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Less Is Still More

Happy birthday Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Had he lived he would be 126, but instead the architect passed away at the age of 85 back in 1969.

He'd been ill for years with his work severely limited, but despite this Mies continued to take a long view on architecture with one of his last projects being one of the great "what ifs" of modernist architecture in Europe.

Back in 1967 he was hired by the property developer Peter Palumbo who had bought the Mappin & Webb Building near Mansion House in the City of London. Controversially Palumbo wanted a new office building on the site to replace the popular existing one with its slender triangular wedge shape, and a curving turret facing the entrance to Bank underground station.

The catch was that the leases on the existing building would run for almost another twenty years until 1986. Mies was already in his eighties and ill, but saw the historical context of the site and the demands it would place on his approach to architecture as a challenge. Perhaps there was also a certain sense of mischief in knowing that his career would continue to be active for several decades after his death - a more lasting testament than most architects get.

The site would have to be reconciled with St Stephen Walbrook, Mansion House, and the Midland Banking Hall that paraded the mock historicity that Lutyens had embedded it with.

This was a huge departure for Mies whose postwar career had consisted of designing glass slabs to go in North American cities such as the Seagram Center, Toronto Dominion Centre, and the Federal Center in Chicago. They were all self contained urban areas dominated by podiums, glazed slab blocks, underground passageways and shopping malls.

As a result of the brief Mies designed a twenty storey tower to be clad in bronze glazing, with a new square in front of it further opening up the area around Bank.

Unfortunately for the scheme two things sat against it. The first was the changing tastes that were experienced by the architecture world over the next couple of decades. By the mid 1980s post-modernism was all the rage, with some even going as far to say that "less is a bore".

What had been white-hot architecture of the sixties was now seen as something dated - if you're going to have development the pragmatists asked, why build a dated building on such a plot when you can have the latest cutting edge structure instead?

The second problem for the proposals were the heritage lobby. Over the past twenty years a number of insensitive developments had led to them becoming ever more vocal and influential. Led by the Prince of Wales, Mies proposals were condemned as "alien" as if they were not British enough ignoring the small fact that it is called International style for the reason it is nationally anonymous. Further stoking up discontent and taking pops at Mies nationality, the Prince went on to compare it to a Luftwaffe bombing.

Although the pro-development lobby won the argument against preserving the Mappin & Webb Building, caught between this pincer of post modernists and conservationists, the project was eventually dropped despite Palumbo's love of the architecture and the fashionable James Sterling brought instead to design the 1 Poultry that still stands today.

Mies legacy meanwhile is under threat elsewhere in London. Although he didn't personally design any of the post-war towers that went up in London, there were many copies of his work. The majority of the larger ones, often poor quality and hastily built by developers eager to cash in on the post-war reconstruction boom have either bitten the dust or been hugely overhauled.

The most notable survivor from this era was built by Commercial Union Assurance Company (now called Aviva) in 1967 that came from the pens of Gollins, Melvin and Ward. It could be that the buildings continued survival in the face of architectural evolution is the fact that it is one of the few towers to be built in the sixties or seventies that measures up to the quality of the best of Skidmore Owings and Merrill or Mies himself?

Despite this it isn't listed, and could be redeveloped just as the neighbouring P&O Building, also designed in tandem by Gollins, Melvin and Ward as a deliberate counterpoint to it was. There the Leadenhall Building is now rising, and conceivably ten years from now the same will be happening on the other side of the square.

But for the prejudices of the eighties, London could have got a high quality tower from one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. Instead it lost out on that and could face being left bereft of the best homegrown examples of the architecture he inspired.

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