Above: Looking NW at New Zealand House from Cockspur Street.
To many Londoners, large office blocks go unnoticed. There are now so many of them that they just merge into the sky and form additional clutter on the visitor’s field of view. Office blocks on the skyline have become rather like lamp-posts and traffic-lights as seen along the pavement – albeit on a smaller scale. This is a shame because not all modern office blocks are ugly and disproportionally large and overbearing.
The area of St James’s is fortunate in not having many tall office blocks for the simple reason that most of the existing buildings – which are mainly Victorian and earlier – are already listed. This means that they are unlikely to be replaced with modern skyscrapers. Where the St James’s area borders onto the Strand and Piccadilly there is a chance that further tall buildings will intrude on the skyline.
One building that is there already is New Zealand House. It houses the High Commission of New Zealand and the diplomatic mission of New Zealand in the United Kingdom. It is a tall building but it does not intrude on the nearby streets in a way that is offensive. As office buildings go, this one can be considered to be almost ancient. The 20-storey building, 225 feet (68.5m) high, faced in black granite and Portland Stone was built 1957-63 as the Headquarters of the New Zealand Government. It was designed by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners.
As with many architects, Robert Matthew had designed the tower block to be higher but, due to the authorities of the day, he was only permitted to build it if he reduced it in height to its present state. After difficulties in planning permission, the 18-storey building was constructed only after permission was granted by the British Cabinet. It is the only tall building in this part of London and still remains controversial.
It made history because it was the first tower block to be built in Central London after the Second World War. If you are wondering about the Millbank Tower, which is not far away, that was constructed between 1959 and 1963 and rises to 387 feet (118 m). New Zealand House was therefore closely followed by the Millbank Tower. To add one more tall building to the story, Richard Seifert’s Nat West Tower (now Tower 42) was not started until 1971, being officially opened in 1981. It has a height of 600 feet (183 m).
Above: Looking east from the top of New Zealand House in 1997. We look over the top of the National Gallery (left) and Canada House (centre right) to Trafalgar Square and the church of St Martin in the Fields.
New Zealand House was built on the derelict site of the Carlton Hotel, destroyed by a bomb during the Blitz in the Second World War. It is interesting to note that the new tower block was listed in Pevsner’s guide to Westminster. Pevsner admired the impact of New Zealand House from afar – with its imposing structure of reinforced concrete and plated glass – but he was critical of what he considered to be its unsatisfactory impact at street level.
In those days, it would seem, architects were not as ‘greedy’ for office space as they are today. The building included a number of outside spaces – with a spectacular terrace surrounding the top-floor penthouse which still provides remarkable views in every direction from the top of the building. These include Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square. There were two internal gardens, the smaller of which was a courtyard looked onto by the L-shaped library, paved in blue brick and Portland stone and planted with native evergreen New Zealand shrubs including senecios, hebes and olearias. The larger courtyard cleverly abutted the adjoining Her Majesty’s Theatre, making a feature of its contrasting back wall. Where timber was used, most of it came from trees imported from New Zealand.
The building stands on the west corner of Haymarket at the junction with Pall Mall. According to the Twentieth Century Society, ‘New Zealand House is London’s most distinguished 1960s office block. Completed in 1963, it is an important landmark, set between the Nash terraces of Pall Mall and the Victorian theatres of Haymarket’.