The future of Sir Basil Spence’s Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks is on a knife-edge, with big business eyeing the Knightsbridge site’s potential £650million value and heritage campaigners clamouring for the entire complex to be listed.
The issue was the subject of a fascinating breakfast talk this morning at NLA at which the original architect of the scheme Anthony Blee was among speakers outlining the history and merits of the buildings. The scheme includes a 33-storey tower – with two squash courts at its peak – stables for over 200 horses, a blacksmith, riding school, officers’ mess and parade ground. ‘I can’t understand how the MOD says it has something to sell because it’s part of Hyde Park’, said Blee. When viewed alongside the already listed Sussex University, the complex, completed in 1970, sets a pattern of concept and design for ‘considering the potential listing of this building’, he added.
Twentieth Century Society director Catherine Croft said Spence was not the most fashionable of architects but was one ‘we really ought to be taking a lot of care over’, and Spence himself felt it was one of his three most important commissions alongside Coventry Cathedral and the British Embassy in Rome. But she said the issue had problems revolving around the site’s illustrious position on the edge of Hyde Park. ‘This isn’t really a debate about architectural quality’, she said. ‘This is a debate about money’. Government could raise some £650m from selling the site, and the lack of a listing for parts of Broadgate were also about money, Croft suggested. But alternative options drawn up only do what Spence was at pains not to do – present a cliff-like barrier to the park, she said.
EH’s Elain Harwood said the scheme was ‘very much a one-off’, featuring concrete elements of note – the scheme’s engineer later worked on the National Theatre. EH consider two main elements – architectural and historical interest when considering listing, and the building contains interiors with brass features and the feel of a gentleman’s club in places as well as the 33 storey tower that features two squash courts at its peak.
But consultant John Allan of Avanti Architects, a member of the EH advisory committee and proponent of its listing, said a third criterion that must be considered is group value. ‘It’s very seldom that you have a case where all these criteria can be scored so highly. This ensemble of buildings has a very strong group value.’ The scheme’s historical significance could be comparable to the archaeological discoveries made from the raising of the Mary Rose, Allan added. What should not be taken into account when considering listing included the value of the site, current planning policy, merits or otherwise of a proposed replacement, and how many other of the architects’ buildings have been listed. ‘What’s very important is that it should be completely transparent the way that the Secretary of State arrives at his decision.’
Finally, Westminster City Council’s John Walker said he did not want a repeat of Number 1 Hyde Park, and that his response to ‘puppy dog’ developers keen on the site was to ask where they would site over 240 horses and accommodation within 30 minutes of the Queen – it would certainly not entertain the notion of allowing anywhere else in Hyde Park.
It is not known when a decision on the potential listing of the site will be made but it may, said one speaker, be affected by the general election. In the meantime, the Twentieth Century Society, concerned that the minister may be ‘unlawfully’ be influenced by the possibility of financial gain, has launched a petition – called ‘Say neigh to demolition’.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly