This week, without much very fuss, fanfare, or public knowledge, The Cabinet Office announced the £60m sale of a 99-year lease for Admiralty Arch, to the private development firm responsible for the new Bvlgari Hotel in Knightsbridge (nicknamed ‘The Vulgari’ since opening).
The sale is, of course, subject to the satisfaction of various conditions, including planning permission from Westminster City Council and Listed Building Consent from English Heritage. This is part of the Government’s current scheme of vacating under-used premises. 1,070 buildings formerly used as offices or storage have been exited during 2012.
The Arch is Grade I listed, and was completed in 1912 as part of Aston Webb’s grand scheme for The Mall. It acts as a ceremonial gateway to the vista leading from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, the facade of which was redesigned by Webb in 1913.
The interior of the Arch was used by the Navy and the Ministry of Defence until 1994. It has provided work and residental space for various government bodies, but has never had any public spaces.
The iconic structure consists of three arches, so you could argue that the public has actually always used it. It is a dual-purpose construction, with interior and exterior functions.
The team likely to work on the interior, converting disused storage rooms in to a luxury 5* hotel with restaurants and bars, are experts who have restoration projects including The Ritz, Westminster Abbey and the V&A (another wonderful Webb building) in their portfolio between them.
Admiralty Arch is home to one of the London Noses (which you may know as the Seven Noses of Soho), and was part of the route for Olympic marathons and other processions that took place this year. I have cycled and marched under it myself, conducting a youth marching band and walking beside ex-servicemen.
Is it appropriate to re-purpose such an iconic public landmark in such an important location as an exclusive leisure complex for the super-rich? Perhaps that highlights the very essence of The Mall itself, considering it faces the Queen’s London home.
I thought it might be interesting to consider some other examples of iconic London architectural heritage in light of renewal and redevelopment:
The fate of Walthamstow Stadiumwill be decided by Boris Johnson today.
An iconic facade which illuminated the most well-used Greyhound racing track in London (and one of the easiest nightclubs to gain entry to if you happened to go to school one bus-ride away… aherm…) was used continuously from 1933 until 2008. The current proposal is for a scheme which is not considered to be commercially viable and makes no provision for social housing, or the preservation of a long history of Leisure & Employment use.
Battersea Power Station is iconic not just because of its 1930s ‘Brick Cathedral’ design and instantly-recognisable chimneys, but it is becoming considered as something of a cursed site by developers. Several previous owners have wound up bankrupt, with their proposals for student accommodation, private housing, leisure, theme parks and football grounds all yet to get anywhere close to approval or fruition. It happens to be my favourite London landmark, too.
The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is a great example of what Admiralty Arch is likely to become.
The George Gilbert Scott-designed Midland Grand opened in the 1870s and closed in the 1930s. Re-purposed as British Rail offices, it was closed on health & safety grounds in the 80s. In 2011 the current hotel was opened after extensive restoration work, and whilst a room will set you back at least £250 a night, the bars and restaurants are welcoming and generally affordable for a cocktail amidst the King’s Cross redevelopment project.
On the other side of King’s Cross station is The German Gymnasium. Built in the 1860s, is generally considered to have been the first purpose-built gym in the UK. It was designed and built by and for London’s German community, and in 1866 ran some of the first exercise classes for women. It has been restored beautifully, and now houses event space and educational exhibits about the history and redevelopment of the area.
So, perhaps a little bit of private money for a little bit of public use might not be so bad, if it keeps our landmarks standing…?