City Hall Sell Out
By Rowan Moore
When the rulers of London take their seats next month, in their new City Hall by Tower Bridge, they will notice that this grey metal egg, with a helical ramp whipping up its middle, is not a normal-looking building.
The GLA building will be a major feature on London's bankside.We also can expect some gripes - that it is not as big as it ought to be, that its unusual shape makes arranging office furniture difficult, that its sloping windows make enjoyment of its spectacular views harder than it should be. Such is the tradition in the opening of any public building. What they may not appreciate at first is that City Hall and the office blocks going up around it are not so much a teeming city district of the kind Dickens or Hogarth would recognise but, as the property business now calls it, a "product".
From the agoras of ancient Greece to the great Victorian town halls, down to and including County Hall, the now-debauched former seat of the Greater London Council, democratic buildings have been owned by the public, and connected to public spaces where the people can freely congregate.
If you don't like the decisions taken inside a political building you can stand outside and protest, so long as you remain within the rule of law. But this building is different. For City Hall is not the property of the public, but of the developers London Bridge Holdings, who are also building multi-storey office blocks around it. It is the cherry on a hefty cake of commercial office space, that has been successively marketed as London Bridge City, More London and finally just More.
Where areas of London might once have been called St James's or Waterloo, this one has the sort of enigmatic tag that marketing people attach to endowment policies.
It is being sold like a financial product, too, with the clean graphics that nowadays signify probity, and an impressive consistency of look in both the buildings and the publicity material. Smooth computer visualisations of the development appear in ads on the back of taxi receipts. Indeed, More truly is a financial product, the steel and glass of its buildings being just a means to an end in the bigger game of speculating in land values.
The good news for the public is that we are getting City Hall relatively cheaply and efficiently: it is a
loss-leader for the developers, who can sell space in their other buildings now being built, which will have the added attraction of being close to the centre of power.
The development includes an open space the size of Leicester Square paved in grey stone, with lighting and drainage integrated into the design. The London Borough of Southwark will be spared the expense of keeping it clean, as the developers will pick up the tab, and visitors will be spared the indifferent maintenance that local authorities usually bring to public space. And yet one feels queasy. For, in securing this fabulous deal of competitive rents and clean pave-ments, democracy has sold its soul.
The corporate space outside City Hall may look public, but it will not be public in the sense that people can do what they like there. If scruffy protesters start gathering and camping out, and making their views noisily known about congestion charging or skyscrapers or whatever, it is hard to imagine tenants such as Ernst and Young putting up with it for long. If the people paying top whack for their rent don't like something, private security will have the right to move the protesters on.
If Ken Livingstone rediscovers his youthful passion for giving a stage to exotic minorities, only the most sanitised versions will be permitted in this office park. There is a true public space, Potters Fields, on the other side of City Hall to the new square, but the new building turns a blank cheek to it.
Public space is about the balance of control and freedom, and is made by many different people, from the many owners and tenants of buildings to the varying crowds passing through.
In privately-owned space, the balance tips towards control by a single company. Private companies don't want uncertainty and risk, so they seek to manage everything, from the image to the paving to the security. This is their prerogative, but it rules out the unpredictable drama of the street that is the stuff of cities, of which political protest is one form.
Having created a perfectly uniform and regulated space, developers then seem to realise that they have created something boring, so they put in mildly sexy artworks, and programme pleasure in the form of jazz bands and mime artists. Or they commission whacky architecture, like City Hall.
At More London, faintly saucy hoardings hint at sensual delights. "Lick More", says one, next to an image of construction workers erecting a giant ice cream. "Pump More" says another, advertising a future gym. Yet the original Leicester Square, dirty and chaotic though it might be, will still offer more stimulation to the visitor than its simulacrum by the river, no matter how good the ice cream at the latter.