10 London Buildings We Probably Shouldn't Love But Do Anyway

Last Updated 13 June 2024

10 London Buildings We Probably Shouldn't Love But Do Anyway

You don't choose who you fall in love with. You don't choose which buildings you fall head-over-heels for, either. The release of the book 100 20th-Century Buildings by Twentieth Century Society has reminded us of that. We've picked out 10 buildings from the book which we probably shouldn't love but do all the same.

Isle of Dogs Pumping Station, 1988

A colourful, Egyptian style pumping station
Image: Historic England Archives

London has gone above and beyond with its pumping stations ever since Joseph Bazalgette and his Crossness/Abbey Mills cathedrals of sewage. Is John Outram's 'Temple of Storms' quite so delicately ornate? Absolutely not. In fact, with its toytown decoration (informed, though it is, by Egyptian and mystical symbolism) you might mistake it for a soft play centre. It's mischievious and memorable all the same — especially that whacking great jet engine plonked on the front. As King Charles III once put it, "witty and amusing".

Finsbury Health Centre, Clerkenwell, 1935-38

A stylish heath centre with lots of glass tiling
Image: John East

How many times have you stopped to appreciate the architecture of your local health centre on the way in to getting that weird thing with your arm checked out? Never, right? You might be missing out, especially if you're registered at Finsbury Health Centre. In fact, in 100 20th-Century Buildings, John Allan praises Berthold Lubetkin's glass-tiled effort as the most important single achievement for modern architecture in England in the first half of the 20th century. The devil's in the detail; as the architect once told Allan: "the curving façade and outstretched arms were intended to introduce a smile into what in fact is a machine."

China Wharf, 1982-3

A bright pink multi-storey quayside building
Image: Jo Reid and John Peck

This you cannot deny: whatever they were taking back then, the architects of the 1980s were having a helluva lot of fun. Case in point: Piers Gough/CZWG's super playful Thames-side apartments: "Part boat, part pagoda and very red." The edifice pays homage to Victorian neighbours, while happily being its bombastic self. The balconies channel art deco diving boards. Round the back, the walls are deliciously scalloped, twisting the windows towards the rising sun. Just ask yourself this: would you want to live here? Course you bloody would.

Royal College of Art, 1963

A black and white photos of the college
Image: Royal College of Art Archives

"Not many of London's modern buildings will inspire affection in fifty years, but this will. It has the greatness and stature that so many of the physically great new buildings in London to conspicuously lack." So wrote Ian Nairn in Modern Buildings in London. That was 60 years ago now, and indeed the 'baronial modernist' Royal College of Art remains a real head-turner in a district of London usually known for its grandiose Victorian confections. Still, as Henrietta Goodden reveals: " It was actually designed to fit in with its neighbours, then covered with black soot."

British Library, 1998

A modernist redbrick building from above
Image: Paul Grundy

Nicknamed the 'Great Planning Disaster' owing to the fact it took over 35 years to become a reality, the British Library has its detractors. Anyone who's actually used this impressive building, however, could hardly fail to fall for it — and you reach whole new heights of appreciation for Colin St John Wilson's complex of culture, when you pick up on all the subtleties, ranging from redbrick to reflect the nearby St Pancras Renaissance, to the library's ship-shaped qualities. The incorporation of the King's Library — last minute as it was — is a masterstroke.

Excalibur Estate, Catford, 1946

A sea of prefab buildings
Image: Elizabeth Blanchett

Built in 1946 by German and Italian Prisoners of War, the Excalibur Estate was only supposed to last a decade, but almost 80 years on, here it still is. The huddle of prefabricated buildings in Catford may not be the prettiest dwellings you ever clapped eyes on, but they speak of cosiness, community and resilience. Sadly, that's not set to last; the estate is due for demolition. Wonder if the buildings that replace them will last quite so long.

Vauxhall Cross, 1990

The white and blue MI6 building
Image: John East

Want to know a top secret? We adore Terry Farrell's Lego-esque MI6 building. National Theatre architect Denys Lasdun didn't feel the same; he had an office facing Vauxhall Cross over the Thames and particularly loathed it. Lasdun lived just long enough to see it blown up in The World is Not Enough. In our mind, it is a solid, stately hunk of a building — something Charles Holden would have come up with had he been around half a century later. As Ken Powell from the Twentieth Century Society says: "My prediction is that Farrell’s building will eventually be recognised as one of the more distinguished products of the brief flowering of British postmodernism in the 1980s."

Broadgate, 1987

The curved Broadgate building
Image: John East

Arup Associates' Broadgate positioned glassy trading floors above an outdoor amphitheatre, "where City workers swigged champagne and flaunted their brick-sized mobile phones." Whether you agree with the Thatcherite swagger of it all, the structure itself was one of those fugly things you're strangely compelled towards, nonetheless. A capitalist Barbican Centre. A huge chunk of Broadgate has now been demolished, but the best bit — that cultural concrete round — remains. Let's cherish it.

No. 1 Poultry, 1997

A stripey bricked modern building
Image: courtesy of Batsford

We have likened this crackpot structure, facing off with the Royal Exchange, to Bagpuss. In fact, it shouldn't be here at all. If it wasn't for the whingeing of two figures already mentioned in this article (Charlie and Maggie), No 1. Poultry would instead be home to a glossy slab of Mies van der Rohe office block. The Guardian bemoans this was the best building London never had, but come on — James Stirling's Egyptian-inspired temple ("In rather better nick than the Roman Temple of Mithras nearby", quips Elizabeth Hopkirk) is infinitely more good humoured.

Sainsbury’s Eco-Store, 1999

A saucer like Sainsbury's building
Image: Richard Glover, courtesy of Chetwoods

100% the kind of building you'd expect to be unveiled at sunup on the new millennium, this crash-landed starship was opened by Jamie Oliver at a time when people only had good things to say about him. With its use of daylight instead of artificial lighting, Chetwoods' structure consumed 50% less energy than a conventional supermarket, and was lauded as "the high point of supermarket design in the 20th century". It was demolished in the same year as Brexit and Trump — signalling the death of millennial optimism.

The book cover

100 20th-Century Buildings by Twentieth Century Society, published by Batsford

We featured this book because we know it's the kind of thing our readers will enjoy. By buying it via links in this article, Londonist may earn a commission from Bookshop.org — which also helps support independent bookshops.