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An Abomination In Bethnal Green

June 18, 2019
by the gentle author

This is an extract from my article in the current issue of Design Exchange magazine.

One of the most popular posts of recent years has been THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM. Now I have written a book which is a gallery of the most notorious facades and a humorous analysis of facadism – the unfortunate practice of destroying everything apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why this is happening and what it means.

There are two ways you can help me publish the book.

1. I am seeking readers who are willing to invest £1000 in THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM. In return, we will publish your name in the book and invite you to a celebratory dinner hosted by yours truly. If you would like to know more, please write to me at

2. Preorder a copy of THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM and you will receive a signed and inscribed copy in October when the book is published. Click here to preorder your copy

Please suggest other facades I should include.

The Duke of Cambridge was built in 1823

It is rare that you cannot believe your eyes, yet that such was my response when I first saw this chimera. When I examined the proposal for facading of The Duke of Cambridge in Felix St, Bethnal Green, in the planning application for a development by Heath Holdings, designed by Guy Hollaway Associates, I was astonished and appalled at how a new building appeared to have been forceably inserted into an old building to create such a hybrid monster.

At the time, I dismissed it as a dystopian fiction because I could not believe it would ever get built, but the reality is so much worse than the proposal. Such is the ugly conflict between the old and the new, you can almost feel the humiliation and pain of the original building. The experience is akin to your dear old grandpa with the Father Christmas physique having his trousers stolen and you find him wandering bereft in the street, tricked out in a pair of garish lycra shorts as the only option available.

It makes you wonder. How can anyone have thought that this treatment of a gracious nineteenth century pub was sympathetic? Or imagined that the finished result is acceptable as architecture? It stretches my imagination to grasp the aesthetic which permits an architect to arrive at such a disastrous compromise.

On his website, the architect describes it thus – ‘A dynamic glazed box of ‘reglit’ glass tubes juts out of the top of the brown and red brick façade of the original building, creating a relationship between old and new.’ This statement set me thinking about the nature of this relationship.

Guy Hollaway’s new structure crouches like an incubus on top of the old, expressing antipathy for the building it inhabits and denying the potential of any resolution of the diverse elements into a satisfactory architectural whole, which ought surely to be the object of the exercise.

Firstly, the scale, proportion, colour and idiosyncratic placement of the windows in the extension ignore the form of those in The Duke of Cambridge, which now have clunky new frames inserted that differ from the originals, dividing the windows in half laterally and compounding the inelegance.

Secondly, the ‘reglit’ glass tubes with their strong vertical emphasis give the extension the effect of being extruded from the building below. The industrial modernity of these glass tubes is alien in this context, disregarding the brickwork of the pub and mitigating against any integration of the elements into a whole.

Thirdly, the former mansard roof of The Duke of Cambridge was raked, tilting away from the walls beneath and held in place visually by the symmetrical flourishes of the Dutch gable on the front of the building, but the new extension does not resolve the form of the building below. Instead, by avoiding any acknowledgement of the Dutch gable, this crudely disproportionate rectangular box exists in conflict with the rest of the structure to discordant effect.

There is no reason why an architect could not use modern materials in such a project, if the proportion and form of the building unified them within the design. Similarly, I can see that by using traditional materials an architect might extend a building successfully in a form that contrasted with the pre-existing structure. The problem with The Duke of Cambridge is that the choice of form and the materials for the extension are both at odds with what is already there. It is these decisions by the architect not to engage with the old building that deliver a visual eyesore.

I feel disingenuous pointing this out because I would like to think that architects are blessed with a sensitivity for these essential concerns of their trade. I would like to imagine that the architect who chose to put the glass tubes on top of The Duke of Cambridge believed the luminosity of this material might impart a levity to the extension, as if it hovered above its predecessor like a cloud of light, or the beacon of a lighthouse. Yet, even if this were the case, they have failed miserably.

The explanation of why The Duke of Cambridge has been degraded in this way must lie with the two huge new buildings which are part of a larger development by the same architect and developer on the other side of Felix St. Out of a total of more than two hundred dwellings in these buildings, just around 25% are ‘affordable.’

These vast curved blocks possess no relationship in form or scale with the brick terraces of the Hackney Road or the dignified Guinness buildings constructed as social housing a century ago on the opposite side of Felix St. Such is their generic nature, they could equally be placed in Minneapolis or Milton Keynes because stylistically they do not belong anywhere, raising the suspicion that the form is dictated solely by an imperative to maximise volume and financial return rather than entertain any dialogue with the existing urban landscape. It is disappointing to witness how the current housing shortage has delivered a field day for exploitative development across the capital, rather than attempting to address the real needs of Londoners.

Which brings me back to The Duke of Cambridge – because the anachronistic materials and forms which blight this formerly elegant structure, the ‘reglit’ glass tubes and the idiosyncratic window placing, are prominent features of the development across the road. In other words, The Duke of Cambridge has been adulterated in an attempt to unify it with the new housing blocks resulting in a dysfunctional conversation between incompatible languages.

Although The Duke of Cambridge closed in 1998, I am informed there were those who wanted to reopen it and give it new life, which would not have been impossible in this burgeoning neighbourhood. It might have functioned as the place where the residents of the Guinness social housing and the inhabitants of the new development could meet. But the opportunity of providing a public space for fellowship, as the pub had done for the previous one hundred and seventy-five years, was denied by the developer for the sake of cramming in a few more flats, thereby consigning it to the past and retaining the lettering on the facade as a mere historic relic reminding us only of a life that has gone.

We confront the fundamental question of how the financial imperative driving such ill-conceived developments may be reconciled with our need for a city we want to live in, and which serves the needs of all Londoners. The treatment of The Duke of Cambridge incarnates a metaphor of this conflict vividly and the ugliness of the outcome is a pertinent slap in the face, reminding us how blatantly any concern for quality of life or good architecture is being sacrificed for the sake of greed. This disastrous hybrid is an unfortunate totem of where we are now, an object lesson for architectural students of what not to do, and we may be assured future generations will laugh in horror and derision at the folly of it.

The exterior cover of the book…

…which opens to reveal the title.


36 Responses leave one →
  1. B Smith permalink
    June 18, 2019

    “Guy Hollaway’s new structure crouches like an incubus on top of the old….”

    Or is reminiscent of the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest.

  2. John Epstein permalink
    June 18, 2019

    You’re so right! It’s absolutely ghastly on all accounts.

    Architects are those who design buildings without enough lavatory facilities. Expecting anything aesthetic, artistic, or even accommodating from any of these arrogant ars–oles (and the developers they bend over for), is really a fool’s errand.

    Thanks for your continued vigilance. But what a world we live in now!


  3. David Serlin permalink
    June 18, 2019

    You could not be more correct about the professional as well as aesthetic failure of a project like this.

    This is not architecture, and I don’t mean that as an aesthete or RIBA-type snob might say. I mean, it has nothing to do with the values of architecture, including how design, planning, and habitation takes place in a particular space for a particular reason.

    I cannot wait until the day–maybe years, maybe decades from now–that a future landlord or property owners rips out that alien sitting in the heart of the Duke of Cambridge and restores the building to its former glory. Whether it is transformed into a pub again or a block of expensive flats, hopefully the future owner will be someone who understands that buildings have dignity.

  4. JohnB permalink
    June 18, 2019

    A very witty book cover! I wish you much luck with the book and the campaign.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 18, 2019

    Well said GA! An abomination indeed…

    Of all the photos of ghastly façadism which you published yesterday this one was the one that was the most offensive. I actually thought that the top part of the building was a temporary portacabin as it looks so out of place and cheap, and bears no relation at all to the poor old building below.

    And as you say – what a waste not to have a lovely pub/hub for the local community. GRRRRR!

    There definitely needs to be raspberry awards for the most inappropriate and badly designed buildings and who knows – the tide against all this GHASTLINESS may turn…dream on!

  6. Gilbert O'Brien permalink
    June 18, 2019

    Thank you for this article. One of your best. The anger you so justly feel has had a good effect on your writing too — there’s a clarity and precision in your response and it moved me greatly. I feel even so you are (still) too generous to the architect of this horror. I work in what I suppose must be called the conservation/preservation sector (…) and out of my experience in dealing with architects and planners I have come to believe that a great deal of this kind of ‘design’ is deliberate. It is meant to be an affront to many of the rest of us. It is a call to arms to the Boris Brigade, their money and power. And their arrogance. We do ourselves no service if we continue to offer them any respect because of their supposed sensitivity as architects. They are the agents of destruction. Are there any architect-designed buildings/developments in the 300-odd schemes that are awaiting the go ahead that are an asset to London, that don’t abuse the city and its people, that don’t advertise ego and money as they only way forward? I’d like to see one, just one, that respected place and material and people. The current mayor is not going to help this unless there is a concerted effort to influence him (and, I suspect, educate him) now, because he seems to have passively accepted what Boris put in the pipeline.

  7. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 18, 2019

    PS I wonder what Prince Charles would say if he was aware that a building bearing his son’s name has been so badly violated? Perhaps he could write a forward for your book…

  8. Jane Jones permalink
    June 18, 2019

    Gasp-makingly ugly. Proving yet again, that the more money you throw at a ‘problem’ the worse it becomes. Sorry that truth and beauty missed out here.

  9. June 18, 2019

    A superb article, which skewers the greed of developers and their subservient ‘architects’. But the basic problem seems to be that these grotesque proposals are given the green light by the planning authorities, either at first pass, or on appeal. I was present at a planning meeting where a councillor said (at the third, modified application) words to the effect that they would have to pass it this time, as they didn’t have the funds to oppose another appeal … a major incentive to the developers to keep coming back!

  10. Eve McBride permalink
    June 18, 2019

    I am astounded that planning permission was ever granted for this monstrosity – at first glance I thought it was a shipping container placed on top of this lovely old pub. Shame on Tower Hamlets for allowing it.

  11. June 18, 2019

    How the hell did they get planning permission for that?

    Perhaps the circle was squared….again…

  12. Kate permalink
    June 18, 2019

    Words fail me, that is truly ugly.

  13. June 18, 2019

    Dear GA, your phrase “reminding us so blatantly any concern for quality of life or good architecture is being sacrificed for the sake of greed” says it all. As more people are willing to pay ridiculous prices for properties in a ‘trendy’ neighbourhood, the architects are exploiting this no end.
    I am so disheartened by what I see happening in Bethnal Green and Hackney on a weekly basis, it is not progress it is a disgrace.
    It appears that these architects care not for the follies they are churning out ….The Duke of Cambridge now looks as if it has had a huge mobile home ‘plonked’ on top.

  14. Phaedra Casey permalink
    June 18, 2019

    That really is hideous.

  15. Amanda permalink
    June 18, 2019

    The 2119 Centenary Architectural Raspberry Awards (Museum of London)
    Here a deluded person was allowed to drop a portacabin into an elderly edifice, where it remained wedged for several decades.

  16. June 18, 2019

    An abomination, I can find no other word to describe it.

  17. June 18, 2019

    There fucking ( not to bothered if u delte that word just annoyed what goes on and joe public cant do anything) bonkers/mad/insane/greedy/ bloody stupid/crazy world ,one day i woke up and a chinnok must have accidentally dropped a portacabin on our pub .architects developers planning all want shooting

  18. June 18, 2019

    I am afraid to say that this is a typical planning decision by THC. The thirst for new housing in the borough demeans all planning decisions. I am greatly surprised that they did not decide to knock down the RLH and build a block of flats (and, yes, I am aware that the plans for the building included a significant amount of ‘facadism’). If it would make any difference one could write to the culture secretary of this current government suggesting an investigation into the planning decisions of THC but I suspect it wouldn’t get anywhere.

  19. June 18, 2019

    This just makes me sad and mad. Valerie

  20. John venes permalink
    June 18, 2019

    I agree with all the points you make so articulately and the anger is palpable and shared
    I simply despair

  21. Richard permalink
    June 18, 2019

    Looks like a portakabin

  22. Debenie Morse permalink
    June 18, 2019

    It looks as if a portacabin has been dropped randomly from the sky and landed on top of the pub. If this is architecture, god help us. My poor London.

  23. Debenie Morse permalink
    June 18, 2019

    I hadn’t read the other comments before I posted. Now that I have, I see that there is a clear consensus on what this frankly unbelievable ‘development’ brings to mind.

  24. June 18, 2019

    if a person appears to be or say something they are not not, you would say they are a hypocrite or humbug. would it be appropriate to rename this style of architecture Humbug ?

  25. Peter Holford permalink
    June 18, 2019

    Seriously, the extrusion at the top is very similar to a couple of sheds that have been constructed on farmland near us. Admittedly they don’t have wrap around windows and the colour is a more sobre dark green but in most other respects they are the same. I can guarantee that they were cheap as well.

    I think that says it all. Did it really need an architect to ‘create’ this structure? I’m very surprised that he hasn’t gone by the soubriquet ‘Anon’.

  26. aubrey permalink
    June 18, 2019

    The extra storey required a lightweight construction in order not to distress the original foundations; but it does indeed looks like a builders’ hut. The Architect’s description? Ha ha really?

  27. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    June 18, 2019

    You describe this monstrosity far more eloquently than I would have done. I’d have said it looks like someone parked two shipping containers on top of the Duke of Cambridge and punched some holes in them, then called it architecture.

  28. Pam permalink
    June 18, 2019

    When I lived in England in 1995 an MP had to undo the electrical work on her listed home because it was a listed building. That electrical fiasco although unseen by the public caused far more news print than the ‘shed’ on top of the once beautiful Duke of Cambridge.
    Cheap but certainly not cheerful. The shed should be removed and a mansard style topper should be installed. The construction and designers of this ‘shed’ should be publicly shamed. An assault on the mind!
    Shame on them.

  29. June 18, 2019

    Great idea to get HRH The Prince of Wales to write a foreword to your book.!
    As Jill says it’s an affront to that lovely, old building bearing his son’s title…. The Duke of Cambridge.
    I’m sure Prince Charles would agree with everything you have said and without doubt would share your anger, that of your readers and that of those of us who remember the pub before that monstrosity was plonked on top.

  30. June 18, 2019

    That should be listed, grade I, only to remind us never to do it again.

  31. June 19, 2019

    It doesn’t get uglier than this. What possessed the architect to create such a hideous building from a simple public amenity into an ill-conceived cacophony of mismatched materials? A lazy architect who thinks UPVC windows are all right? And then to top it off with a gargantuan dump of a design? Blame the council for allowing it. Dear God, Gavin Stamp and Colin Amery would be spinning in their respective graves at this approved building.

  32. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    June 19, 2019

    I agree with what you say and I do like some modern architecture. But this isn’t architecture. It is an ugly fudge.
    I felt the same way when the ‘Cutty Sark’ was ‘restored’. The ship would look fantastic if it weren’t for the massive glass bubble that Grimshaw’s saw fit to sit the ship in. No longer can you see the elegant lines of this wonderful survivor, just a great hovercraft hybrid. I cannot understand why there are people with such a lack of respect for our history in positions of great power, signing off this sort of thing.
    It’s hard not to get angry about some of the things that are shown so scant respect.

  33. Sue Mayer permalink
    June 19, 2019

    I am sad and furious that this got planning permission. The metal box dropped on to this old building looks awful. It looks ugly and does not blend with the old building. To quote Prince Charles “it is a carbuncle”. Not much thought went into this as a metal box does not require an architect.

    We are destroying our heritage. Are we ashamed of our lovely buildings? Do we want to look like any modern city in the world? We have history that other other countries envy so why destroy it.

  34. June 19, 2019

    i live in LA where there is no architectural heritage so i see quite a bit of self indulgent “artistic” expression in the design and construction of the buildings here. but it’s utterly horrifying to see this taking place in a city that has a deep and beautiful history of astonishing buildings. to deface a building like this is criminal. if graffiti artists had done it, they would be in jail. but capitalists have free reign to trash the city. awful… just awful.

  35. YVONNE GABELL permalink
    June 20, 2019

    Thank you for the article. I could not believe my eyes! My Huguenot ancestry was affronted.

    Are there no planning constraints in Shoreditch.?

  36. December 21, 2021

    And atleast the glass cladding is not flamable.

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