The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School

Following the planned demolition of the New Change Buildings the adjacent St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School is now also under threat. This comes as an ironic twist to the loud works involved in tearing down and replacing the large building by Victor Heal that was built for the Bank of England from 1953-60. In an attempt to cut down on the noise within the school and protect their fledglings’ fine voices, the school has negotiated a deal with the developers next door to replace the original aluminium framed sash windows with double glazed units.

But changing the windows means a major intervention to the carefully planned façade. The school’s irregular site lies directly under the dominant apse at the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral and there is also the surviving tower of Wren’s St Augustine’s Church to take into account. Leo de Syllas of the Architect’s Co-Partnership who won the limited competition had a difficult and controversial brief. The new buildings were in no way to detract from St Paul’s and the resulting design is one of the very first modern buildings in London in which the context of the site is being considered. This is an important turning point in modern architecture because the site is definitely not a green field or blank slate.

Like the cathedral, the building is clad in Portland stone and lead is used to face the cantilevered attics at the top of the three four storey blocks. The façades are highly structured with wide vertical bands of Portland stone interrupted by narrow recessed window strips that run from the bases of the buildings to the attic. The design is effectively an abstracted version of the pilasters on the Wren façade. The building was awarded the RIBA Architecture Award for London in 1968 and the award commended the sensitive and intelligent handling of the context.

The windows span each floor and are tripled with a fixed pane at the bottom and two sash windows above. All are of equal size. But the proposals that we have seen are definitely not the conservation approach to window replacement. While the lowest panel is still fixed the two upper sections are joined together and will pivot inward. This will lead to a considerably different light diffraction when the windows are open and the façade will appear restless and disordered.

The most surprising thing really is that this excellent post-war building is still not listed. Our letter to English Heritage to change this oversight is now being processed.

Eva Branscome