Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Paternoster Square Inches Closer to Redesign

The London precinct in the shadow of St. Paul's awaits implementation of master plan

On Dec. 29, 1940, it took Hitler's bombers only a minute or two to turn Paternoster Square, just north of St. Paul's Cathedral, into a charred wasteland.

The patch of ground lying in the shadow of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, which miraculously escaped destruction, was awash with history, much of it literary.

About these ads

In its narrow streets, the diarist Samuel Pepys used to shop for his silken waistcoats. Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" was first published there. On visits to London, the Bronte sisters would stay overnight at the nearby Chapter House Coffee Tavern.

Ever since World War II bombs flattened the area, controversy has raged over what should be done with the square, which takes its name from the prayers, or paternosters, said by monks in ancient times.

An attempt was made 30 years ago to settle the argument by turning the precinct into an Italian-style piazza flanked by 1960s office blocks. It was an epic, ugly failure.

Today the Paternoster argument is entering a new phase that architectural writer Jonathan Glancey says is likely to be "crucial in determining what this prime site will be like well into the 21st century."

Architects, environmentalists, historians, financiers, politicians, busybodies, and a royal prince are diving into a dispute that pits tradition against modernism, and aesthetics against mammon.

Faced with this furor, the current owners of Paternoster Square - Mitsubishi Estate of Japan - decided the only way to resolve the argument was to call in a "wise man." They chose Sir William Whitfield, a distinguished architect who remembers what London was like before bombs fell and who last month literally went back to the drawing board.

Sir William is determined to come up with a master plan for the square that is in keeping with the mighty cathedral only a stone's throw away, and also meets aesthetic and commercial requirements of 21st-century London.

About these ads

Today, Paternoster Square is a busy inner-city precinct, and there are many buildings around it. But almost from the moment in the postwar period when they were erected, Mr. Glancey says, "these unimaginative and low-key slabs" came under attack. The overall design lacked affinity with the baroque masterpiece of church architecture that thrusts into the sky so close by. And over the past 30 years, London's damp, chilly climate has taken its toll.

Many of the square's office buildings now stand derelict. At lunchtime, around a dreary expanse of flagstones, workers from nearby offices munch sandwiches and try to ignore the bitter winds that whistle through the area. The profile of St. Paul's, to the south, is living history - in stark contrast with the weather-stained monoliths erected in an era of austerity.

Five years ago, it seemed that the architectural blunders of the 1960s were about to be put right. A firm of developers announced ambitious plans for a new office development in Paternoster Square.

But when the plans were published, many of the proposed new buildings turned out to be tall and bulky, with pseudo-classical facades. Developers staged a public exhibit of the proposed design. Nearly 80 percent of visitors liked it, but the city fathers (the Corporation of London) had other ideas.

They listed 22 objections - among them the fact that people in Paternoster Square would have their view of St. Paul's obscured. The developers were forced to retreat.

A year later they produced a modified - yet still neoclassical - design. It won the approval of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, who is noted for liking conservative architectural styles and has since been urging the city fathers to press ahead.

But the City Corporation remains unimpressed. Michael Cassidy, chairman of its policy and resources committee, speaks of "a wrong-headed classical development" that doesn't meet the present or future needs of the area." He says the architecture of the modified plan has had its day, and he doubts whether today's commercial companies would want to occupy such buildings, much less be willing to pay rent for them.

It was Mr. Cassidy who persuaded Mitsubishi to call in Whitfield. It was a shrewd choice. Sir William is nicknamed by his fellow architects "El Mellifluoso" for his skill at pouring oil on troubled waters. He is a former "surveyor of the fabric" of St. Paul's. He designed the new Cathedral Library in Hereford to house the Mappa Mundi, the famous medieval map of the world.

Whitfield's architecture, says Glancy, is "a sensitive yet powerful meeting between the modern and the traditional."

For all his reputation for diplomacy, Sir William can be blunt. He believes Paternoster Square is currently "loathsome."

"Its architecture epitomizes the arrogant but empty thinking of the postwar years," he said in an interview. "It is just a plot of ground with a number of buildings spaced around it, and an awful lot of sky and empty space." The first need, Sir William says, is to "heal the wound caused by the bombing, and by the destruction of important buildings that remained, when the 1960s development was carried through."

His master plan will be an attempt to "tune in with what survives of the historic city, including, of course, St. Paul's."

Sir William has little time for those who wish to create "wholly artificial building forms for the sake of a history that has largely disappeared."

What is important in the development of any city center, he says, "is not the overall style we choose to build in, but how individual buildings relate to one another."

He is against "costume architecture" - a view that seems to discount the wholly classical approach favored by Prince Charles. He says his plan will "seek to allow the buildings within it to be designed by a number of architects" but which will "blend in with the entire area."

When it was suggested that by proposing a mix of styles he was seeking a typically English compromise, Sir William retorted that St. Paul's itself was a compromise between the Gothic cathedral the Church of England wanted in the 17th century, and the Greek temple Christopher Wren dreamed of building.

London may not have to wait long for Whitfield's proposed solution. While Mitsubishi waits and says nothing, Sir William is moving fast.

"I plan to produce my initial findings in May," he says. "Then we'll see what happens."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.