The Lost Art of Street Architecture

An interview with Alan Powers, originally published in the Royal Academy Architecture Programme leaflet for Autumn 2012 on the occasion of his exhibition, Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture

There can be few more famous streets than Piccadilly. So famous, in fact, so bound into London’s identity shaped over centuries, that its name needs no suffix of ‘street’ or ‘road’. Yet unlike the older Cheapside or Poultry in the City of London, the mere mention of Piccadilly connotes a type of cosmopolitan affluence quite rare in London. The name Piccadilly, however, has rather more modest origins. The story goes that it originates from pickadils, the type of stiff collars in vogue towards the end of the sixteenth century. This fashion made the fortune of the tailor, Robert Baker, who built himself a grand house on the street in the early seventeenth century. Mocking such ostentatious pretensions of a mere needle worker, contemporary commentators dubbed Baker’s mansion, ‘Piccadilly Hall’ – and so the name was born.

Today, Piccadilly is a site of high-end shopping, expensive restaurants, grand hotels, notably the Ritz, and, of course, the Royal Academy and its fellow Learned Societies. However, architecturally Piccadilly is rarely seen as anything particularly noteworthy or special. The RA’s own Burlington House is the last (heavily-altered) example of the town-palaces which lined the street from the mid- seventeenth century. Since then, the street has been remade countless times, especially in the 1920s and 30s, though without an overarching architectural theme, leaving it something of a mish-mash of the architecturally overlooked and unfashionable. But for Alan Powers, guest curator of Eros to the Ritz: 100 Years of Street Architecture, this is one of Piccadilly’s great virtues. 

‘It’s a very interesting mixture if you want to look at the twentieth century, the middle decades particularly’, Powers remarks. Some of buildings which went up over these years were ‘thought very good at the time, but more recently people haven’t looked at them.’ One such building rarely considered architecturally, Powers notes, is the Ritz. ‘It was seen at the time as hugely important. [Now] it looks like another stone classical building, but what excited people was that it was just so accomplished. One of the critics wrote that its great virtue was its invisibility; it looked as though it had always been there’.


Invisibility in a more contextual way was also key to another building from that period: Sir Edwin Lutyens PRA’s neo-Georgian Midland Bank (now Hauser & Wirth) next to Sir Christopher Wren’s St James Piccadilly. ‘It is in some ways a toy building, a grand building shrunk down to a very small scale. [Lutyens] is having fun by breaking the rules of classical architecture which is going back to the Mannerism between Renaissance and Baroque, using bits and pieces from Wren, but mixing it in a particularly twentieth-century knowing kind of way’. ‘It’s also beautifully built’, Powers observes, just like a slightly later, though radically different building, a few doors down on Piccadilly’s south side.

Now Waterstones’ flagship store, this building, one of Piccadilly’s most famous, was originally erected by the clothing shop, Simpsons, ‘one of the smartest, most modern businesses of its kind in London, so it was appropriate to have a modern building’. Designed by the early English modernist, Joseph Emberton, ‘it had quite a revolutionary steel frame and steel structure on the outside, but it still retains the politeness of some of the neighbouring buildings through using stone facing’. Also notable are the continuous curved shop front windows – a London first – which have seen displays by such distinguished designers as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Terence Conran. ‘Luckily’, Powers notes, ‘it’s a place you can still walk into and enjoy the interior as well’.

Despite the preponderance of shops and hotels along Piccadilly, most buildings, or specifically most parts of each building, are not publicly accessible. For street architecture a building’s front is the ‘bit that matters’, the design (and appreciation) of which, Powers argues, requires very particular skills and sensibilities. ‘In 1923 the RIBA awarded its first medal for London street architecture [and] at that point it was seen as something that mattered, that buildings fulfilled ... a visual function which related to a street ... the front would be visible to the public and therefore it was a matter of public concern how it was designed’. ‘After all’, Powers continues, ‘the front is what the public sees and people who aren’t trained in architecture tend understandably to judge a building by its front. What is strange is one of the outcomes of modern architecture is that it is somehow not polite to talk about that’.

The Language of the Street

And this, Powers suggests, has seen a generation of architects emerge, no longer conversant in the nuanced language of street front design. ‘There used to be a lot of skills around for how to design the front of buildings and how to use that very shallow depth, working with materials to get an interesting pattern of light and shade, a geometry, so the bits go together more like a musical composition that has a sort of logic and coherence to it. at skill is now very hard to and, I think’.

Some recent additions to Piccadilly’s streetscape bear out Powers’ theory. An office building directly abutting Simpsons by Robert Adam, one of today’s leading classicists, has been nothing if not controversial. Yet in some ways it shies away from the street, its architectural emphasis being on the corner between Piccadilly and the lane running perpendicular alongside Wren’s rectory. ‘It’s certainly very bold’, Powers remarks, ‘and pulls out all the stops, [with] special sculpture by Alexander Stoddart’. ‘Personally I don’t find it quite to my taste, but I think it fits in very well with the exuberant Edwardian buildings like J.J. Joass’s building on the corner of St James’s Street, built out of Greek Pentelic marble which ... has that Edwardian, full on quality’.

Learning to Look Again

It seems that, for Powers, the ideal type of street is one with different architectures (whether they be to our taste or not) competing for our attention, yet coming together through a shared appreciation of the values of street frontage design. In the early twentieth century ‘The RA was well known for the kinds of architects who did buildings ... that were very pictorial in that sense that they had street elevations’. It is interesting for Powers that the latest addition to Piccadilly (currently on-site) is by another Royal Academician, Eric Parry, ‘one of the architects today who’s done a lot to think again about the elevation even whilst maintaining his modernist credentials’.

In focusing on Piccadilly, Powers hopes the exhibition will get architects and the public alike talking about street architecture again. In this guise, the exhibition will act as something of a guide to looking. ‘It’s helpful’, Powers argues, ‘to have someone to point things out and to say, what if the architect had done this differently? They made a choice; do we agree with it? I think one of the great pleasures when looking at architecture is to think, well, they must have had a reason for this, let’s try and work out what it was’.