‘Coarse in the extreme,” was how the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described Centre Point in 1973. In his eyes, the white concrete office tower – which stands at the junction of New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road like a gleaming signpost for central London – was a brute slab, every floor wrapped with a “remorseless horizontal zigzag”.
Fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine the words he would use to describe the tower’s new neighbours. Since the arrival of Crossrail, that great subterranean aquifer of people and property speculation, the northern end of Charing Cross Road has become a dumping ground for some of the most crass commercial architecture the capital has ever seen. We were promised that the Elizabeth Line would bring outer London closer to the centre. We weren’t told it would bring the crap out-of-town sheds with it.
On one prized corner of the junction, squatting over an entrance to the new Tottenham Court Road station, is Soho Place. Twelve years in the making, this £300m mixed-use development by Derwent manages to be both grim and gaudy. It greets the street with a funereal black office block, its 10-storeys clad with thin horizontal bands of limestone, clipped on to the facade like flimsy cardboard. It looks like the kind of building you might find on the edge of a 1980s business park in Slough, not the centre of a place that still likes to think of itself as a global city. Perhaps it makes a fitting gateway to what Oxford Street has become: a tawdry sewer of tourist tat shops and American candy stores.
To the south – on the other side of a paved area garnished with hostile vehicle mitigation barriers, optimistically described as a “civic plaza” – stands a brand new theatre. It is the first purpose-built venue in the West End in 50 years, not that you would know it from the outside. It takes the form of an officey six-storey glass box, framed by polished steel columns, with another three floors of offices poking out of the top. The columns’ mirrored cladding is thin and warped, giving it the look of kitchen foil, while the glass curtain wall has a similarly bowed surface, reflecting the surroundings in a buckled mess. In an attempt to add a touch of exclusive sparkle to proceedings, the motley pile has been crowned with a private rooftop bar, topped with a canopy inexplicably decorated with astrological symbols. We can only assume Mercury was firmly in retrograde when Westminster’s planning committee waved this monster through.
Soho Place is the work of AHMM, whose director, Simon Allford, current president of the RIBA, describes it as “the architecture and design of a Swiss watch but built on an urban scale”. In truth, it feels more like a cheap knock-off. Digital screens cling to the facade, advertising the programme of the theatre, which has been branded @sohoplace, as if permanently trapped on Twitter. The 600-seat auditorium is a welcome arrival, with generous legroom compared to the cramped Victorian theatres nearby. But what a missed opportunity to create a truly magical, theatrical addition to Soho – not something that feels like it has been squeezed into the base of a converted office. It will make many wistful for the Astoria, the sticky-floored theatre-turned-music venue that once stood on the site, demolished in 2009 to make way for Crossrail.
On the other side of the road is a project that hopes to fill the venue void – and then some. Dubbed Outernet, it is the £1bn reinvention of an entire urban block, with four new live venues, ranging from a 2,000 capacity mega-basement to more intimate bars and clubs along the music mecca of Denmark Street. It has entailed a fiendishly complex process of mining and burrowing, while restoring 17th-century structures above. But its most visible presence at street level, on the corner next to Centre Point, is one of the strangest structures in London. The Now Building is the most extreme evolution of advertising yet: a gigantic walk-in billboard, ready to immerse you deeper in more brands than you ever thought you wanted.
Featuring three times as much screen area as Piccadilly Circus, it is as if Times Square had collapsed in on itself, forming a 360-degree brandscape designed to bombard you with messaging from all directions. “We have created what every city centre in the world wants,” claims Laurence Kirschel, founder of Consolidated Developments, the company behind the project. “This is an open public space, covered for inclement weather, with free entertainment. It’s like a charitable gift.”
Kirschel has been walking the streets of Soho since he was 18. Trained as a surveyor and valuer, he became the business partner of Paul Raymond, the notorious porn baron and self-styled “King of Soho”, and went on to own Ronnie Scott’s jazz bar and develop the Soho Hotel. “My history is the cleanup campaign of Soho,” he tells me. “I got a commendation from Westminster for cleaning up more buildings in one year than they had done in 10.”
Outernet is his most ambitious cleansing operation yet. Kirschel has spent the last 25 years buying up properties in the area to realise what he calls “a new home for British music”, an “integrated canvas” of venues, shops and bars that, he hopes, “will save the public-facing music industry in the UK”. His challenge has been to retain the heritage of Denmark Street, while inserting the turbocharged new facilities in between, under and around it.
Millions were spent moving a 17th-century smithy, formerly home to the famous 12 Bar Club, in order to burrow a further three floors below, and replace it within 7mm of its original location. It has been reborn as The Lower Third, a bar and 400-capacity venue, which links to the vast Here concert venue excavated behind (where one green room features a 40-person shower).
Next door, a non-profit recording studio, digitally linked to the venues and designated busking points, will allow musicians to cut live albums, all connected in a “curated ecosystem”. Johnny Rotten’s graffiti has been preserved as a heritage feature. The corollary, which helps to pay for all this, is the lumbering beast on the corner, and the transformation of the entire block into a high-security, branded quarter.
Charing Cross Road marks the boundary between the boroughs of Westminster and Camden, and it now looks like the frontline in a battle of bad buildings, as if each side of the street is trying to outdo the other in garish glitz. While Soho Place opts for mirror-polished silver, its Camden counterpart has gone for gold – by the shedload. Three-storey high golden louvres run around the facade of the Now Building, set within a frame of polished black granite, with further golden flaps running along the top. Everything can rotate and slide back at the touch of a button to reveal yet more advertising screens.
“Why black and gold?” says Kirschel. “Because form follows function. We want the top Bond Street brands in here – Chanel, Gucci, Cartier – and they all use those colours. We’re playing a psychological game to make it home from home for them.”
The architect, John McRae of Orms, prefers more historic allusions. He cites the influence of art deco cinemas, and the handsome National Radiator Building opposite Liberty, a symphony in black and gold designed by Raymond Hood and Gordon Jeeves in the 1920s. You can see Outernet’s attempt at theatrical spectacle – the louvres are a nod to theatre curtains being drawn back – but it falls flat, as if trying to dress the brash reality in a decorous costume. If you’re going to build a temple to advertising, why not pull out all the stops and go full Vegas?
The project is billed as “the future of immersive brand storytelling”, ready to serve “unrivalled experiences that drive maximum impact and awareness” to the 150,000 people that disgorge from the station each day. Its CEO, Philip O’Ferrall, who has a background in television, is keen to stress that the screens will show “editorial content” 48% of the time, but so far it is hard to differentiate the brand partnerships from the ads.
There is a promising digital art programme, sponsored by BMW and headed by Marco Brambilla (whose mesmerising Heaven’s Gate animation shows the spectacular potential of the wraparound screens), but the artworks will only be shown on selected Sunday afternoons. If you download the app, meanwhile, you will be pinged with further ads as you walk through the surrounding streets, which are dotted with RFID tags and Bluetooth beacons, along with 160 facial-recognition cameras that track your every move.
“This is one of the securest corners in London,” says Kirschel. “We’ve created a matrix of private streets that we can shut down as we wish.” He leads me down an alleyway that connects to the venues and to his music-themed hotel, Chateau Denmark, where another LED-screen-lined tunnel leads to Denmark Street. Every entrance to the block is flanked by security guards and gates that can be closed at will, making the place feel somewhat less like the free public space he described. The whole complex, Kirschel explains, has been designed with red-carpet events in mind, so Hollywood A-listers can be whisked securely from limousine to screen, while elevators can take pop stars from their bedrooms straight down to the venues below – everything linked by broadcast-quality streaming connections.
“You can watch your band rehearsing while you’re having a massage in your suite,” says O’Ferrall, pointing out the flatscreen TV in front of the four-poster bed in one of the rooms, where disco balls hang above a free-standing bath. The suites are kitsch rockstar fantasies, equipped with £60,000 space-age Void speakers, rubber floors, and fully stocked bars, along with huge subwoofers in the bathrooms, for body-rocking bass while you’re on the loo.
Do not disturb cards have been replaced with neon “SINNING” signs – “Because the chances are you will be,” laughs Kirschel. The saucy tone is set at the entrance, where the reception is flanked by a pair of thrones upholstered with red PVC, as if vacuum-sealed inside gimp suits. But this is not the seedy Soho of yore: rooms go from £450 to £3,500 a night, while the rooftop restaurant, designed as a fake Chinese courtyard house, offers wagyu beef for £95. The Guardian’s restaurant critic described it as an “Instagram content fulfilment hub” – an apt tagline for the whole £1bn endeavour.
The death of Denmark Street has been overplayed: Kirschel has pumped more than many developers would into restoring the listed buildings and supporting the businesses during the pandemic. The guitar and piano shop owners I spoke to couldn’t be happier with their landlord and the buzz he is trying to bring back, while Camden has ensured the shop units will always remain music-focused.
“It feels a lot more connected than before,” says Jan Smosarski, who runs Sixty Sixty Sounds and has worked on the street for 14 years. “There wasn’t a real sense of community, with fractured owners that warred a lot, but now there’s a lot more integration between the stores.” The character might have changed, but “you have to reach out to new audiences,” he says, “you need to have a handover to a new generation.” Without doubt, this is Soho for the Web3 era, a cleansed, curated and branded version of the rock’n’roll experience. Kirschel tells me he has trademarked the names Denmark Street and Tin Pan Alley, and promises a “merch store” coming soon.
Outernet boasts of being “the world’s foremost bridge between the real world and the digital world”, a place where the metaverse meets meatspace, where virtual luxury trainers can be sold as NFTs alongside the real thing. There are plans for it to grow into a worldwide network of 10 connected hubs, with New York and Los Angeles next on the list. But it shows what happens when urban development is conceived in the same way as making a website or running a TV channel – “curating a brand neighbourhood,” as O’Ferrall puts it. Pings, clicks and content trump human experience, until advertising swallows the city whole.