Townscape: the danger is that in all the controversy over a new site for Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, Covent Garden itself, as a place, may be forgotten. If this happens, its special character could well be erased at one stroke by wholesale redevelopment. The nature of this character and the need to reinforce it in any new building are discussed below
Originally published in AR March 1964, this piece was republished online in September 2011
It is hard to picture Covent Garden, that urban cornucopia, without its market; without the splendid chaos which now exists; a cheek by jowl juxtaposition of bananas and ballerinas, top notes and turnips, ripe fruit and riper language. All these are the epitome of the place.
As to architecture, everything and everybody is so close packed, it seems to be mainly an architecture of fruit boxes; with, of course, St. Paul’s church by Inigo Jones, ‘the handsomest barn in England,’ jutting its hat over the high stacked diesel lorries, its portico stuffed with porters swilling back cuppas from the coffee stall.
Also, round the corner in Bow Street, The Royal Opera House by E. M. Barry. But what future has Covent Garden? The prospect is not encouraging. London, ‘the unique city’ as Rasmussen calls it, is steadily being straightened out, having its eccentricities corrected, its character impoverished,
not only by piecemeal replacement but also by the well-intentioned doctrine of the clean sweep (politely called comprehensive redevelopment).
It is being made to conform to a desiccated conception of what it ought to be like with everything in compartments and no mixing by order. It is becoming just like anywhere else. What hope then for Covent Garden? Is ‘Project Anywhere’ (see imaginary sketch right) the anonymous design which any architectural student can bash out in an evening, regardless of site, good enough for this place, the brain child of Inigo Jones?
It is just too easy to imagine everything swept away and only St. Paul’s church left, as a sop to the sentimentalists. But Covent Garden is not just anywhere. Quite apart from the fruit and veg. it is a very special place and deserves a less arrogant approach. The least it deserves is that anyone redesigning it should try to understand it in townscape terms.
Only then should he get down to the drawing-board and reinforce in his design what he has seen. True, at first glance (which is as much as most improvers will spare it) there does not seem to be much architecture here, but that is because the original idea has been broken.
Sutton Nicholls’s drawing of 1720 (page 192) shows the original layout very well: a civic square of 1630, the first square in London, bounded by arcaded buildings of equal height - the ‘piazzas’ - and with a Tuscan temple (St. Paul’s church) axially placed, projecting into it.
In contrast to the noisy open square there was, and still is, a quiet enclosed square (a churchyard and part of the original convent garden). Behind the church and tightly hemmed in by a wall of buildings, it is an oasis reached only through narrow tunnels and a slit passage from Bedford Street.
It is this contrast of small secret and large public squares, and the splendid rhythm of arches reinforcing the latter, that forms the essence of this essentially civilized conception; ‘the first great contribution to English urbanism,’ as Summerson has called it.
The churchyard still exists and is a popular tree-shaded haven from the traffic. The main square exists in plan only, for the essential enclosure of buildings and the rhythm or arcading are no more.
Only in the portico of St. Paul’s and the arches of Bedford Chambers (a rebuild of 1880 but faithfully reproducing the civic scale of the original arcading) can you recapture the feeling of the original idea and appreciate how splendidly arches and columns frame the sky and buildings.
The arcade not only protects the walker but presents him with an ever-changing sequence of framed views. To-day the east and south sides of the square are a gap-toothed jumble of low and high buildings which quite destroy its unity; in fact you don’t even read it as a square. The middle is occupied by Fowler’s fine neo-classical market buildings of 1830.
Now the exciting thing to realize is that Covent Garden could really be improved by new building if the original idea of a repetition of squares and arcading were followed up, not of course in eighteenth-century fancy dress, but in a modern equivalent. As to use, the important thing is that it must be mixed.
Heaven preserve us from a zoned Covent Garden whether for businessmen or culture vultures. Such a place may fit neatly on some planner’s map but it has nothing to do with what is there. It is just too easy to imagine the whole site cleared to make room for an ‘Inigo Jones Centre.’
No, this must be London’s Latin quarter, the place where all paths cross, the kaleidoscope where everything comes together before separating out into specialized activity. It is a natural melting-pot for people and ideas, half-way between the City and Westminster, bordering Soho - a place where anything can happen.
It should once more be a place for the cross-fertilization of opinion, where ideas buzz over the café tables like bees, as they did in the days of Johnson and Goldsmith. This give-and-take has to be reflected in the architecture; free thought cannot blossom in a gridiron.
From the start, this has been a place with no closing time, where all trades and types rubbed shoulders, from the court gallants and wenches of Tom King’s Coffee House to Eliza Dolittle and Professor Higgins. This atmosphere must be reinforced-a mix-up of theatres, cafes, studios, shops with their owners living over them, restaurants, students’ lodgings, etc.
A phoney Latin quarter would make nonsense, but here it would be going with the grain; for instance: The Royal Opera House must stay and needs room to expand. It is chronically short of space for ballet and opera rehearsal and for paint shops and wardrobe. It has no recording studios and at present scenery is stored either at the Docks or at Maidstone 35 miles away.
The Royal Ballet Schools are dispersed at Richmond and Hammersmith and the London Opera Centre is down the Commercial Road. Concentrate them here. The Flower Market could stay; in fact there are marketing advantages for it to do so (unlike the bulkier fruit and vegetables which should be near railways and docks). Traders want to stay.
There is a great shortage of student accommodation and the area is well placed to provide it; in flats, hostels and studios round the square and running back from it. This line of thought is developed into a sketch scheme in the following pages. The plan and section are below, and sketches 7 to 12 show how it might look. The main points of the scheme are:
Arcading is carried right round the main square beneath buildings of even height, recapturing the lost sense of enclosure. This enclosure is made as complete as possible by restricting vehicle entry to King Street and Henrietta Street, which could even, perhaps, be bridged over to enclose the space still further.
Lord Archer’s house (C 18 baroque), Bedford Chambers, and the Floral Hall, are retained on the north side. Otherwise there is a complete rebuild on the north, east and south sides matching Bedford Chambers for height. Any tall new buildings are towers not slabs, and are set back from the square so that they appear to be looking over the wall without breaking its continuity.
The Royal Opera House, is given much-needed elbow room and allowed to expand, as shown on the plan, to include the present Floral Hall, which is reroofed and redesigned inside on two levels to provide a crush bar overlooking the square, an exhibition gallery and perhaps a new and better entrance to the Opera House from the square (through the arcading as originally).
South of this is a rehearsal room and ballet-school block, over shops, which could be made accessible also to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, e, by a first floor link (on a colonnade) if the latter should ever join forces with the Opera House as some have suggested. Expansion westward as shown would give space for scene painting, wardrobe, etc.
The Central Market is retained, its perimeter colonnade answering the arcading opposite. With the present utility lean-to roofs and zoo-like cages removed, the central street, shops, restaurants, coffee houses, and boutiques, the vista at the west end terminating in a fine close-up of St. Paul’s - the columns of its portico echoed by those of the market colonnade.
The shops also face outwards into the two main halls, glass-roofed on splendid steel arched barrel-vaults. These contain cafes, music, dancing, etc. At the east end the existing forest of columns, Karnak in miniature, is a good place for the display of sample flowers, a riot of colour bursting out into the square from between the black pillars. The main flower market, would be directly opposite, perhaps also occupying one of the main halls of the central market.
The Churchyard square behind St. Paul’s, is kept, and even if the present buildings are replaced, the existing enclosure and height must be carefully repeated. No opening out here. Access to the main square is, as originally, by gateways in a high wall on either side of the church (a public lavatory now blocks one side while the other is too open visually).
The squares are linked for pedestrians by two rows of bollards excluding vehicles from the space between the front of the church and the central market building.
A student quarter, of small tight-packed flats and studios, to the north-west, interspersed with pubs, small shops and cafes, is entered from the main square through the arcading under Bedford Chambers. There are also flats and studios on the upper floors around the main square itself and running
back from it.
Car parking. The fall of the ground, approximately 20 ft., between the market and the Strand, is used to provide a reservoir of underground car-parking with direct access to the flower market and a new forecourt to the Opera House. The parking would not extend under the central
market but to the south and east of it.
It would also be feasible to walk through on one level from Covent Garden by bridge to the south side of the Strand and link with upper level pedestrian decks (see Buchanan). So much for the immediate market vicinity, but in any redevelopment, the whole Covent Garden area needs to be considered at one time and with an eye for buried treasure.
For instance special attention must be paid to the pedestrian links leading back from St. Martin’s Lane, the natural boundary to the west, and also those up from the Strand. Also, of course, places like Broad Court, with its exciting hide-and-seek view of the Opera House, and the approach to the portico of the Lyceum.
Comprehensive redevelopment, that magic planning mouthful, is justified only so long as the emphasis is on comprehension (as opposed to clean sweep) and provided it denotes a willingness to see and to reinforce the good things that already exist.
Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Mr. John Kelsey.