Sunday, September 19, 2010

What on earth happened to St Thomas’s?

Walking along the Thames from Westminster to Embankment one witness's some of the more successful and enriching urban parts of London’s rich architectural history.
It’s palatial like buildings a combination of government, hotels, offices and monuments really do show off some of the best achievements of this great city. The leafy enclosed parks offer places to breathe and contemplate overlooked by the imposing but attractive buildings in all their Portland stone grandeur.
It is what postcards of old London are made of yet really what we see today originates from the Victorian and Edwardian era with a spattering of art deco in the form of Shell Mex House and the Adelphi hotel.
Unfortunately this almost perfect composition of 19th and early 20th century architecture has not quiet been achieved on the other bank of the Thames, through no fault of its own.
The South Bank, the working side of London, used to house seemingly endless warehouses and cranes servicing London’s great industrial heritage. Today we see very little evidence of the warehouses cleared mostly by post war demolition.
What now stands is really a homage to brutalism and 1950’s optimism.
It is has now been re branded ‘the south bank’ or what is sometimes called the largest ‘arts complex in the world’ fully justified in regard to the sheer concentration of cultural institutions residing there.
The place works though and its recent attempts to clear up the odd circulation problems and refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall have resulted in a renaissance of sorts.
Leaving the cultural epicentre towards Westminster Bridge past the London eye you come across the County Hall, an impressive Edwardian Baroque building that used to house the Greater London Council abolished in 1986. This grand old building achingly underutilized is mostly empty and in need of a proper restoration especially the public realm which is insanely busy and looking a tad on the tatty side. Recent building work to the rear of the complex is not very successful, strange pomo type residential complexes trying so hard to fit in have been built and an island block dubbed the worst eye saw in London (although I could think of worse) that looked like a soviet concrete bunker/carpark has been replaced with what some would call another modern day eye saw.
Across the bridge we come across St Thomas’s hospital. This is where I get most frustrated. What we are witnessing is how 1960’s planning just didn’t get it. It’s a place no one really wants to admire or notice mainly because it’s so anonymous and bland. Access is difficult and sunken car parks replace the long lost Victorian buildings. It’s a sad place that feels damaged and degraded, perhaps an analogy for the NHS. The confusing plan is a collection of woefully dull buildings obviously built to a budget post war could afford. But now as the NHS has realised the need to improve we get more ad hoc reclads and additions becoming more confusing and messy by the day.

Early engraving of St Thomas's

The history of St Thomas’s goes as far back the 13th century but the buildings we see today are mostly post war and Victorian. In the Second World War St Thomas’s was badly damaged ,4 of the pavilion type buildings closest to Westminster Bridge were demolished in the 1960’s to make way for a new masterplan. The new hospital would realign the Lambeth Palace Road to the rear of the site to increase the functionality and size of the hospital and provide much needed space for expansion. What was built on the river was a large completely out of scale white tiled box, probably perceived as modern at the time but completely wrong for such a location opposite the palace of Westminster. We lost what was one of the most wonderful compositions of architecture of the age.

View from Victoria Tower Gardens

The hospital pavilions were designed by Henry Currey built in 1868-71and very modern in thinking for their time. Looking like a collection of classical villa’s in an Italianate Style with French Renaissance detailing the intention was to allow natural light to permeate the buildings allowing fresh air throughout separating patients from infectious diseases and connected by low colonnaded corridors facing the river. This type of hospital was endorsed by Florence Nightingale as a model for modern hospital design. It not only combined the elegance of the classical style architecture but was a befitting backdrop to the Gothic styled Westminster across the river.

View from Victoria Embankment

View today from Victoria Embankment
It’s sad today because this rather unplanned and ugly part of London was once actually a rather beautiful site and I am passionate it could be again if the will by government was there to once again bring back some elegance and beauty to this stretch of the river. If St Thomas’s was re planned resulting in a new hospital to the rear in a staged development, bringing back the pavilions could be a viable proposition. This rationale could implement a new hospital that's properly suited to the needs of modern medicine yet respect the history of the site in a far more complimentary manner. I’m of course not advocating that modern architecture could replace the existing hospital with something better but sometimes we could be courageous and actually repair to reinstate the splendor so deserved in this part of London and hopefully someone might actually notice it again.

For more information on the architecture of St Thomas's go to:

Images courtesy of English Heritage


  1. Bring back the Pavilions! Very cute. Love it.

  2. Sadly I believe our public health architecture is obsessed with functionality not beauty anymore in this country. The obsessive dogma of environmental issues cloud our every whim as well dictating an approach that answers one brief but misses so many others. Decorative buildings like this are either seen as an unnecessarily expensive or impractical buildings yet they are also the ones we most cherish. Bringing back the pavilions would not only reinstate the impoverished south banks architecture but mend something that really should of never of been broken. Of course the War didn't help