The architect Richard Seifert has arguably done more to define the skyline of London than any other single architect, having built more London buildings than Sir Christopher Wren. One of his buildings was even graced with a TARDIS. Throughout the 60s and 70s he conceived a plethora of gleaming, futuristic icons such as Natwest Tower (now renamed Tower 42 despite being a 50 storey embodiment of the bank’s logo), Space House just off Kingsway, and Tolworth Tower on the Kingston bypass, while his most famous (or infamous) building is Centre Point atop Tottenham Court Road station.
Thoroughly nonsense-free and professional — a colonel lieutenant of the army no less, who insisted on retaining the moniker in practice — his architecture is the embodiment of the sleek modernism synonymous with his Swiss background. It came backed with a reputation for the ruthless mastery of high-rise building through his ingenuity in the adaptation of construction principles and planning loopholes.
For all this tight-buttoned rationalism then, it’s a bit of a shock to discover it was Seifert who was responsible for what appears to be an architectural joke on the Grand Union Canal in Camden. Nestled in among the industrial warehouses next to Camden Lock, the Pirate Castle of 1977 looks like some kind of folly, a hangover from a party long since over, not least because its medieval castellations and Jolly Roger flag are supplemented by a huge sign branding it PIRATE CASTLE. Just in case you weren’t sure.
Unfortunately, of course, it isn’t one really, but a centre for children’s watersports, yet the story of its background is just as odd. It was founded in the 1960s by the unfeasibly named Jestyn Reginald Austine Plantagenet Phillips, otherwise known as Viscount St Davids, son of Baroness Strange of Knokin, Hungerford and De Moleys, and who later adopted the nickname Peg-Leg after fracturing his leg in a fall between the club’s original narrowboat home and the pontoon.
Originally based on a decrepit narrow boat, the first pirates lived up to their club’s name, raising funds for its current home by in effect mugging the other users of the waterways. Their “rattling tin raids” on passing canal boats were subsequently supplemented upon opening by holding the Lord Mayor of London for ransom in the club’s dungeon. There’s nothing like taking a theme and running with it, is there?
An extension to the centre in 2008 by AAB Architects thankfully preserved the castellated theme, and provided additional and updated facilities to grant greater access to those with physical disabilities — too late for Peg-Leg unfortunately, who died in 1991, though his legacy lives on.
This is one of London’s real icons, emblematic of a cultural history standing proud against its surroundings. And it’s pure Seifert too, once you look closely — imaginative, innovative, ceaselessly battling convention. After all, his disdain for anything box-like, bland and rectilinear even extended to his V-shaped desk. This just takes things one step further. While you may think you know the London skyline, it’s the anomalies where you see its true character.