Dating from a long-gone age when towers were controversial, the 33-storey Centre Point was headline news from the day it was designed to half a century later, when it was finally absorbed into London’s collective consciousness, not as an eyesore but as a structure of elegant, elongated beauty.
Centre Point was the product of a very particular moment when developer Harry Hyams and architect “Colonel” Richard Seifert, along with his design architect, George Marsh, were able to trade height — unique in central London — for the provision of an improved road junction. This was the moment when traffic engineering was seen as the great good, and the developer got his way by building a dark, unpleasant traffic island and bus interchange which blighted the northern edge of Soho for decades.
The tower opened in 1966 yet stood empty for well over a decade. The developer claimed it was because he wanted a single tenant to occupy it; others suggested it was a ploy to save on tax. In an age of paranoia and fear of nuclear annihilation, some fruity conspiracy theories emerged around the building, including that Hyams was being paid by the government to keep it empty as a wartime headquarters, with its access to the deep tube lines below for use as a possible fall-out shelter.
The building slowly filled up in the 1980s and, for a time, even had a Tom Dixon-designed members’ club on its top three floors. It was a frequent story in newspapers, the scandal of its emptiness gave its name to a homelessness charity and it has featured in disaster films, from the underrated The Medusa Touch (1978) to the eerie 28 Days Later (2002).
As so often happens in architecture, what was once derided has become revered. The radical becomes retro. The geometric, pre-cast concrete elements that make up Centre Point’s almost op art facade have become part of the pattern of the capital. Never a success as a commercial tower, it was bought by developers Almacantar and has been converted into 82 apartments by architects Conran and Partners.
With its slim profile and small floor plates it is better suited to residential use than it ever was to offices, and the architects have done a meticulous, intelligent job of restoring, converting and maintaining this wonderful building.
The flats are, of course, super-luxury and extremely expensive. In the developers’ defence, however, the plaza at the rear of the site is being properly redesigned (by Rick Mather Architects). The base of the building is being opened up with shops and restaurants, and the developers have built a small block of social housing on the St Giles corner which is, surely, one of the finest examples of its kind in London in recent years.
Because central London’s West End has remained so resolutely low rise, even the lower apartments have astonishing views across the city. After nightfall, retail thoroughfare Oxford Street appears as a river of light, cutting though the cityscape, while the river Thames itself meanders in darkness through the emerging towers. The view takes in every London landmark — St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Wembley Stadium, even Heathrow airport — while kestrels hover in the updraughts outside the windows.
The original structure, which impinges on the interiors, is clad in variegated grey mini-mosaic to echo its appearance lower down (the huge Y-shaped legs at ground level). The lift lobbies are, unusually, lit by windows to either end of the structure, giving a different angle on the city. The structural grid on the outside gives generous room proportions — even the rooms in the smallest flat being two modules wide — and the simple, elegant kitchens are set back from the main living space in an alcove that gives the rooms coherence and clarity.
The penthouse is still under construction, but lower down there are apartments that have been allocated to different designers. Conran and Partners’ standard version is impeccable — minimal and elegant. The version by interior designers Ivar, near the top of the building, is a little more masculine — furniture and fittings are site-specific, including a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish rug which, it transpires, is based on the pre-cast concrete facade modules, and some bespoke mid 20-century-type furniture which slots in seamlessly.
At ground level in the new lobby, the formerly external staircases have been brought inside, one adorned with a striking, squiggly light installation by Cerith Wyn Evans, inspired by Marcel Duchamp but seemingly drawn from neon-tube in the air. It is easier now than it was in the urine and disinfectant-soaked old days to appreciate this undercroft as a thing of elegance, even if it has been subsumed by the heavily portered and self-consciously luxurious lobby. There is a pool that runs the length of the building on the lower floor and the usual club rooms and mini movie theatres.
The ground beneath has been scooped up almost entirely. The warren of offputting underpasses and fabulously seedy bars, gyms and snooker clubs — including a dark and wonderful one where I wiled away hours as a feckless youth — has been excavated as part of the massive Crossrail complex. This leaves Centre Point as a kind of station marker for the new underground railway interchange.
The glass cowls and station entrances have not been treated with the same finesse that the architects applied to the tower. The area still looks clunky and awkward, and it is a shame not to see at least a reference to the fantastically pointless fountain and pools that once clogged up street level and made the place impossible to traverse. But despite all this, Centre Point itself looks better than ever, a seductive glimpse of a modernity that never quite arrived launched into London at its most swinging.
Photographs: Luke Hayes; Getty Images; Mark Luscombe-Whyte