In 1830 artist Joseph Gandy imagined John Soane’s Bank of England in the City of London as a ruin like those of ancient Rome. Less than a hundred years later his drawing was to take a prophetic rather than romantic air when Soane’s masterpiece was mostly demolished – except teasingly the perimeter walls – and replaced by Herbert Baker’s larger, multi-storey design. Gone, but still much discussed and mourned today.
The architectural landscape of London has always been changing. On the opposite side of the Thames, on the site where currently the Shard is taking shape once stood Southwark Towers. In the collections of the British Architectural Library at the RIBA there are records of this former office block which is now largely forgotten (and if remembered, seemingly unloved) under the column inches generated by the statistics of its replacement. At 310 m (1,016 ft) and with 72 floors, the Shard is three times the height of its predecessor.
Southwark Towers: Injecting new life into an neglected area
Designed by T. P. Bennett and Son and completed in 1976, Southwark Towers consisted of three wings, each was a different height: 20, 23 and 26 storeys. The original design brief called for extensive perimeter walling to maximise daylight (Glass Age 1977: 20). Its distinctive feature was the projecting glass balconies that were designed to reflect solar glare and provide some acoustic insulation. But despite these features, Southwark Towers stood for a mere 30 years. When the building was opened it was described as a way to “inject new life into forgotten areas of the South Bank” (Williams 1976:14), was part of the plan to redevelop London Bridge Station, it offered spectacular views of London and used innovative glazing technology. Although radically different in appearance, the Shard also shares these aims.
The Shard though is not exclusively office space, but will accommodate a hotel and prominent (but exclusive) apartments. In contrast, here at the RIBA, the new Home Season will begin in a few days with exhibitions and events looking at mass housing in Britain and how most ordinary people live today.
Architectural tastes and the usefulness of a building will change. Southwark Towers and Soane’s Bank of England building were victims of increasing pressures to build bigger – somehow it is hard to imagine the Shard coming under the same pressure.
- Glass Age (May 1977): Window-wise at London Bridge. Glass Age. 20 (2) p20-24
- Williams, S. (30 January 1976): The Saving of South Bank. Building Design. 283 p.14-15
More images from the RIBA’s collections can be seen on RIBApix.