• Battle lines drawn for Gagarin Square

A date of March 2017 has been set for a public inquiry into plans for a 30 storey rocket-shaped tower in Southwark.
Developers behind the Gagarin Square scheme have appealed after the proposal was turned down by local planners, and the London mayor’s office has chosen not to overturn that decision.
Backed by Russian investors, the project is named after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. And the design by St Petersburg architect Nikita Yavein of Studio 44 unashamedly draws on rocket references.
The scheme includes the 110 metre tall tower, with a seven storey base building that would replace the existing block at 55 Southwark Street. The design would include a theatre, museum, restaurant, offices and nine apartments. New Zealand-born developer Don Riley launched the scheme with a promise that he would “bring a bit of Piccadilly Circus to boring Southwark Street.”
Last October, planners at Southwark opted to turn down the proposals, giving ten reasons for refusal that included the height of the tower, and its impact on views and local heritage.
Officials concluded in a report to the planning committee: “The rocket reference is completely alien to the character and identity of Southwark, and indeed London as a whole. Although strong architectural concepts are encouraged, this requires sensitivity and skilled manipulation to result in the high architectural standards expected. This has not been employed here, where the inappropriate design concept has been allowed to dominate the proposals to a harmful degree.”
“The location is not appropriate for a tall building, and at 30 storeys the ‘rocket’ tower would stand as an isolated and incongruous feature in the townscape, who design references and literal interpretation are completely alien to Southwark.
“This would cause significant harm not just to the local area, but to the skyline of London as a whole.”
And the mayor’s office subsequently supported Southwark, adding their view: “Whilst there is a great English tradition for architectural follies, such as the National Gallery extension, in this case the joke is likely to wear thin with the passage of time.”
The developers launched their appeal in April, stating that the tower would provide “a unique and interesting landmark building that will valuably contribute towards wayfinding within London; building on the City’s set of fondly thought of towers, such as the Gherkin, the Shard and the Cheesegrater.” Supportive noises have come from the theatre community, with Tom Stoppard, Tom Conti, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn all said to be backing Gagarin Square.
There was also criticism that the project did not include affordable housing. But developer Riley, who owns the adjacent Menier Chocolate Company building housing a theatre and rehearsal space, questioned why an arts-led project should support homes. He told the Architects Journal: ‘We produce all our own shows here at the existing Menier Chocolate Factory but transfer and export them,” citing “huge demand from writers and showbiz for more of our successful formula in a second theatre.”

LPA Perspective: Perhaps it is too close to the Shard, perhaps Southwark planners don’t have a sense of humour. Gagarin Square has the potential to create a landmark in a part of London that doesn’t have many other landmarks currently – albeit one with a wilfully created link to a hero from another age and another continent.
The developers clearly feel their proposition has merit. Let’s see what the inspector has to say, next spring.

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