diamond geezer

 Friday, October 12, 2012

At a special planning meeting on Wednesday night, the future of one of Spitalfields' better looking buildings was decided. That'll be the Fruit and Wool Exchange, a 1920s auction house overlooking the more famous market. Admire the splendid frontage on Brushfield Street, designed sympathetically to blend in with Hawksmoor's magnificent Christ Church at the end of the road. The Exchange used to bustle with traders selling boxes of Jaffas, bags of onions and crates of melons, sourced from countries all around the world. Hundreds of staff were employed for stacking, selling and conveyancing purposes, with fourteen loading bays round the back to ensure that produce reached its destination in pristine condition. To read more about the Fruit and Wool Exchange's heyday head over to the marvellous Spitalfields Life website where you can dribble over the contents of a brochure from 1937. You'll also want to take a look inside the building, courtesy of the same gentle author, to see what its grand staircases and atria look like today. And then perhaps you'll understand why quite so many campaigners are quite so angry.

The greengrocery types moved out in 1991 when the main market over the road emptied. In their place the Exchange became home to smaller businesses, a sort of office block by default, on a really rather low key level. We're in Tower Hamlets rather than the City, despite the big "Corporation of London" sign across the frontage, if only by a hundred metres or so. But the City proper is keen to move in, courtesy of financial brokerage dealers Icap. They're currently based at Broadgate Circus but are keen to expand when their lease expires, so have been searching around for somewhere bigger but cheaper. Their eyes alighted on the Fruit and Wool Exchange site - ideally situated, but alas the building wasn't quite what they wanted. Icap require large unpartitioned floors for dealing, which is not at all what the F&WE offers, so their plans involve knocking the building down and starting again. Tower Hamlets council said no, repeatedly no, that definitely wouldn't be appropriate. But on Wednesday the Mayor said yes, and the Mayor wins, so the Fruit and Wool Exchange loses.

Icap's plans are for a mixed use city block, as is the custom these days, combining 36000 square metres of office space with a mini business hub and small retail units. That's very much the model around Spitalfields, whose main market building was transformed a few years back into an over-shiny tourist magnet. Now there are patisseries and boutiques around the traders' stalls, as well as whopping great glass office blocks down one end where elegant but rundown buildings once stood. The entire Fruit and Wool Exchange block will be demolished, with the sole exception of the Brushfield Street fa├žade which will linger on solely as a thin screen, a heritage veneer to cover up the modern walls behind. Expect a new public open space, by which the developers mean a thin courtyard surrounded by shops, and some sort of covered arcade through the middle of the site watched over by security. It could all be complete by 2015, if all goes to plan. A very informative public overview of the scheme was available here until late last night, but mysteriously the developers appear to have removed it (and diverted the link) since then.

You're probably very cross by now at the wanton destruction of an old building, but you might not be quite so cross if you'd walked past it recently, as I did last night in heavy rain. The main entrance may be lovely, with tall thin doors, then windows, stacked high to the semi-circular pediment. And the lettering's proper, very much of its era. But the rest of the frontage, to either side, that's a bit more ordinary. It's nice, definitely nicer than the faux-Georgian shop units on the opposite side of the road, and this is all staying, remember. But it's not the sort of thing you'd expect campaigners to get very excited about. Indeed the eastern side of the Exchange building facing Christ Church probably wouldn't earn a second glance from the majority of passers-by. Walk all the way round the block to White's Row and the view gets worse. Here stands one of the Corporation of London's multi-storey car parks, a large and unsatisfying beast, and not necessarily somewhere you'd like to be after dark. All of this is going, completely and utterly, which'll be a loss only to any Icap brokers who were planning on driving their bonus-bought motor to work.

The pub on the northwestern corner is also doomed. The Gun is a Truman Hanbury & Buxton pub, taking its name from the Artillery barracks established very nearby by Henry VIII. But that last sentence imbues the place with more historical gravitas than it deserves, because the existing building dates back no earlier than 1929. The developers have plans to rebuild something similar-looking in the new development, a pub no smaller than now, and the landlord appears to be very much on side. When bankers come along and offer you revamped premises, it's often hard to resist. But the outlook's perhaps not so rosy for the hundreds currently employed in small businesses within the main building. Leaseholders have just been served notice to quit on 1st December, which doesn't leave long to pack up and get out. They'll be given preferential rates in the new building - the first year rent-free and the second half-price - but it's not clear how many could afford a full whack third year in an upwardly aspirational neighbourhood.

One further thing the new development will destroy is one of the most notorious streets in London. That's Dorset Street - in Victorian times a 'rookery' packed with prostitutes, short-term lodgers and criminals. Jack the Ripper's final victim met her end precisely here, mutilated in her room overnight, her screams overlooked amongst the usual hue and cry. But Mary Kelly's abode has long disappeared beneath the Fruit and Wool Exchange, while the White's Row car park wiped out the opposite flank four decades later. Ripper tours can't visit the site today, only peer past barriers down a reconfigured service road where the former loading bays stand shuttered. Redevelopment will see this thoroughfare wiped from the map, as the Spitalfields area continues to coagulate into larger and larger blocks. Tower Hamlets have insisted on some memorial remaining, for what it's worth, but the murder site now looks destined to be engulfed within this anodyne office complex.

There are greater architectural battles to be fought in London than the Fruit and Wool Exchange and its adjacent multi-storey. But it's clear that heritage now counts for very little when the alternative is jobs and shopping, because the economy is the Mayor's clear overriding priority. Indeed every time Boris has been called on to judge some new building project turned down by councillors, every time he's ruled in favour of the redevelopers. I'm particularly sad in this case, because Icap could have gone elsewhere but chose not to, thereby destroying an illustrious interior for the sake of partition-free trading floors. A predatory purchase has been allowed to succeed, stripping away a not insignificant slice of Spitalfields' historic character. I'm sure that tourists will lap up the new building, and that the brokers can't wait to move in. But the end result looks set to be a vapid architectural pastiche, vainly attempting to mimic the 1920s building in modern style, with the 21st century found wanting.

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