It is just over a year since the Mayor and the London Assembly officially moved to the Crystal building beside the Royal Victoria Dock in Canning Town, thereby making it London’s new City Hall. Its predecessor, which had housed the Greater London Authority since July 2002, had already fallen vacant and now stands forlornly in its prime riverfront location beside Tower Bridge. Norman Foster’s creation has never been admired by all, but remains a distinctive part of London’s architectural landscape. Could it be put to some new civic use that would delight visitors and make Londoners proud?
Persons of quality and distinction have been exercising their minds about this matter, including Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, who previously worked at the now ex-City Hall from when it opened until 2015. On LinkedIn, she suggests it would make “a lovely Guggenheim style art gallery”. It isn’t hard to see what she means. Clue in shape.
Victoria’s train of thought began following a visit to Philadelphia, whose Museum of Art she found to be just one among many to admire there. “For a city with broadly the same population size as Birmingham, I was blown away by the number of world-leading art galleries,” she writes. “On returning to London, buzzing with inspiration, I reflected on the convening power of arts and culture in successful placemaking.”
How might such a rebirth come about? Of course, much depends on what the owners of the building and the wider More London estate since 2014, the St Martins Property Group – itself owned by the Kuwaiti sovereign wealth fund – have in mind. Last summer, St Martins had an application for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing turned down by the then culture secretary. That means no major changes can be made to the building for at least five years, and leaves open the possibility of Historic England listing it in future.
The fact that St Martins sought the certificate indicates that they would at least like the option of doing something different with the building. And why wouldn’t they? A bespoke London regional government headquarters abandoned by the institutions of London regional government is, by definition, at a bit of a loose end. Might gently repurposing the glassy pile as a cultural attraction, open to the public, qualify? Small exhibitions were always on display there before it closed. Why not more and bigger ones?
The 20th Century Society (C20), which was pleased the immunity certificate wasn’t issued, has drawn attention to the view of Foster + Partners, which said it has “always argued in favour of reuse and renewal of buildings, which can be given a new lease of life through sensitive interventions”. In response to this the C20 stressed its view that “listing of the building would not prevent it from having a new use, with the ‘sympathetic adaptions’ and ‘sensitive interventions’ Foster + Partners reference still achievable”.
If the building was subtly adapted to work as a museum or gallery, how would the project stack up financially? The old City Hall was always tricky to clean and maintain (and let’s not forget the mice). Grant funding might be hard to come by. But perhaps an existing organisation could sell its present home and move in, flush with the ongoing proceeds.
Whatever, some sort of Museum of London Art right next to the Bridge Theatre, Tower Bridge and the River Thames sounds very appealing. Maybe somebody should start a campaign.