Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Modernity Framing Tradition ; A London Bank Cuts a Distinguished Profile amid Skyscraper Blight

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Modernity Framing Tradition ; A London Bank Cuts a Distinguished Profile amid Skyscraper Blight

Article excerpt

The new London headquarters of Rothschild, designed by the architecture firm OMA, adds a distinguished profile to a city that has recently binged on skyrscrapers.

The other day I caught up with New Court, the London headquarters for Rothschild Bank, designed by Ellen van Loon and Rem Koolhaas of OMA. Opulent, context friendly, almost stealthy, it's an "adult building," as one of the architects who worked on the project half- jokingly put it.

Meaning that it's not what you might expect from Mr. Koolhaas, who has been heard recently lamenting "the rat race of extravagance" driving trophy architecture before the market tanked, when he was such an emblematic and influential figure. As it happens, New Court was commissioned before the crash but took years to be finished. So like Mr. Koolhaas's mantra, it's neatly tailored for a changed climate.

London has a case of what the late critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called Skyscrapers Gone Wild. She was talking about the "supersized, contorted, totally out of context" towers -- resulting from a cocktail of new technology and mad money -- competing for height and attention, from which London had once proudly abstained. I looked around town with Ricky Burdett, who teaches urban studies at the London School of Economics. He showed me 122 Leadenhall Street, nicknamed the Cheese Grater, an office building by Richard Rogers going up not far from New Court in the heart of the London financial district. I wondered aloud what Rafael Vinoly could possibly have been thinking when he came up with the top-heavy design for the building that has been nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie, close by.

Across the river, atop London Bridge railway station, the nearly completed Shard by Renzo Piano, London's tallest building, loomed over the skyline.

Neighborhoods are changing too. The master plan for the Olympic Games last summer entailed creating what's meant to be a prosperous new center in the historically downtrodden East End. Olympic Village is being turned into mixed-income housing and parkland. (James Corner, of Field Operations, who worked on the High Line in New York, is designing part of the park). As with the Shard, we'll have to wait to see how it works after it's finished.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, and Boris Johnson, London's flamboyant mayor, announced with some fanfare last month a plan to invest $80 million in the construction of a civic center for Tech City, as the blocks of East London near the Old Street Roundabout have come to be called. "There goes the neighborhood," was the lament of some die-hards in that scrappy start-up community, who feared the area had lost its cachet if government planners wanted to horn in on what has been a bottom-up development.

Their real cause for concern ought to have been the suburban office-park-style building in the drawing that the prime minister and mayor announced. A better plan, to upgrade the grievous roundabout itself, should emerge as the project evolves.

The most dramatic transformation is to King's Cross, long a crime- ridden, impoverished district where the St. Pancras and Kings Cross rail stations converge. In 20 years or so the area has been changed almost beyond recognition. To complement the renovation of St. Pancras a few years ago the main concourse of the King's Cross terminal has recently been refurbished with a swooping, pseudo- Gothic ceiling designed by John McAslan. Google plans to put its London headquarters next door. Luxury and subsidized housing have arrived or are arriving nearby, along with commercial development.

The Argent Group, a British developer, is behind this multibillion-dollar makeover. It has stuck to good urban strategies: mixed use, slow growth, pedestrian-friendly streets, sensible restoration alongside new construction, and an emphasis on active and ample public space. A spanking new granite plaza with fountains opened last month outside the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, which in 2011 moved into a six-story, 19th-century granary, ingeniously retrofitted by Stanton Williams, the London architects. …

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