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How MI6 is now being upstaged by St George

A recent (these things are relative in London) addition to the London New Building Collection has been the already world famous (thanks to the James Bond movies) MI6 Building, designed by Terry Farrell.

MI-6 HQ

That’s a recent photo I took of it, looking suitably sinister and omnipotent. However, I live only just across the river from this edifice, and in the flesh, so to speak, I find it less impressive than in the many other photographs of it that you see. Even I can’t help making it look impressive in the photos I take, yet I find that the real and everyday look of it is that it is a small and an increasingly drab looking disappointment. Part of it is the colour. There’s something irretrievably un-cool about yellow and green as a colour combination. A for effort. At least they tried. But for me, not A for actual achievement.

The feeling of smallness and unimpressivenes that the MI6 Building gives off has recently been greatly intensified by the, I think, wonderfully good building that has recently arisen next to it, just up river, and just the other side of Vauxhall Bridge.

This is St George’s Wharf, an apartment “cluster” building. The sign outside has a graphic of St George slaying a dragon, and you can’t help thinking that all kinds of exciting and dangerous people occupy the place, and that in addition to the little public pedestrian tunnel under the bridge from the place there must be other more secret and subterranean journeys being constantly made from St George’s Wharf to the MI6 Building, and to all the other mysterious places and operations that are rumoured to exist and operate all the way along the river downstream, in all those various dull office blocks full of organisations with names like “Global Trading Company” that you’ve never heard of.

This is a picture of St George’s Wharf taken by me a few days ago, from upstream, when I was walking from my place to Samizdata HQ in Chelsea, but taking a slight detour along the river.

I love it. Fellow Samizdatista Alex Singleton says it looked like a trashy hotel in Ibiza, but I’ve never been to Ibiza, and anyway, London’s not had a trashy Ibiza hotel before, and in London, there should be at least one of everything. The view of those towers from directly across Vauxhall Bridge, which is how I most often see them (looking towards the river straight along Vauxhall Bridge Road), is obscured by an intervening tower, but is still very impressive, I think.

As I say, St George’s Wharf makes the MI6 Building look, to me, drab and second rate. It’s something to do with the individual elements that go to make up each building. Each is done as a cluster of elements, rather than as a single object (like, say, the Erotic Gherkin that I have earlier rhapsodised about here). And in St George’s Wharf, the constituent elements – the Leggo bricks it’s made of, as it were – look smaller, and that makes the total effect bigger and grander. The eye is tricked into thinking that each Leggo brick is bigger than it really is, and accordingly the combined effect is truly impressive. MI6, with its bigger Leggo bits, ends up looking small and rather silly by comparison. Well, that’s how the contrast looks to me.

St George’s Wharf has what for me is another equally hard to describe quality, and about this, when I showed him photos I’d taken like this one, Alex agreed with me.

All of this is, as I say, totally subjective, but I reckon that St George’s Wharf is, especially when viewed close up, a fine example of – and I mean no disparagement by this term, quite the opposite if you can make it work – the ‘pseudo-vernacular’ style. What I mean by this is a way of doing a big building which is of course all done at once, yet which somehow contrives to look as if it had been more slowly assembled than that, over a period of years or even decades, by many different hands and guiding intelligences, but in a nice and harmonious and picturesque way, rather than a chaotic way. Yes, you can obviously tell pretty quickly that it was all done at once, yet the variety of the various shapes is such as to make it seen like a pleasingly disparate aggregate of buildings, rather than just the one.

Sometimes this style can go wrong by having individual elements that are too similar, and having them joined together in too militaristic a fashion, in which case all sense of aggregation is lost. It’s just a different kind of architectural military parade to the usual one big box style. And, this style can also go wrong through the different bits involved being too different from each other, despite all having been designed by the one person. It can look chaotic. I feel that the Channel 4 Headquarters Building in Horseferry Road (which Alex singled out for praise when we were talking of these matters) suffers from this defect. If you take a close look at it, you can tell that the roofscape of the Channel Four Building has been “designed” with immense care. Yet from a distance it looks like just another chaotic London roof, with random techno-junk dumped on the top by non-communicating techies.

Terry Farrell, the designer of MI6, Richard Rogers, who did the C4 Building (and the Lloyds Building), and Gherkin man Norman Foster, are all prime examples of what David Sucher of City Comforts calls “starchitects”.

And unlike David Sucher, I’m a fan of starchitecture. Yet interestingly, although St George’s Wharf looks decidedly starchitectural, its designers do not seem quite to be starchitects themselves, or not starchitects that I’ve ever heard of before. St George’s Wharf is the work of Broadway Malyan. No, me neither. Broadway Malyan have (has?) been so busy building profitable buildings for their capitalist customers that they’ve had no time to turn themselves into celebs and to win awards and to go on the six o’clock news demanding a coherent government inner city housing policy. They seem like a British version of the USA’s Skidmore Owings and Merrill, that is to say expert craftsmen in the mega-capitalist vernacular style (and I mean real vernacular now). If you google for St George’s Wharf what you mostly get is adverts from estate agents trying to sell you an apartment, and snazzy indoor photos rather than outdoor ones. I really had to dig for the outdoor photos I found for the link above.

Maybe St George’s Wharf will change that, and Broadway Malyan will be up there with Farrell, Rogers, Foster, and co, and jabbering away about the need for increased public spending on schools and hospitals, to be designed by Broadway Malyan. But starchitects or not, and for the time being, I’m impressed.

And what’s more, Broadway Malyan are also trying to put a (by London standards) very tall residential skyscraper just next to and up river from St George’s Wharf.

London just gets better and better.

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15 comments to How MI6 is now being upstaged by St George

  • Following Parkinson’s law on headquarters buildings (C. Northcote Parkinson suggested several laws, not just the best-remembered “work expands to fill the time available”), MI6 must be now either ineffective or approaching collapse.

    Parkinson’s HQ-building law claims that by the time its grand headquarters building is completed an organisation is falling apart, or at least already in decline from its former glory and success.

  • Hmm. I would say that the Pentagon would be in counter to that law, but maybe because its design is so weird (twice as many bathrooms as needed) and because it needs renovations (like the one on the side the plane crashed into, minimizing the damage) it doesn’t EVER qualify as complete.

  • Brian

    MI6 looks like one of Saddam’s palaces. The other one looks like Beirut in its glory days.

    Prince Charles was right.

  • Scaryduck

    “Global Trading Company” – “Universal Exports”, surely?

  • Scaryduck

    And I just love the Gherkin. The critics fail to realise that we could have ended up with just another square office block on the site. That thing is genius.

  • I always thought the MI6 building looked like a Mayan temple. Wonder if sacrifice particularily nasty enemies off the top…

  • D Anghelone

    Sinister and omnipotent? Looks more Las Vegas in that picture.

  • RonG

    To me the MI6 building looks like an opera stage.

  • There’s sinister and omnipotent, and there’s soulless and imposing. (That’s Dallas City Hall – here it is from a different angle.)

    The MI6 building looks like an art deco version of a pagan temple. I look at it and half expect to see Harrison Ford being chased by a giant boulder.

  • Andrew Duffin

    I’m with Ron G.

    I thought it was the latest Aida set from Verona and I was all ready to start grumbling about how lucky some people are etc etc.

    btw what’s all this architecture stuff doing here anyway, have you all been reading Lileks too much?

  • D Anghelone

    The Dallas building looks like it ingests its visitors.

  • >St George’s Wharf is the work of Broadway Malyan. No, me neither.

    Well, I have. I’ve been to their offices. Hell, I’ve interviewed some of them. Comes of being a property journalist, you see.

    They’re a proactive, modern firm with a good reputation for sustainability and modern working environments among other things. Jobbing commercial architects to be sure, but none the worse for that.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Adam, if you’re back again, thanks for that.

    I’m not a bit surprised at how good you say Broadway Malyan are, and are thought to be. Their very anonymity struck me as a good sign, that they get all this work without lots of mainstream press write-ups and TV plugs, and from then on are too busy doing it to bother with such media drum beating.

    If me saying I hadn’t heard of them came over as disrespectful or negative in any way, my apologies to them, and to readers of this. I’m glad of the chance to say: on the contrary. The whole point of the original piece is that in my opinion their flats building is a whole lot more impressive than the MI6 Building across the road from it, which was designed by a much more “star” architect than they are, but which, next to their building, looks a bit silly.

    Thanks again.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    And, Adam, thanks for the links from your blog, which I didn’t realise you had when I did the comment above.

    Everyone else, press “Adam Tinworth” in the comment two above this one to get to “One Man and His Blog”.

    Thanks AGAIN.

  • Very interesting post