The emails go back over the years, under headings such as “property feature idea”. An offer of dinner in a fine London restaurant with the building’s notable architect. An invitation to an evening of canapes and drinks in which a famous TV heritage expert would give a special talk. “If you’re interested, we can arrange a helicopter tour over the area or anything else you might need.” This buttering-up is more insistent than usual in the world of property PR. I have also seen for myself the chunky, loopy motifs of the 31-storey tower called Canaletto, the subject of all this promotion, as it has gone up next to City Road canal basin in central London. It is the most striking of several projects in what is becoming a new zone of skyscrapers. So I’m intrigued to see the finished article and find out what all the fuss was about.
Like other buildings of the high capitalist present, it has a curious affinity with the phalanstère, the utopian socialist community dreamed up in the early 19th century by the philosopher Charles Fourier. Fourier imagined a single imposing building, in scale and look like the palace of Versailles, where people would live, work, socialise and engage in culture and sport. Orion Capital Managers, backer of Canaletto, has also come up with an enclosed world, where several aspects of human existence are served.
Along with your dwelling unit (at a cost of £3.5m for a three-bedroom flat), you get access to gym, spa, swimming pool, private bar, private cinema and shared lounge with the qualities of both library and billiards room, where you can transact your business with laptop and phone or, when the football is on, engage in collective yelling at its widescreen TVs. Around these facilities a sense of community and physical wellbeing are, as Fourier hoped, encouraged. A “plank challenge” tests who can hold their body longest (seven minutes) in said exercise. Specially developed apps monitor, if you choose, the healthiness of your lifestyle. There are “masterclasses” in the use of the fearsomely complicated workout machines.
It all takes place within a singular building, triangular in plan and dominated by curving frames, each containing a portion of three or two storeys. It is an efflorescence of the globalised residential property market, its signature stylings looking more like similar blocks in Singapore or Abu Dhabi than the surrounding brick terraces and warehouses. It is as good a place as any to sample the strange new world that such developments are creating.
It is branded and marketed. A company called Socrates Communications named it Canaletto (not the Canaletto Building, or Canaletto Mansions, or Canaletto Heights, as might once have been the case, but the one word on its own) because, I’m told, “it’s on water, like a lot of Canaletto’s images, and when Canaletto was painting it was a time of a lot of change and modernisation”. The artistic name then inspired its selling, with gilt-framed images of “an award-winning masterpiece” displayed on its hoardings.
It is designed by UNStudio of Amsterdam, a practice whose intellectual and artistic aspirations have won it commissions to design public museums and homes for art collectors. The practice is also sufficiently commercial to work on large developments, office, retail and residential, around the world. Their buildings, like their remarkable twisting Arnhem Central railway station, curve and swoop, in the manner of designs by Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava. The imagery is of flow and movement, of an advanced, boundary-less society, of a world, as they put it, of “global networks, accelerating technologies and unlimited possibility”.
With Canaletto, UNStudio take the boxy type of an apartment block and apply to the exterior, as if with a thick felt-tip pen, shapes that suggest dynamism. A theme of roundedness and anti-gravity construction then runs through the building, in cantilevered benches, in planters, balustrades and swimming pool ceiling panels, in the way that pieces of carpet are set into timber floors. Around the entrance, the architects play with the levels, sloping up to the front door, cutting away the ground to make a light well for the basement-level swimming pool. The theory is to create “distinctive vertical neighbourhoods”, to break up the overall shape such that residents can pick out their home from a distance.
The aim, says UNStudio’s leader, Ben van Berkel, is to create a “residential project that does not look like an office building”, to give “textures to the facade” and “public functions at ground level” – in particular, a restaurant – that bring “a sense of liveliness”. The external shapes make the building “more uplifting and lighter”. In honour of “one of the most beautiful aspects of London, the garden city concept”, they take forms “influenced by landscape and flowers and plants”.
Van Berkel insists that he is not making shapes for their own sake, but because they are linked to the “performance of the building”. As the facades aren’t smooth, they break up downdrafts of wind, and the sculpted shapes mean that you have a “really nice ceiling for your balcony”. He wants to go against the idea that buildings like these are “speculations for international investors”, and to encourage community.
These ideas make a building that does stand apart from the usual tower trash going up in big cities, but it’s hard to escape the impression that the big shapes, flower-inspired or not, are, after all, cosmetic, which puts them at odds with the good intentions. The appearance of flow and connectedness collides awkwardly with the cellular nature of apartment buildings. The ambition to swoop and sweep is belied by conspicuous joints in the construction, and the reluctance of hard building materials to join the party. Details clash and grind. Granite landscaping protests at being hacked into shapes it doesn’t like.
At both a large and a small scale the rhetoric of connection paradoxically increases disconnection. Where glass, metal, wood and masonry meet, their chances of happy coexistence are diminished by the fact that they are simultaneously contorted. Despite claims to “conceptually mirror” the proportions of “smaller adjacent historical buildings”, the extravagant shapes don’t have much to do with their neighbours. In particular, there is a block of 100 affordable homes, provided as a planning obligation by the developer of Canaletto, but realised by another architect and developer. It is dour and grey – no fault of UNStudio’s – but the design of the upmarket tower acts as if its poor relation isn’t there.
The ground-level restaurant, with an external terrace, will add something to the street and make a connection between it and the tower. But under the punk urbanism that applies when British cities undergo dramatic shifts in scale, it is beyond the power of public bodies to imagine places such as City Road as more than the sum of its parts. So they tend to become arid zones of landscaping that fill the space between the private universes of buildings such as Canaletto.
What this alliance of marketing and architectural theory has is oomph. It is Instagrammable. It gets 4.9 stars out of five in its Google reviews. If you squint, you can imagine a future in which, like art deco factories of the past, whose architecture was also cosmetic, it could inspire kitschy retro affection. “The banding captures people’s imagination,” the developer tells me. It also has things that plenty of new residential developments don’t, such as balconies you can actually use, decent ceiling heights and well-lit apartments.
A friend who lives nearby, whose politics are to the left of Fourier’s, has nonetheless expressed his liking for the new luxury towers rising along City Road. Something to do with their frank expression of economic reality, I think. I, too, appreciate their otherness, and in theory they could help make City Road into an extraordinary new kind of district, unlike any that has existed before. But for that to happen, the design energy that now goes into Canaletto’s loopy cladding would have to be directed at the spaces between the new buildings and at the relationships they make with one another.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010