Homebase, Kensington

Homebase, Kensington

As the last remnants of its pediments are thoughtlessly crushed while bolshe housebuilder Berkeley’s office tills ‘ker-ching’ with multimillion-pound sales for the new luxury flats that replace Ian Pollard’s equally lambasted/lamented Marcopolo House (aka The QVC Building, the Lego building, the Observer building or the On/ITVDigital/BSB HQ dependant on your relationship to it) in Wandsworth, Nine Elms (in case you didn’t know, it was the grey and white temple of eighties postmodernism visible from the corner of Battersea Park station), I have some more sad news for lovers of all things PoMo.

Marcopolo’s architect, Ian Pollard, was and still is a classic and loveable English eccentric. A man for whom the ‘60s never really ended. More recently known as one half of The Naked Gardeners and owner/head naturist/gardener, with his now-estranged ex-model wife Barbara, of The Abbey House in Wiltshire (it’s up for sale following a divorce earlier this year), Pollard only had only one other creation to his name as an architect: the Egyptian-style Kensington branch of Homebase (formerly Sainsbury’s Homebase before the supermarket chain sold it to the Argos group, who currently run the chain).

Unfortunately, now that temple of consumerism too is in line for the wrecking ball. Yes, that’s it and it’s official. London’s seemingly unstoppable property boom (you know it’s a bubble that’ll burst soon) is smashing its way through everything varied, colourful and remotely artistic in favour of high-rise identikit glass boxes with concierge services and judicious use of the word ‘luxury’ and ‘affordable’.

The dust had barely settled on Marcopolo’s ruins when this news broke in June, though it had been on the cards behind the scenes for some time, though to little fanfare. In spite of this Homebase branch being one of the most profitable in the country, it’s going to be a distant memory.

Wannabe architecture/culture critics and photographers are urged to head to Warwick Road in Kensington pronto to snap images of a style that we’ll unlikely ever see in London ever again. History is disappearing before our very eyes as the capital morphs in to Dubai-on-Thames.

Apparently the sale and impending demolition is out of Homebase’s hands: it’s down to the landlord (surprise: a property investment company), who’ve decided that flats would be more lucrative, in spite of the fact that there were concerns from the store’s staff who say that it’s “ridiculous” as the neighbouring block of flats sandwiched between Tesco and themselves is “dark in the evenings with no one living there.”.

The store, constructed in 1988 and completed in ’90 (around the time that Marcopolo was also having its finishing touches added) was commissioned by the typically more architecturally adventurous Sainsbury’s who, unlike rivals, realised the importance of making a shop’s architecture something more than just a steel box (see also, possibly while you still can, the Camden Sainsbury’s and canal side housing by Nicholas Grimshaw, 1988) was apparently even too outlandish for the company’s tastes and they asked Pollard (through his company Flaxyard) to tone it down to its current form – he originally wanted to incorporate a pyramid in to the design!

Even so, it’s still classic bona-fide PoMo. The ancient Egyptian theme – mixing building pyramids with power tools – complete with pillars in the car park and fact that it’s used for the most unlikely of companies pretty much sum up everything you need to know about the style’s reluctance to be pinned down and ‘take that’ to the greyness of modernism which had come before it.

The building’s been untouched since conception and in my mind is beautiful. I like how Pollard shamelessly copies/pays homage to Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (James Stirling and Michael Wilford, 1984) with the tapering green glass window and stone/granite facade (a British staple of the era’s PoMo), just as he’d done before with the broken pediment on Marcopolo (taken from the AT&T/Sony building in New York). He doesn’t care, because he’s having a joke – not at us, on our behalf.

This was actually on the cards since 2008, but has only really come to the fore now.

The house builder claims that ’The existing Homebase building and site is not in character with much of the surrounding townscape’ in its plea to the council for planning permission (which, of course, was granted), which I think says it all about the state of London’s current short-sighted view. Not everything has to match. Not every building has to be a glass ‘baby Shard’ with almost brutalist housing placed around it. What made London so special was its variety.

I feel quite angry towards English Heritage, too, who have done very little to list recent buildings (possibly due to red tape) and are allowing a sixties-style destruction of anything more than ancient or very recent: Broadgate’s future remains uncertain, we’re losing much of the Docklands’ original eighties structures and now PoMo is being seriously threatened. Don’t be surprised in No 1 Poultry and Embankment Place disappear too soon. Measly online petitions do nothing: action must be taken if we’re to preserve our recent history for future generations and to maintain the oddly-shaped tapestry that is the true character of London.

His buildings are as flamboyant as he was and are just what’s needed in architecture. If it wasn’t for the Pollards of this world, Britain would be a sea of bland boxes with nondescript cladding and humourless facades. He had big plans before his company bit the dust with the last great property recession in the early ‘90s: his next development, in 1992, would’ve been the ‘Peckham Pomp’, a Pompidou Centre-style mixed use/dance studio/shops and offices complex in the centre of Peckham. I’d have loved to have seen that. I can picture the gaudy ’90s multicoloured steel frame already!

Let’s celebrate the last days of ancient Egypt (ahem, PoMo).

Ryan Dunlop