Thursday, April 22, 2010

An old master brings out the paint box

LONDON/DESIGN: RENZO PIANO. For a place so full of life and energy, with such a stimulating mix of cultures, the impression of London can sometimes feel rather drab. Grey skies are common, so are grey buildings.
If that is the way you see this metropolis, be prepared for a minor shock if you accidently end up on Saint Giles High Street just a block away from the crowds at Tottenham Court Road tube station.
As you turn the corner you will run into a block of new buildings painted in such bright colours that you’ll think you’re in the middle of a giant fruit basket. It is lime green, apple red, orange and lemon yellow.
Somebody brought out the paint box, and that somebody is none the less than the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano who wanted to create a “joyful heart” in the centre of London.
A local returning after a few years abroad wouldn’t believe his eyes. Five years ago the site was still occupied by a dull office complex housing staff of the Ministry of Defence. Nobody took their eyes off the street back then.
Rowan Moore in the Observer described Central Saint Giles, as the development is called, like this a few weeks ago:
“It’s like a script of a B-movie (which never made it to production, for obvious reasons) in which giant mutant chewy sweets have, following a radioactive accident, invaded the world.”
That might be interpreted as a bit negative, but Moore actually seems to like the buildings as you’ll see later on.
The old office complex was torn down to give way for the new project and its buildings of mixed sizes and colours. After some controversy over the design of the new complex where the mayor of London (Ken Livingstone at the time) wanted something big and the Borough of Camden (where Saint Giles is located) wanted something not so big, the compromise turned out to be these buildings that are modest in size but make a big impression with its colours.
The new buildings will be mixed-use with homes, offices and retail. A courtyard, described as a piazza by Piano, that will be open to the public creates a new urban space where people can take a break to relax, eat or drink coffee.
Constructing is near completion and the contrast between new and old is striking. This area, just a short walk from the madness of Oxford Street shopping, is typical of the London that is an urban mix of medieval streets and modern offices.
Across the street lies St Giles-in-the-Fields, a parish church from 1734.
Central Saint Giles is one of many examples of the ongoing regeneration of London. Another can be seen at the nearby Tottenham Court Road station.
In his review of the project, Rowan Moore of the Observer becomes more positive after the initial shock.
“Central Saint Giles will be one of a number of commercial-civic places that have sprung up over the past decade, and one of the better of them. It is dignified and refined, and the talk of transparency and openness is genuine.”
The colours, he writes, can probably be explained by Piano’s ambition to “draw attention to the overlooked location by making a bit of a splash”.


Central Saint Giles adds a splash of colour to an old London street.


The colours even rub off on the side streets.


St Giles-in-the-Fields; eternity in the midst of modernity.