JOHN SIMPSON AND Partners are one of the most prominent firms promoting classical architecture and urban design in Great Britain. They are perhaps most widely known for the work they did on the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, as well as for the rejected scheme to redevelop Paternoster Square next to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Contemporary to their ultimately unsuccessful Paternoster Square bid was another ambitious scheme, Phase Two of the London Bridge City development. For Phase Two, Simpson composed a miniature Venice-on-the-Thames complete with Piazza San Marco and ersatz campanile. There seems, however, to be something just a bit un-English about the whole project. There are numerous examples of Ruskinian Venetian buildings throughout Britain, and indeed the Commonwealth, but an entire complex of Anglo-Neo-Venetian seems a bit over-the-top. Still, one can’t deny preferring a touch of Simpson’s over-the-top Venetian to the glass-plated boredom developers usually offer the public.
London Bridge City, Phase Two was proposed in the aftermath of the hugely popular speech by Prince Charles in which he condemned a planned modernist addition to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. A bit of a donnybrook erupted between the architectural elite on the one hand (supporting the carbuncle) and the public on the other (supporting the Prince of Wales) and many a property developer was caught in the rhetorical crossfire. LBC’s backers decided, as an act of pragmatism, to come up with three radically different schemes in different styles and present them for consideration.
Plan number one was John Simpson’s Venice-on-the-Thames proposal. Rather elegant in its way, and completely appropriate for the riparian location. But still just a bit too Venetian.
Plan number two was an uninspiring and unremarkable modern composition within the utterly typical and banal common range of property development. Run-of-the-mill architecturally personified.
Plan number three was a ridiculous neo-Jacobean hulk by the famous Philip Johnson. Meant as an homage to the Palace of Westminster further up the river, its pinnacles reach nearly as high as Tower Bridge, creating too much competition for the span as well as for the Tower of London just across the Thames.
While it was Simpson’s scheme that got the green-light, the architect had more integrity than the developers cared for. His plans were handed over to the “experienced commercial eye” of Chapman Taylor, which wanted to take the façades Simpson composed and simply drape them as window dressing over office buildings of completely conventional and ordinary construction. Disinclined to cooperate with this insult, Simpson withdrew from the project, and his plan for London Bridge City (according to Property Week) “faded away like the morning mist burnt away by the Venetian sun”.
What’s there now? London’s City Hall.