John McAslan versus SAVE as second battle of Smithfield begins


The Architects' Journal, 24.01.14

I salute John McAslan for his brilliant work at Peter Jones and Kings Cross, but part company completely over his proposal for Smithfield General Market. This is not an enlightened reworking of historic buildings. It is needless destruction of both authentic fabric and public realm, and is also strongly opposed by the Victorian Society.

SAVE's casus belli is McAslan's complete demolition of the handsome Victorian market halls. Amazingly, both Henderson Global Investors, the clients, and McAslan avoid the D- word, talking mischievously of 'soft strip' and 'dismantling'. Lets be clear: all Sir Horace Jones's light and airy roofs supported on elegant trusses and flying ribs will be destroyed, as well as the neat saucer dome, a very good piece of war damage reconstruction in the manner of Pier Luigi Nervi, designed as early as 1948 by George Halliday, City Surveyor. In place of Jones's extensive General Market hall of 2,766m2 will be a food hall of just 873m2, just 5m high and without Jones's sunlight and natural ventilation.

Henderson's CGIs suggest that Jones's lofty market halls are being retained. Look carefully and you will see the majestic Phoenix Columns, which create Jones's spacious open layout, are cut down and put back in shortened form, with new steel infill to support the huge area of new offices above.

Even more misleading are the images of the Annex or former Fish Market, with its clever triangle of top-lit arcades in the manner of Leadenhall Market. The main arcade running through the site, connecting with the lovely railway-style canopy across the street, will be entirely destroyed, as it has to be rebuilt to support another seven-storey office block above. Natural daylight here will also be lost.

McAslan's external interventions are just as brutal to the townscape. Smithfield is an area of low-rise buildings providing a welcome contrast to the high-rises of the City and Holborn and the soulless canyon of Farringdon Road, London's architecturally most dismal, ugliest thoroughfare. McAslan doubles the height of the lively Victorian facades and scoops out one side of the island block facing onto West Poultry Avenue, where there will be a clumsy junction between old and new.

The main justification for all this is a simple shotgun argument: if you don't let us proceed, the buildings will decay and in 10 years'time you will have to accept something much worse. English Heritage has argued that, as the City Corporation cannot be compelled to repair its own market buildings (though it has had no problem looking after the Meat Market), the market halls have to be sacrificed.

There is, anyway, a fully-fledged alternative to Henderson. SAVE, with Eric Reynolds's London's leading market entrepreneur, has submitted a planning application for straight forward re-use of the market buildings for market and retail uses.John Burrell is our architect and he points outs that it is the whole grand architectural composition street frontages and covered halls of Sir Horace Jones which makes Smithfield a distinctive composition of world stature.

This is one of the most historic quarters of London, with Bart's Hospital, the Charterhouse and St Bartholomew the Great. Yet it was not the City Corporation which extended the conservation area to protect the market but the Greater London Council. Just as much as Covent Garden or the Marais in Paris, this is an area where historic fabric and historic public realm must be protected.

An intriguing item in McAslan's evidence is a photo of his dazzling reconstruction of the 19th century market halls in Port-au-Prince in Haiti, with a handsome range of lofty iron and glass roofs. John, if you can do it Haiti, you can do it in Smithfield.

Marcus Binney

Executive President of SAVE Britain's Heritage


The Public Inquiry into the proposed partial demolition of Smithfield General Market, the Annex, and Red House begins on on the 11th February. It takes place at the Basinghall Suite at the City of London Guidhall, and will be open to members of the public.


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