Shaped by History: London's City Hall
The winner of the London mayoral election on 3 May will get to occupy an agreeably light-filled office on the eighth floor of an elliptical building known to some as the 'glass gonad'.
Although not universally loved, it is nevertheless an example of how a building can both be shaped by its history and be used to try to influence the future. Officially named City Hall, of course, it is a rare example of a modern public building that is architecturally distinguished but also came in on budget and on time. With impressive views across the river to the Tower of London, and Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast acting as outriders on either side, it sits in a commanding site that also pays tribute to the rising importance of east London.
When the Blair government was laying the groundwork for the London mayoralty in the late 1990s, it was decided that its home had to be a new and freestanding building in another part of town in order to reinforce the idea of the post’s independence from Westminster. That ambition has been even more successful than planned - with both mayors to date, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, mavericks who have tried the patience of their party leaderships. Unusual and imposing, City Hall and its location have enhanced the increasingly obvious mayoral role of alternative chieftain.
"City Hall needed to be a great statement," says the then London minister Nick Raynsford, who was in charge of designing the new mayoralty. "It needed to show that it was not just about the historic heart of London around Westminster. But that we were also looking eastwards and at regeneration over on that side of town. We also needed something new, of a size and character that spoke about the aspiration of the new authority. It needed to be strategic, not large and bureaucratic like the old GLC."
Indeed, with its contemporary lack of ornament, City Hall could barely be more distinct from the whirls and flourishes of the Palace of Westminster. Or the Edwardian baroque grandeur of the GLC’s old home County Hall. That may have been one of the reasons that its architect Norman Foster was able to triumph over the other 54 bidders for the prestigious contract. The other leading contender was a radical and imaginative refurbishment of the Royal Liverpool Insurance Building in Holborn by Will Alsop. But a ‘pre-used’ building in the unremarkable Midtown location was not felt by Raynsford to be suitably 'striking' or different.
Nor would he countenance a return to County Hall across the river from the Palace of Westminster. Its position - which Livingstone had exploited as a billboard for slogans against the then Thatcher government in the Eighties – was too close and too obviously confrontational. It was also simply too large, too opulent and too redolent of the sort of massive bureaucracy that Raynsford was determined not to repeat. Part of it is now a luxury hotel.
City Hall, a few miles downriver from Westminster, was deliberately built relatively compact and on a site – formerly occupied by wharves serving the Pool of London – that made expansion almost impossible. Empire-building ambitions of future mayors, it was hoped, would be similarly constrained; the reality has been anything but. "Well, Ken is Ken!" notes a knowing Raynsford.
Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, just released in an updated paperback edition via Aurum Press, £8.99
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