27 October 2012

London's Centre Point building

This is an essay I wrote during my first year as a undergraduate at UCL. I've published it here as I couldn't find a decent single account of Centre Point's history, and it might be of interest to anyone who has walked past it wondering how it came to be.


Critically explore how Centre Point fits into the surrounding urban landscape and assess how its function, design and everyday use can be used to examine processes of urban change in London.

Centre Point is a building that many Londoners regard with ambivalence at best. Its concrete construction and prominent position on the West End's skyline places it firmly in the imagination of the architecture of the 1960s, and the length of time the building spent empty adds to the general sense of its being unloved. However Centre Point's construction was not a simple redevelopment of an existing plot, but a substantial rezoning of the St. Giles Circus street layout, and assessing the building's aesthetic merit must include an examination of how it was integrated with its surroundings. Most importantly, though, is understanding the blend of politics and social change that allowed the construction of a building so vastly different from the surrounding area: in short, this boiled down to property speculation and motor cars.

Compared to Manhattan, London's skyline was historically dominated by church spires, a result of the 100' restriction that was in place until 1954 (Marriott 1967). The easing of building restrictions meant that property suddenly became substantially more lucrative – A.N. Wilson points out that in 1943 Land Securities was a sleepy company with three Kensington houses: 25 years later it was worth £28 million, and that this sudden expansion changed London's skyline 'so irrevocably and with such brutality' (Wilson 2005:114). The boom commenced in the summer of 1959 when construction started on the 118m high Vickers (now Millbank) Tower. This building showed how the outlay on purchasing land could be met by the revenues from the large volume of space in a high-rise building, and the new 177m tall Post Office Tower in Fitzrovia would have further spurred the interest of developers with plots of land in the West End.

Figure 1: the layout of St. Giles Circus and environs before the Centre Point redevelopment
(Ordnance Survey)

It was the rise of the motor car after World War Two that created the local conditions for redeveloping St. Giles Circus (the junction of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street). Urban authorities across the United Kingdom were busily reconfiguring streets for the era of mass car ownership, and London County Council (LCC) was keen to install a roundabout (the latest thing in highway technology) at St. Giles Circus to enhance the flow of the A40. This scheme was vigorously resisted by Pearlmans, the company who owned the land required by the local authority. Fortunately for the LCC, the city's property developers were usually amenable to doing a deal: 'Developers bought up the land required and made it over to the LCC; the council in return granted planning permission on adjoining land owned by their benefactors' (White 2008:112). And in Harry Hyams the council had found their man. As a private business concern Hyams had far greater flexibility to bargain with other landowners, and his solution was simply to throw money at the problem until it was resolved. LCC had offered the Pearlmans £55,000 for their property and been rejected, but when Hyams offered them £500,000 they gave in (Wilson 2005). He amassed other local properties to complete the collection of titles the project required, and in 1962 Hyams handed the site to the council in return for a 150 year lease at £18,500 a year – an amount that was regarded as peanuts at the time (White 2008). Construction started immediately. The use of pre-cast concrete removed the need for scaffolding and shortened the building phase, and Centre Point was ready for tenants three years later (Wright 2006).

The deal between Hyams and the council is the most important factor in understanding how Centre Point came to be at such odds with the surrounding urban landscape. Hyams' commercial savvy was in obtaining his pound of flesh from LCC, and the 20,000m2 building he was given consent for had a floor area equal to the size of the site that he handed over to the council – including the proposed roundabout. Hyams was also canny in his choice of architectural partner, and in Richard Siefert he had found someone whose 'reputation for speed and mastery of planning law made him the doyen of commercial architects' (Pawley 2001:online). Wilson is blunter, describing the 'undistinguished' Siefert's genius as 'not for architecture, as Londoners are now all too painfully aware: it was for getting round planning regulations' (2005:115) – a criticism that underlines how polarising Centre Point has been since its completion, but also the speed at which Siefert had to work. He submitted the Centre Point proposal on behalf of Hyams four days before the 1959 Town and Country Planning Act came into force – legislation that would have forced the development team back to the drawing board (Bayley 2006).

Harry Hyams' decidedly fast approach to business and Centre Point's subsequent impact on London's skyline might well have been long forgotten had its impact on the immediate vicinity been a success: it wasn't. As the project's contractors were putting the finishing touches to the building, the local authority was quietly shelving their proposed changes, as the temporary one-way system around the site had proved so successful (White 2008). Porter describes Centre Point as 'a fine building squeezed too tightly into the wrong place' (2000:521), and it was this sense of imposition on the new street layout that provided a common cause for both the building's advocates and opponents. Paul Williams, the architect currently working on the site's landscaping as part of the new Crossrail station and a self-confessed fan of Siefert, recognises that street level integration was a weakness of architects in the 1960s and 70s. The indecisiveness over the roundabout created a site that Williams considers a 'lethal catastrophe which unsuccessfully mixes angry traffic with anxious pedestrians' (Bayley 2006:WWW). Hyett points out that the situation was compounded by a 'useless water feature [that] has sprayed pedestrians struggling to use the miserably narrow pavement around its base' (2001:online).

Today the site is changing again, and Centre Point presides over the large construction site for Crossrail's new Tottenham Court Road station. This will metamorphose into a public space that rectifies the 'dysfunctional and missing link between Covent Garden, Soho, Bloomsbury and Oxford Street' (Terry Farrell & Partners 2008). The landscaping that was so studiously in sync with the sense of 'white heat' modernity in the early 1960s in which the car was the future, will instead reflect the priority that today's urban planners place on the pedestrian. The visual line down St. Giles High Street from the Circus will be restored, pavements will be widened, and the area between St. Giles Circus and St. Giles-in-the-Fields will be prioritised for pedestrians (ibid.) – much of which seems to address Glinert's observation of public anger towards the original scheme:

What the 1950s and 1960s public found distasteful was the mass destruction of the locale – old St Giles and the stretch of ships at the northern end of Charing Cross Road which included London's first women's bookshop, opened in May 1910 to cater for growth in suffragist literature – to build a 380-foot, honeycomb-windowed white elephant'. (2007:188)
Crossrail will be completed in 2018, and it is worth pondering how the Centre Point building will be regarded in the decades to come. Freed from the shackles around its footprint, will the skyscraper finally enter the public's affection? By the time of his death, Siefert's reputation had been restored, with the Guardian noting in his obituary that in 1993 'his former enemies at the Royal Fine Art Commission called for the listing of Centre Point for its "elegance worthy of a Wren steeple"' (Pawley 2001). London's skyline has also moved on, and while the controversy surrounding Centre Point finished off any thoughts of building other skyscrapers in the West End, it is a relative minnow amongst the giants of the early 21st Century.

Figure 2: The proposed pedestrian plaza and entrances to Tottenham Court Road station (Crossrail)

So far I have concentrated on the impact of the physical building. But there is an elephant in the room that must be addressed when looking at whether Centre Point's everyday use is symbolic of urban change. 'Everyday use' is a complete misnomer, as the building was notoriously left vacant by Hyams, who would only consider renting the office space to a client willing to take the entire building. The dynamics of the booming property market were to blame, and the politicians felt powerless:

By June 1972, it had been empty for almost eight years, yet still Hyams showed no signs of finding a tenant; indeed, because of the tax laws on capital gains, he was probably making more money by keeping it empty than if he had rented it out. (Sandbrook 2010: 523)
Figure 3: Protesters occupy Centre Point in 1974 (Museum of London)

At a time of great social unrest across the country Centre Point was becoming the focus for protests about the wave of urban change driven by property speculators. There was talk of compulsory purchase orders and nationalisation of the building. Protesters broke in and occupied the building for two days in January 1974, and The Times columnist Bernard Levin asked:

'What sort of a society is it that says dockers are holding the country to ransom by striking but does not say that developers are doing so by keeping office blocks empty until the rent has risen high enough to satisfy their greed?' (ibid.)
The building's reputation had transformed from representing the excitement of the swinging 60s to the malaise that gripped Britain in the 70s.

Hyams finally relaxed his demands for a single occupant, and in 1975 a Greek shipping company took over the building's 5th floor. It was only in 1980 that Centre Point had its first major tenant, with the Confederation of British Industry taking over 14 floors (Wright 2006). Today the building is home to a variety of businesses, including a serviced office operation with flexible leases: a move that would surely have been an anathema to Harry Hyams back in the early 1960s, but one that reflects the flexibility that today's businesses demand. The battle between commercial property interests and government continues to ebb and flow, most recently with the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 – legislation against which property agents have already honed their skills in avoiding compliance (Guilfoyle & Askham 2010).

The bad press surrounding the development of Centre Point spilt over to Siefert's work on other projects. His plans for NatWest's new headquarters involved the demolition of historic buildings, and while the canny Siefert was ultimately successful in his battle with the authorities, the decade-long planning battle meant that the 183m tall NatWest Tower was obsolete by the time it was opened in 1981 (Pawley 2001). More importantly, the desire for building iconic skyscrapers in the capital subsided for the next two decades.

Hyams eventually sold his interest in Centre Point in 1987. His approach might have made business sense, but today commercial property operates on a very different model, with large companies like Unilever sharing their iconic buildings with other tenants. 2008 saw the opening of The Paramount, a members' club located on the top three floors, and the venue was favourably reviewed by London's influential 'Coolhunter' blog as 'a blend of 60s retro and futurism' (Evans 2008:online). For decades Siefert's creation has been the ugly ducking of London's tall buildings, but with the passage of time and attention finally being paid to the building's immediate vicinity, will opinion still be so polarised ten years from now?


Bayley, S. (2006) 'At last, things are looking up at the end of Oxford Street' London: The Guardian retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/oct/01/architecture?INTCMP=SRCH

Evans, L. (2008) 'Paramount bar by Tom Dixon (London)' retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.thecoolhunter.co.uk/article/detail/1410

Glinert, E. (2007) 'West End Chronicles: 300 Years of Glamour and Excess in the Heart of London' London: Penguin

Guilfoyle, S. & Askham, P. (2010) ' Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 and business rates avoidance tactics' The Sheffield Hallam University Built Environment Research Transactions 2,1,p.5-13

Hyett, P. (2001) 'Wonders and blunders' London: The Guardian retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2001/jul/02/wondersandblunders.architecture?INTCMP=SRCH

Marriott, O. (1967) 'The Property Boom' London: Hamish Hamilton

Pawley, M (2001) 'Richard Siefert' London: The Guardian retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2001/oct/29/guardianobituaries.arts

Porter, R. (2000) 'London: a social history' London: Penguin

Sandbrook, D. (2011) 'State of emergency : the way we were : Britain, 1970-1974' London: Penguin

Terry Farrell & Partners (2008) 'St. Giles Circus: Strategic Framework Study' London: Terry Farrell & Partners

Wilson, A. (2005) 'London: a short history' London: Phoenix

White, J. (2008) 'London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People' London: Vintage

Wright, H. (2006) 'London High' London: Frances Lincoln