A New Urban Patchwork in London

by Andrew Wade

Last week Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano visited London to open his new Central Saint Giles development.  Located in a noticeably dead zone surrounded by the mega-attractions of the British Museum, Covent Garden and Soho, the building seeks to revitalise its site with a mix of high-end apartments and office space as well as public space which is enclosed by the fragmented massing of the building.

The most outstanding contribution of the design to the cityscape is perhaps the brilliantly coloured ceramic panels that meet the urban context at varying angles.  While this is an interesting addition to a typically bleak skyline, it tends to come across more as technological experiment than an injection of energy and life into the city.  Similarly, while preserving the centre of the site for public space and creating through routes for pedestrians is welcome, it seems more of a token gesture than a well considered and nuanced strategy.  The RPBW website claims: "With its cafés and restaurants, this piazza will generate social life, thus enhancing the urban identity of the site".  That assumption may be too optimistic, given that key factors - such as to whom the café and restaurant spaces are rented - stand outside of the architect's influence.  Another monotonous and homogeneous conglomeration of the typical pricey chain cafés and high street restaurants may not generate any unique contribution to the social spaces of the city.

Perhaps time will tell if this redeveloped site truly becomes part of a thriving civic realm that is needed in such a diverse global city, however in the meantime it highlights the disjuncture between a developer's sanitised conception of "joy, vibrancy, transparency and flexibility" (as stated as key features of the project on their website) and the true urban buzz of messy energy, diverse interaction and highly unequal incomes.

Credits: Image of Renzo Piano from Agnese Sanvito. Image of Central Saint Giles under construction by Andrew Wade.


  1. Hi...This is Karishma Desai, the lady in the picture in conversation with Renzo Piano. At that moment, I had precisely asked the same question, (the concerns mentioned in ur blog) about the relevance of such projects in the developing countries, within a divided society, not only in terms of incomes, but also caste, religion, etc. Being optimistic about it, it almost seems that it is going to be a trial and error process in experimenting with the built form with an aim to bring closer, these otherwise very different worlds...

  2. Hi Karishma, thanks for your comment. It is great that you were able to attend the opening and speak with Renzo Piano. I think one of the things architects struggle with is how to define success in a building project. The more considerations we incorporate into judging the achievements of a project, the more difficult it becomes to achieve success, however perhaps the more reliable and meaningful that judgement becomes.

    From the standpoint of the developer, I would imagine that the project ticks all of their boxes for an innovative, dynamic, profitable and sustainable project. From the standpoints of urban dwellers in London, however, the spaces provided, even the public space in the centre of the site, only cater to an extremely narrow segment of the population. It is certainly possible to provide spatial connection through the design of passageways, but when they lead to the typical set of chain cafés then they may not spur social or cultural connection in any meaningful way.

    It is easy and often beneficial for architects not to enter into debates of who will rent the spaces they create post-completion and what kind of character that may generate in the space. I feel that makes it all the more important for a thorough strategic review of such projects to occur that might challenge the traditional working relationships between architects, developers, and land owners. Often, in both developed and developing countries, there are already interesting economic and social networks around a site that can be built upon or at least responded to rationally in a redevelopment project.

    Thanks again for your thoughts - it would be interesting to see what Renzo Piano thinks about these considerations!


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