St. Alphage House
- James Isaac
- 14 Sep 2014
After being devestated by the Blitz in 1940, London Wall was selected as the host for an ambitious post-war urban renewal project. Of the large-scale construction work that took place between 1957 and 1976, St. Alphage House was, as of last year, one of the final remaining parts.
The original vision was to turn the area into the City of London's skyscraper quarter. London Wall was to be upgraded into a four-lane highway - dubbed 'Route 11', with pedestrians commuting on a series of elevated walkways, home to pubs, restaurants, and plazas - a pattern that it was hoped would eventually expand into a city-wide network.
Pedestrians would circulate between five identical office towers, each let out to individual developers but to follow strict guidelines - 67m (220') tall, with two floors of continuous curtain wall at the top to mask various penthouses. These forward-thinking feats of architecture, remeniscent of New York, would provide a dramatic, clean and modern urban landscape. At least, that was the vision.
The podium level soon became a deserted, windswpet area where businesses in leaky concrete kiosks failed. The towers became a byword for blandness, amplified by the way they were grouped. In Manhattan, the mind-numbing visual effect of parallel International Style office slabs became known as the Sixth Avenue Syndrome. London Wall was London's own version of this, but on a meaner scale. The effect was more like a set of matchboxes. Herbert Wright, London High
Between 1990 and 2004, three out of the five skyscrapers were demolished. 40 Basinghall Street was reclad and repurposed as City Tower, leaving St. Alphage House as the only one of the original skyscrapers remaining.
Our exploration came very near the end of the tower's lifespan. The building had been stripped out a couple of years prior by the City of London Corporation for tax reasons, and by the time we had our eyes on it, had been meticulously masked in a frame of scaffolding and white sheeting, with demolition work seemingly already underway.
Late at night, the two of us made our way round the deserted podium walkways, and waited for a break in traffic and pedestrians before making our entrance. The building had been well sealed with scaffolding, but we'd been tipped off about an unconventional access point (one which you'd question could even be climbed into, let alone whether it would lead inside).
Nevertheless, we took our chance to climb up above the streets, and squeezed our way through the entry point. It panned out well, and took us out several floors above ground level, right inside the sheeting.
After ascending a few more floors using the scaffolding, we slipped in through an open window, coming out directly onto a staircase.
As expected, the interior wasn't in great shape, with rubble scattered around from the holes punched in the walls to make way for scaffolding beams. Every area we explored was also in complete darkness, so we could only rely on our own torch light to make our way around.
A couple of floors short of roof level, the internal staircase came to an end, and we came out to an open-topped area of 60s-style walkways separating some of the more architecturally unique rooms on the upper level. It looked like we'd planned our exploration just in time - demolition had already started on the roof, with a few walls already pulled down, but luckily the majority still intact.
Climbing the remaining few levels up onto the roof, we were greeted with an impressive panoramic view. The Barbican Towers, Alban's Gate, and the Aldgate skyscrapers were the most prominent landmarks, and past those, a view far into the horizon in every direction.
The scaffold sheeting hadn't reached roof level yet, so the view was fairly unobstructed, with all sides only covered by a skeleton of thin scaffolding beams.
Looking down over the North side gave an view over the enormous Barbican Centre complex, with its three towers cut out against the horizon.
Despite its prominent location in the heart of the city, the rooftop felt surprisingly secluded. Only a few other buildings in the area matched the height, but certainly didn't dwarf it. And we were at least 100' above the majority of the surrounding city.
The only neighbour we spotted was a graveyard shift cleaner on the top floor of one of the adjacent office towers, illuminated under the harsh fluorescent lights, making his way across the length of the building through an empty coridoor.
We took our time collecting photos and enjoying the view, before starting to make our way back down again.
Finding an opportunity to exit through our access point proved a bit more difficult, as it had begun to get light, and people were starting their daily commute. Our access point was exposed, and elevated 30' or so, directly above a street.
After watching the passing commuters from our vantage point for several minutes, there was finally a break. We hastily clambered down to podium walkway, and headed our separate ways.
Today, the elevated walkways are gone, and the site where St. Alphage House stood is a hole in the ground, surrounded by construction fencing. The site is being prepared for a 500,000 sq ft office complex, as another attempt, half a century on from the last, to give London Wall a fresh lease of commercial life.