Details

Keywords Change this

Brutalism, Foma

Project timeline

1969 – 1976

Type

Office

Location Change this

Petty France
SW1H 9AJ London
United Kingdom

Architect Change this

Gross floor area Change this

51,000m²

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Article last edited by Bostjan on
March 15th, 2019

102 Petty France Change this

London, United Kingdom
by Sir Basil Spence Change this
1 of 4

Description Change this

102 Petty France is an office block on Petty France in Westminster, London, overlooking St. James's Park, which was designed by Fitzroy Robinson & Partners, with Sir Basil Spence, and completed in 1976. It now houses the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service.

The new building's architecture was not favorably received, either, owing to its scale and massing with protruding elements at the upper and lower floors, often being described as a Brutalist design: it was sometimes known to those who worked there as "the Lubyanka". Fodor's guide to London described it as "hulking", and Lord St John of Fawsley remarked that "Basil Spence's barracks in Hyde Park ruined that park; in fact, he has the distinction of having ruined two parks, because of his Home Office building, which towers above St James's Park." The building originated as a speculative office development, but the Home Office moved in owing to lack of space in its previous headquarters in Whitehall.

After the Second World War, civil servants in London’s Whitehall were working in cramped offices built in the 19th century when government administration was smaller. With the post-war expansion of the British state, office space was needed outside the historic core of Whitehall. New offices on Queen Anne’s Gate were first planned in 1959, but the original plan of a more conventional tower block was rejected by the Royal Fine Art Commission. Planning permission for Spence’s revised design was given by the Westminster Planning Committee in 1969.

102 Petty France is in a sensitive location in central London: in view of Buckingham Palace, overlooking The Mall and two of the Royal Parks, St. James's Park and Green Park. Historically, the site was previously occupied by Queen Anne’s Mansions, London’s first high-rise housing, built from 1873-1890. Today, Victorian properties are desirable and the mansion flat format is fashionable again, but the Victorian and Edwardian media decried mansion flats as “Babylonian”, factory-like and out of scale with historic Georgian buildings. Londoners feared for the value of their property if a sunlight-blocking mansion flat was built nearby. At 12 storeys high, Queen Victoria complained that the Mansions blocked her view. The Mansions tested the limits of planning law, prompting the introduction of height restrictions in the London Building Acts of 1890 and 1894. During WW2, the Mansions were requisitioned as Government offices and retained until they were demolished in 1973. Many in Whitehall hoped the site would be developed with a building more sensitive to the surroundings. What was proposed shocked them.

Several Members of Parliament were outraged by Spence’s model and sketches. On 4 July 1972, Lord Reigate, speaking in the House of Lords, asked the Government to intervene and halt building. Calling Spence’s design a “mass of monumental masonry”, he went on to predict “this unlovely lump of a building will loom over London for a long time, and will, if I may say so, if it is allowed to happen, outlive all your Lordships”. The Earl of Cork and Orrery added “Like the great Martian machines in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, the monsters are closing in.” Thankfully (for those of us who appreciate monsters), Lord Reigate failed.

102 Petty France is 14 floors and 51,000 square metres of “massive period” Brutalism. It is asymmetrical, angular and makes no concessions to the Georgian row houses of Queen Anne's gate. It personifies the qualities people love and hate about Brutalism in equal measure. It’s a big, assertive building which succeeds in its job as a symbol of government authority and a landmark on the local skyline. Walking West from Westminster Abbey, the building draws the eye. From the North, the corner tower, resembling a knight’s helm, rises above the trees of St James’s Park. It also dominates the skyline of Green Park and is even visible from Hyde park. The heavy massing of the projecting first and second floors presents visitors with a striking bunker-like solidity. The Earl’s science fiction comparison is appropriate. The building has a unique personality lacking in most other London office buildings of the time. It’s more impactful than, for example, the works of Richard Seifert.

When the Home Office decided to move to a new headquarters in 2003, the cost of demolition outweighed traditionalists’ calls to demolish 102 Petty France. Extensive modifications were made for its current occupants, the Ministry of Justice. Spence had designed 102 Petty France as flexible office space around three cores, and modification of the structural frame and floorplate layout proved unnecessary. The former car park in the rear courtyard received a high-level glass roof, forming an atrium with conference rooms and cafes. The building was refurbished to accommodate 2,400 staff. A multi-services chilled beam system was installed to upgrade office services. 102 Petty France achieved a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ sustainability rating. The modifications left the original character of Spence’s design intact and 102 Petty France is now an excellent example of how a Brutalist building can be recycled for the modern era.

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