voted by viewers of Channel 4 as one of the “dirty dozen” of Britain’s buildings they would like to see knocked down. The office block was consequently featured in the channel’s Demolition series, broadcast that autumn.

In June that year, Ann Widdecombe voiced her desire to have the GLC building razed. When asked to nominate an eyesore, in an interview for the Scotsman, she replied:

That ghastly, awful, beastly thing that sits by County Hall at the end of Westminster Bridge. I have no idea what it’s called but it’s a hideous monstrosity.2

With a building so disliked, it is unsurprising that Lambeth council responded positively to a planning application to redevelop the site. In their report for the application, they wrote that the island block was “a notable example of the worst excesses of late 1960’s brutalist design” and described the negative effect it had on its surroundings.

Its brooding mass and hideously ugly stained grey shuttered concrete has had a significant adverse impact this part of the South Bank Conservation Area for far too long and appears as a monstrously ugly landmark when viewed from Westminster Bridge and the vistas along York Road and Lambeth Palace Road.1

Around the time of the report, a speculative proposal for the site was submitted by Studio E architects. The design would have transformed the structure into a “green island”;3 it would have been reclad with an Eden Project-like ETFE membrane, fitted with photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, and covered with plants. According to the architects, the revamp would have significantly increased the environmental sustainability and energy-saving of the building, whose original solar blinds are rumoured to have never worked.4

Studio E’s proposal never got off the ground, however, as planning permission was granted for a less radical scheme submitted by the developer Galliard. The approved redevelopment will consist of a 14-storey Park Plaza hotel of over 900 “ApartHotel” suites, a conference hall, entertainment facilities and two restaurants.

The shiny glass curtain-walled cylinder has been designed by BUJ architects and will offer views of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. Westminster Bridge Park Plaza will be one of three of the chain’s hotels recently built in this part of town (alongside Addington Street’s County Hall Park Plaza and the Albert Embankment’s Riverbank Park Plaza).

The whole area is, in fact, undergoing extensive redevelopment; at its centre, Waterloo Station is to be modernised now that Eurostar has moved from the Nicholas Grimshaw-designed terminus to St Pancras. Next door, P&O’s offices, Elizabeth House, are also soon to be replaced by the so-dubbed “three sisters” that Allies and Morrisons has designed for the site.

Demolition of 1 Westminster Bridge started on 25 May 2006, when Harrison Williams, a six-year-old cancer sufferer from Berkshire, switched the bulldozers on, after having been granted this opportunity by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Although crowds gathered expecting a dramatic implosion, the building’s demolition was gradual and continued for much of the rest of the year.

John Bancroft is reported to be unhappy about the redevelopment. Despite the backing of the Twentieth Century Society, he also recently failed to have his New Brutalist classic, Pimlico School, saved from the wrecking ball. Bancroft told the BBC he was “absolutely devastated” about the demolition of the County Hall island block.

I consider that it was a distinguished building and it was an early open plan office building, when open plan was not all that common. I always thought it should have received a listing in with County Hall.5

Westminster Bridge Park Plaza is due to open in 2010. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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