RIBA President Angela Brady talks to Renzo Piano (RIBA Vimeo)

Renzo Piano in conversation with RIBA President Angela Brady (RIBA Vimeo)

 Watch a filmed conversation between the RIBA President Angela Brady and Renzo Piano.

Last week in front an audience at the RIBA, architect Renzo Piano was interviewed by Razia Iqbal for the BBC World Service (listen to the interview on BBC iPlayer). Through his responses to questions from Iqbal and members of the public, Piano explained the design behind The Shard (now the tallest building in western Europe), his ideas about architecture and the role architects can play in shaping cities for a sustainable future. Public engagement and discussion such as this event is just one way that architects can use to demonstrate the benefits of their design. Supportive clients can be powerful public advocates, as The Shard’s Irvine Sellar has been.

View of the Shard and London skyline

View of the Shard and London skyline, February 2012 (Photograph by Wilson Yau)

What can tall buildings do for cities like London?

Piano believes ultimately that the relationship between his building and London will prove to be a positive one. Tall buildings are justified if “they give back to the city more than they get from the city” by intensifying the use of city centres and by counteracting the corrosive effects of suburbanisation which create expensive and unsustainable “new peripheries”. It is hoped that this “vertical city” with its variety of uses will generate activity throughout the day and beyond 6pm when most offices close. If Piano is correct, Londoners – in time – will come to consider The Shard a familiar and well-loved part of their city.

Proposals to build tall in London are susceptible to changes in public opinion and legislation, but also crucially, to the attitude of planners, built environment bodies and government officials (elected or otherwise). The Shard has successfully navigated through an inquiry and the scrutiny of CABE. In 1985, the decision of the then environment secretary thwarted attempts to bring Mies van der Rohe’s Mansion House Square scheme to life, despite a long battle waged for planning permission by its client Peter Palumbo. Where now stands a fairly squat No.1 Poultry, could have been the site of a Modernist glass and bronze skyscraper akin to the Seagram Building.

Model of the Mies-designed tower block for the Mansion House Square scheme, with Mansion House (left) and Cooper's National Westminster Bank building (right) (© John Donat / RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Model of the Mies-designed tower block for the Mansion House Square scheme, with Mansion House (left) and Cooper’s National Westminster Bank building (right) (© John Donat / RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Model of the Mies-designed tower block for the Mansion House Square scheme, with Lutyens’s Midland Bank (centre) and St. Stephen Walbrook (right) (© John Donat / RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Model of the Mies-designed tower block for the Mansion House Square scheme, with Lutyens’s Midland Bank (centre) and St. Stephen Walbrook (right) (© John Donat / RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

 More images of the proposed scheme and its impact on London can be seen on RIBApix

Mies’s tower for London – “confidence in the future”

Mies’s design would have been more than just office space. Below the main 290 feet tall (88 metres) tower and its 18 floors there would have been an underground shopping mall. Much of the ground level of the site consisted of a major consideration for a new public square where it was imaged there would be music festivals, concerts, exhibitions and even flower sellers. Palumbo said in 1981 that official approval of the scheme would be seen as “an act of confidence in the future.” (Palumbo, 1981 p.3)

The tower would have dwarfed most of its neighbours and required the demolition of a prominent, if eclectic, collection of Victorian buildings. The public space element of the scheme would have allowed a better view of grand buildings surrounding the site: George Dance the Elder’s Mansion House, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens’s Midland Bank, Sir Edwin Cooper ’s National Westminster Bank and the church of St Stephen Walbrook. By the 1980s such a proposal to erase part of London’s urban history and replacement by something of a different scale was opposed. In the end there was no new public space and instead James Stirling designed a building for part of the intended site, more in keeping with the scale of the classical-style stone buildings on Poultry, Walbrook and Cheapside, though in a radically different and rather more exuberant style. In writing about about the potential benefits of Mies’s posthumous project, Palumbo once posed a question about the City of London, which even now would produce conflicting answers from all quarters: “What would it lose if the building was not built?” (Palumbo, 1981 p.3)

 

Villa Tugendhat

Villa Tugendhat (© David Zidlicky)

 

The Villa Tugendhat: Mies’s small masterpiece

In the catalogue of Mies’s work, the Mansion House scheme is just a footnote despite its planned floor space (178,488 sq. ft) – but was it a major loss or lucky escape for London? Today a special example of Mies’s built work is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the British Architectural Library, RIBA, London, which will be followed in July by a talk and a student seminar. Capturing some of the early ideas of Modernism and Mies’s skill in detailing and proportion is the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic. The Villa Tugendhat in Context tells the story of the quiet survival of a family home during a turbulent history and of its recent, immaculate two-year restoration.

Exhibition: Villa Tugendhat in Context
19 June – 19 August 2012
Admission is free

Talk: Beyond The Glass Room: The Many Lives of the Villa Tugendhat
3 July 2012, 6.30pm
£8.50/£5.50 (RIBA Members, DoCoMoMo members and students), advance booking is  essential

Seminar: Mies van der Rohe and the Villa Tugendhat Student Seminar
3 July 2012, 3pm
Free, but booking is required

 

References:

  • Palumbo, P., The Mansion House Square scheme. London: Number 1 Poultry, 1981
About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit www.architecture.com

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1 Comment
  1. Tim Broadfoot

    June 19, 2012

    I wish I could have been there for this Q&A. It just isn’t he same on the catch up service. I am still reserved on the impact of the shard, I think I will wait a couple of years to see if it grows on me and starts to fit in with the London skyline.

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