In December 2005, Time Out London ran a feature titled “North versus South.” Category by category, from best record shop to best “chippy,” each side of the Thames was judged. Final score: North London, 14. South London, 16. Just thirty years ago, the outcome of the contest would have been quite the opposite. The South Bank had been an important site of trade and commerce since the 18th century, serving as the main point of entry for food coming into London and earning itself the nickname of London’s Larder. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of dock closures ushered in an era of poverty and unemployment. The disparity between the two banks was striking; the city was divided.
After this grim period of decline and desertion, the South Bank is experiencing an urban renaissance, from tourist attractions like the London Eye to the burgeoning business district by London Bridge. Perhaps the most visible sign of this revitalization is the crop of new architecture that has sprung up in the area. More London, Foster and Partnersâ€™ 2003 multi-function development of office buildings and public outdoor space, is one of the most prominent new arrivals on the River, occupying thirteen acres of ground space and offering two million square feet of office space alone. Both as its own distinctive entity and as an integrated part of London in general, we see in More Londonâ€™s design a self-conscious working-out of an identity for this stretch of the Thames, defined by the Thames.
Designed with landmark aspirations and home to power players like Ernst & Young and Hewitt Associates, More London does not seem in step with its surrounding streets. The gaudy tourist attraction of the London Dungeon and the Britain at War museum, complete with retro posters plastered on the building front, sit just across Tooley Street in sharp contrast to More Londonâ€™s ultra-modern design. The surrounding pubs and shops are not your standard business district fare. Unlike Canary Wharf, another recently redeveloped centre of finance and commerce, there is no shiny shopping mall, just the Christmas Shop. There are no sleek restaurants catering to the working lunch meeting. Instead, the surrounding pubs and shops are low, quaint buildings with names like Fuzzyâ€™s Grub.
More London does not use the shock of contrast to attract attention, however, but rather a smart and strategic design that draws pedestrian traffic and curiosity toward it and the river that characterizes the site. The development does not wish to blend in or become a part of Tooley Street, but only to use it as an entry point. From a birdâ€™s eye view, we can see the diagonal desire route that pulls you from London Bridge east along Tooley Street to the edge of the site, where 6 More London Placeâ€™s reach into the busy street immediately catches your eye. Horizontal strips of metal, uncontained by a vertical â€œhem,â€? extend beyond the surface plane of building faces to interrupt your sight line down the sidewalk, but not the regularity of the neighborhood atmosphere.
Looking at the two sides of the building perpendicular to Tooley Street, we see what a marvelous feat of assimilation and allure Foster has achieved. The western faÃ§ade is a perfect example of one of the architectâ€™s â€œperfect skins,â€? resembling his building for Willis Faber & amp; Dumasâ€™ headquarter in Ipswich, UK â€“ an unbroken wall of glossy black, with windows extending seamlessly down the small street toward the Thames (Treiber, 47). The surface reflects the more traditional brick buildings opposite in such crisp and vivid detail that one nearly believes the illusion of architectural consistency. It is a clever trick, one that playfully absorbs the â€œuncompromisingly futuristicâ€? aesthetic of Foster without sacrificing it (Merrick).
On the other side, the magnetic pull of the diagonal line from street to river is enhanced by a number of architectural and commercial attractions. The office buildings have various eateries at their ground levels: a CaffÃ© Nero and Londonâ€™s second most-popular Marks & Spencer draw crowds by day, while trendy restaurants like Dim T and Strada light up by the Thames by night (Merrick). The street is also populated by a number of granite blocks subtly etched with the name â€œmorelondon,â€? rectangular prisms whose arrangement creates â€œavenuesâ€? that lead into the site.
Perhaps the most successful feature in leading you through the site is the stream that runs from Tooley Street to the water. Inlaid, narrow, and subtle â€“ this stream was certainly what first drew me into the More London complex. For such a small and simple detail, the effect is visually beautiful and quietly distinctive; we are reminded that this is not just another crop of office buildings, but one whose scenic location by the Thames lends it a picturesque power that those other business districts lack.
And indeed, it is the Thames that most defines More Londonâ€™s character in terms of neighborhood and architectural identity. The developmentâ€™s promotional brochure uses a number of facts to draw potential tenants to the buildings â€“ its history as a site of trade and business, its accessibility from neighboring suburbs and its proximity to local transportation hubs â€“ but the greatest draw is the location by the Thames itself. Photos of the London Eye, the Tate Modern, and Southwark Cathedral feature prominently in the More London literature, while photos of Tooley Street do not (More London: Masterplan brochure). In design and in PR, More London politely declines Tooley Street and embraces the Thames as the neighborhood to which More London wishes, and does, belong.
The Thames makes a better context for an ambitious project like More London. In his 1992 State of the Nation discourse, A New London, British architect (and Norman Fosterâ€™s former Yale School of Architecture classmate) Richard Rogers declared that in order for London to reclaim its former status it must look to the Thames: â€œIf there is one Grand Project we should adopt in the next few years, it isâ€¦to make the Thames the heart of the cityâ€™ (Rogers, 13). It would be the Thames that draw back the vanishing British companies and would become the centre of London life. Indeed, the Thames has achieved this due largely to its ability to house an incredible diversity of styles and functions for public enjoyment, from the modern to the Gothic, from the National Theatre to a skateboard park. By the London Eye is a circus of tourism, where crowds gathered in fixed circles around street performers take the place of formal structures. At certain points the greatest attractions lie in the lines of used booksellers or the Tate Modern; at others docks lead you into the river itself. The Thamesâ€™ series of pockets with their own identity, seamlessly strung along the river, fits with More Londonâ€™s vision for its own space â€“ a â€œcommunityâ€? that can compete in scale and attraction with the North Bank, that can contain a sleek modern design even as it looks over the turrets of Tower Bridge (More London: Masterplan brochure).
The Thames today is no longer a divisive element between North and South; the excess of bridges crossing the two banks is proof enough of this fact. Nor is the Thames primarily an avenue for trade and commerce any longer. Today, it is above all an aesthetic centerpiece for London, and it is this visual identity that largely informs the design of More London.
The influence of the water is manifested in the shifting look of the buildings as one walks from Tooley Street to the Thames. We start with the most severe of the series: Number 6 More London Place. The metal strips that announce its presence on Tooley continue along the entire eastern face to create a sort of â€œcage.â€? The true surface of the structure juts in and out like a paper fan, opening up spaces upon which the metal screen creates darkly dramatic lines and shadows. And in a development which is largely drawn in a grayish palate, the glossy red wall that blazons the buildingâ€™s number is a glamorously urban touch.
The waterâ€™s aesthetic imprint is felt more and more heavily as we move north toward the Thames. Following the unifying inlaid stream, the heavy black metal curtains give way to walls of windows with minimal visible silver structure, and edges pointed in acute angles are replaced by soft curves to face the water. The facades of the riverside buildings, Numbers 1 and 2, curl like cresting waves, seeming to layer over each other from certain views. While the approach from the street to these aqua-influenced green glass curtains is marked by the garden of granite blocks, the Thames-side approach offers a softer welcome. Sloping ramps topped by silver railings weave in and out of the plaza in fluid forms, dipping and intersecting to create the illusion of rippling waves. The water has become a completely aestheticized element.
The notion of an architecturally designed nature is one that Foster takes delight in throughout More London. Nature here is not an essential to the business that is conducted in the buildings; it is merely a visual treat to make life in the workplace more pleasant. This may sound like a sinister idea, or perhaps some attempt at social commentary, but it is treated lightheartedly. Tucked between Numbers 1 and 2 is tree of glass and metal â€œplantedâ€? right beside a natural one. The image is a playful one, a humorous respite from the sea of grey that dominates the rest of the park. Of course, More Londonâ€™s interest in the water dominates in this theme, as well. The stream, a strictly bordered strip less than a foot wide, is unapologetically designed and managed. And a grid of fountain spouts shoots up at varying heights, spaced evenly in perfect dashed intervals. More London has adopted natural elements as part of its identity in a highly architectural way, recognizing the importance of the physical landscape and taking ownership of it as an aesthetic asset.
More London has a doting attitude toward the Thames, orienting its plaza toward enjoyment of its setting. Public art installations (currently a series of painted guitars in the spirit of other public art projects such as New York Cityâ€™s cows), an outdoor theater called Scoop, and the curving ramps all push our attention outward to the river. Indeed, a great criticism of More London has been that, for a development that wishes to become a landmark, it relies more on its view of the Thames for its status than on the distinction of its architecture. One critic dismissed the buildings as â€œtextbookâ€? and â€œstudiously expressionless, saying that only Number 6 offers any â€œgenuine moment of architectural pauseâ€? (Merrick). Another called the buildings â€œbland and undistinguished glass boxesâ€? that were merely â€œcompetentâ€? (Allinson). Others have received it with applause, citing it as another success in the prolific London output of Foster, whose designs â€œwill be the long-standing reminder of all that was best in our hugely creative community at the start of the 21st centuryâ€? (Street-Porter).
For my part, I cannot say that I fully agree or disagree with either extreme of opinion. Whether it is because of the Thames or the buildings themselves, More London makes you stop and stay a while, and any site that is so visually arresting must in some way be considered a success. Perhaps if the structures were more publicly accessible like the neighboring City Hall, if we could get a glimpse inside during the day like the one we can sneak through the windows at night, people would be as excited about the architecture as about the stunning site on which it sits. However, I hesitate to lavish Foster with so much praise for originality. More London is an attractive, sleek design, but it seems not terribly different from the wash of modern structures with which he and others have spotted the post-war London landscape.
Rogers believed that â€œthe Thames is the keyâ€¦to bringing together north and southâ€? (Rogers, 13). But is this an equal union? Or was Time Out wrong? One canâ€™t help but notice that the best view of More London comes from the North Bank, not its own side of the water. Though it does achieve that elusive â€œsense of place and space,â€? it seems that this site does not quite succeed in declaring the South Bank as its own competitive region, one that can stand on its own merits separate from the river relationship (More London: Masterplan brochure). Ultimately, More London derives its architectural and public identity directly from the Thames, a fact that ensures its continued attraction as well as its limited power as a landmark design, not merely a landmark view.
Allinson, Ken. Londonâ€™s Contemporary Architecture. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd, 2006.
Booty, Frank. â€œA Look at More London.â€? RICS.org. 21 Oct. 2005. 13 Aug. 2007
Merrick, Jay. â€œArchitecture: Out with the old, in with the new.â€? The Independent [London]. 9 Feb. 2005. 13 Aug. 2007
More London: Masterplan. (Brochure)
Powell, Kenneth. â€œIntroduction.â€? In Foster Associates: Recent Works. London: Academy Editions/St Martinâ€™s Press, 1992.
Rogers, Richard and Mark Fisher. A New London. London: Penguin Books, 1992.
Rutter, Alan and Peter Watts. â€œNorth versus South.â€? Time Out London. 13 Dec. 2005. 16 Aug. 2007.
Street-Porter, Janet. â€œNorman Foster is reshaping our world.â€? The Independent [London]. 19 Dec. 2004. 13 Aug. 2007
Sutcliffe, Anthony. London: An Architectural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Treiber, Daniel. Norman Foster. London: E & FN Spon, 1995.