3 June 2024

Nimby Watch: Brutalism versus futurism


For this week’s edition of ‘Nimby Watch’, Jonn Elledge takes us to London’s South Bank, where Nimbys are fighting to protect an abandoned brutalist tower block from the scourge of sophisticated new office space…

Where are we off to this time? A little known city by the name of ‘London’. Specifically, the South Bank of the Thames, between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridges: roughly where the failed Garden Bridge would end, if only its architect Thomas Heatherwick had the same talent for raising cash as he does for self-promotion.

What’s there now? An abandoned TV studio with a dilapidated 24 storey tower block on top of it. The London Studios on Upper Ground operated for nearly half a century from 1972, producing mainly but not exclusively ITV light content like Good Morning Britain and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. That closed in 2018, though, since when the site has been boarded up.

So who wants to build what? Its current owners have planning approval for the originally-named 72 Upper Ground complex, designed by architecture firm Make. That’d involve a six storey podium, with two protruding office towers of 13 and 26 storeys apiece, plus rooftop gardens and new public space. All in all, it would offer space for 4000 workers and would be home to a new London Studios, this one described as ‘a 40,000ft² centre for grassroots artists and independent cultural producers’. It would look like this:

Credit: Make Architects

Brutal. I’m assuming everyone loves it. Well, the Twentieth Century Society (C20) has described the design as ‘universally derided’, which is a little unfair: the GLA and Lambeth council have both backed the development. But C20 repeated the name ‘the slab’ until it caught on, and claimed it would ruin the ‘string of pearls’ lining the South Bank conservation area.

To be fair, it is a vast building looming over a very prominent site. Albeit one that replaces what is – and let’s be fair about this – a monstrosity. Also, the ‘string of pearls’ includes not just the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall (fair), but also the IBM Building (Grade II* listed, despite being horrible). The new development may be bigger, but it is not obviously worse – and may indeed be more attractive – than some of its immediate neighbours.

Anyway, the ‘Stop the Slab’ campaign did manage to persuade then Communities Secretary Greg Clarke to call it in for ministerial review, but his successor Michael Gove let it go forward. He recognises some of the problems – the scheme would cause ‘less than substantial harm’ to the conservation area, which is a hilarious phrase – but ‘having carefully weighed up the relevant factors, he has concluded that the public benefits of the proposal do outweigh the harm to designated heritage assets’. 

In other words, no, it ain’t perfect – but that’s not a good reason to leave a prime site sitting empty to silence some Nimbys, is it? C20 took this extremely well, putting out a statement warning of ‘irreversible damage to the unique setting, heritage and dynamism of London’s Southbank’. 

Nothing more dynamic than an abandoned bit of 1970s brutalism. Well good news there: opponents are now challenging on heritage grounds and pushing for a judicial review, so you may have time to enjoy the abandoned site for some time yet.

Why are you sticking your neck out for a ‘speculative office building’ anyway? Surely we have enough of those. Aha, I see you’ve been reading the C20 campaign materials. Anyway, that’s less clear than you might think: the shift to remote working hasn’t entirely stuck, and office vacancy rates are almost down to pre-pandemic levels, except on Fridays. Where space does sit unoccupied, the problem is generally that it’s outdated and rubbish, rather than surplus to requirements. This is actually a good argument for rebuilding sites dating from, say, 1972.

Okay, but it’s not like you can live in it. Indeed: local MP Florence Eshalomi has criticised it for its lack of ‘high-quality, affordable housing’. I think, though, it’s a tad unrealistic to expect this particular site ever to go to social housing, or really affordable anything. And we do need other types of built environment in this town – and the planning system sometimes stymies those, too.

But the main reason I thought it worth noting was that it highlights three recurring themes in this debate. One is that a lot of people would genuinely rather have abandoned lots than public spaces, if the latter means other things they don’t like or that somebody somewhere will make money out of building them.

Another is that, for all the messy complexity of the planning system, there’s no actual plan. The more compelling arguments against 72 Upper Ground concern its appropriateness for such a visible and central site: it’s become the focus for a whole bunch of annoyance about existing Thameside developments from Canary Wharf to Battersea. It’s nobody’s job to think of the Thames as a vista, as opposed to individual sites: that feels like an error.

And the third? That people with deep pockets will fight to the death to defend the honour of existing buildings of exactly the sort they would oppose if anyone had the gall to propose building them now. 

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.