Friday, 30 January 2009

Market sets out its stall

The row over proposals for Smithfield has reached a new milestone

Smithfield Market has the feel of a British gangster film. Rubbish in the gutters sets it apart from the more gentrified parts of Farringdon, and anything could be happening behind the large doors of the dirty Victorian buildings. Guy Ritchie would have a field day.

While the market continues to bustle, as markets have done on the site since the 10th century, the General Market and two smaller neighbouring buildings languish unused. This spring, consultation about a development on the site will start all over again. In November, developer Thornfield Properties appointed architectural practice John McAslan & Partners to analyse the buildings, and in spring the architect will start consultation with the developer and other interested bodies.

While the development timetable depends on the speed of the consultation process with bodies such as the City of London corporation and English Heritage, it could take three years to form a new plan. The concern of conservation bodies, such as Save Britain’s Heritage, is the decline of the Victorian buildings.

Trading architects

McAslan’s appointment represents a change of direction on the site. McAslan is looking at how Thornfield could retain the existing buildings, while the previous design by Kohn Pedersen Fox was a new build. Despite winning planning permission in April, the plan was rejected in August because communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears said it would ‘significantly detract’ from the existing market complex and be ‘detrimental’ to the historic buildings already on the site.

Kevin Lloyd, director at McAslan in charge of the Smithfield plans, says the practice wants to keep the existing buildings on the site within its development. He says this would have been the practice’s approach, even if the previous plan had not been rejected.

‘We’re coming at it with the hindsight of what’s gone before, but our approach is different anyway,’ says Lloyd. The architect hopes to reinstate the building in the General Market on Farringdon Road and is consulting English Heritage about how to incorporate existing buildings into future proposals.

Before plans are drawn up, the first step of the design process is analysis by McAslan of the fabric and condition of the buildings. This process will continue until spring. The architect is already starting to consider the mix of uses needed in the project to draw people to this area of London. In particular, Lloyd believes it is important to link into Cowcross Street, where Farringdon Tube station is situated.

‘Cowcross Street has survived because there is a quantum of space there,’ says Lloyd. ‘It has restaurants, it has bars and it creates itself as a destination.’ He adds that it will be a challenge to link the site to Farringdon Road, which is ‘not very easy to cross’.

The hall in the General Market building could be retained as a market, but for fashion and small stalls rather than meat or poultry. There is potential for small office units in the scheme and the area could support a hotel.

After working out how to use the existing buildings, McAslan would probably decide how Thornfield could initiate further development on top of them. However, Lloyd says Thornfield has left plans for the site open and the developer will not comment any further.

The appointment of McAslan has renewed hope among conservationists that buildings on the site will not be demolished. William Palin, secretary at Save Britain’s Heritage, one of the chief objectors to the previous Smithfield plan, cautiously welcomes the appointment of McAslan because of its track record of working on conservation-led projects, such as the refurbishment of the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, and the work around historic frontages at King’s Cross station.

‘We all know that McAslan’s a good architect. He’s used to working with historic buildings and he’s been keen to stress this is a conservation scheme. But until he comes out with the first design, we can’t judge how conservation-led this scheme will be,’ says Palin.

Still haggling

Palin says that, in the short term, the most important element of the Smithfield work is to improve the status of the buildings before redevelopment can take place. English Heritage and the City of London are in the process of agreeing a £100,000 grant to repair the buildings. This would include the General Market, Annex Market Buildings, Red House and a small Victorian toilet block.

Palin does not believe £100,000 is enough to preserve the buildings. While conservationists will undoubtedly watch Thornfield and McAslan’s new plan with interest, this is their biggest concern in the short term.

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