Group Discussions > The Penta Hotel mistake poised to be repeated - (A summary of the article below is due to appear in the Spring 2018 issue of Garden Square News - Ed)


The 25-storey Penta hotel scheme on Cromwell Road*, developed over the 1971-72 period, was widely reviled at the time of construction, not just because it was an obvious eyesore, but because the mislocated development resulted in the destruction of two fine terraces of Victorian town houses as well as eliminating a partially enclosed gardens laid-out specifically to serve Ashburn Garden residents. The properties and gardens destroyed by the Penta development scheme formed part of a patchwork of high quality Victorian residential estates located in the immediate Cromwell Road area: property of a type that remain some of the most sought after in London. Grand Victorian London was simply swept away, seemingly on a whim, to be replaced by a mediocre and totally out-of-place hotel tower that has blighted the area ever since. The Architectural Review, in a contemporaneous piece called “Bad Dreams coming true”, aptly called it “a terrifying interruption of the weave of this part of London”.

Indeed it was. But the Penta development was actually far worse than that: it was a particularly egregious example of the unthinking planning-led municipal vandalism that swept the country in the aftermath of the 2nd world war. Over the next 20-30 years planning enthusiasm for all things new and shiny led to the wholescale destruction of a goodly proportion of the United Kingdom’s fine period architectural heritage. No towns (let alone cities) have been left unscarred by the destruction. Look at photographs from the late 1940s and many towns and cities are simply unrecognisable today, the once fine streetscapes peppered with, or replaced altogether, with poor quality commercial architecture that could and should have been accommodated, if it was needed at all, outside period estates.

Wartime bomb damage is commonly blamed for the subsequent architectural mess created: the haphazard replacement of fine period stock with poor quality post-1940s development, much of it since torn down and replaced again since. Even a cursory examination of contemporaneous bomb damage maps/photographs tell a very different story. Period stock was torn down willy-nilly in towns and cities all over Britain, largely at the behest of Councils themselves, as they flexed their new-found planning powers, not as part of war-damage clearance but simply in the name of delusory ‘progress’. Old was bad, new – however poorly designed - was good.

Only growing public anger at the wilful destruction of the country’s architectural heritage finally ended the worst planning excesses of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. But, in many locations, it was too late: the damage had been done. The damage caused to Cromwell Road was a particularly egregious example of the misguided tear-down town planning sentiment of the 1960s. It was not just the thoughtless destruction of Victorian townhouse stock that appalled residents living near the Penta site in the early 1970s (I know, I lived nearby at the time) but the reckless disregard for the impact of these ridiculously intrusive modern schemes – in both style and bulking – on the surviving Victorian streetscapes in the area. It seemed as though the Council held the period Victorian residential terraces in its care, some of the finest in London, in complete contempt.

The impact of the Penta hotel development was sudden and devastating. Fine period streetscapes, that had survived unscathed for generations, were suddenly blighted by the emergence from the ground of a monstrous modern hotel scheme, more suited to Las Vegas than Victorian Cromwell Road. The Penta development would have been perfectly fine clustered together with the other modern hotels adjacent to Heathrow or Gatwick airport say, or in Paddington Basin even, but not plopped thoughtlessly into the middle of an area containing some of London’s finest Victorian residential housing stock.

The wholly alien 1960s style concrete building imposed on the site, that now towered menacingly over the surrounding surviving Victorian streets, has blighted the area ever since: both visually and also because of the nuisance caused by the introduction of a wholly incompatible commercial activity, unrelated to resident needs, into a prime residential area. Worse still, the Penta hotel development set a precedent that resulted in the peaceful residential enclaves either side of Cromwell Road gradually morphing into a commercial hub that now looks more like Tottenham Court Road than the original Victorian residential estates that existed in 1970. The Penta hotel set the precedent that opened the floodgates for damaging development in the future.

In fairness to the Penta developers, it is true that the rot in this part of Cromwell Road actually dates from the inexplicable development of the equally incongruous ‘West London Air Terminal’ in 1957: actually a bus-terminal for BEA Heathrow passengers. The bus-terminal remained in use for barely 15 years before BEA pulled out in 1974 because of the pending tube-line extension to Heathrow that rendered it obsolete. It is obvious now that the terminal development was a gross misjudgement on the part of the airline, the developer and the Council. Leaving aside the obvious visual intrusion of the Soviet-style terminal and related development behind, the development itself at least did not involve the wholescale destruction of existing Victorian residential terraces: it was constructed on a raft over underground lines, but the old concrete terminal still sticks out like a sore-thumb. The Penta development opposite simply exacerbated the visual damage. The two schemes were inextricably linked in planning terms.

There was originally a plan for a walkway from the Penta development to the terminal, seemingly an attempt to justify the Penta development as an ‘airport’ hotel. It was however known before the development broke ground that the terminal was to close, the reason the walkway was thankfully quietly dropped. So the 1957 terminal development provides no possible excuse for the later demolition of Victorian property either side of Cromwell Road, to make way for incongruous bulky commercial tower development, much of it hotel related.

It must be remembered that at the time of the Penta development this remained an intact Victorian residential neighbourhood without external visitor attractions, wholly unsuited to modern commercial hotel development or indeed commercial development of any type. The Victorians had distributed plenty of units suitable for shops, catering and small services to serve local residents in the area. The large scale commercial uses progressively developed post 1970 simply brought in visitors (and car traffic) into the residential area for no reason. The commercial uses introduced were (and remain) inappropriate for the location, damaging the immediate residential amenity. It is difficult to think of a more misconceived location for a mass-market tower hotel.

Indeed permitting the development showed a quite remarkable lack of appreciation of urban planning. In fairness to Kensington & Chelsea Council, the decision reflected a fatal flaw in the planning process itself. Local councils were making planning decisions that should properly have been delegated to a strategic authority. Decisions regarding the distribution of commercial uses in London should never have been delegated to local authorities in the first place: such decisions required a city-wide view of urban need not a parochial worms-eye view. Pitting local authorities into competition with each other over the attraction of new development, regardless of wider urban need, always was going to end badly. And it did. London is peppered with mislocated commercial and public sector buildings due to lack of meaningful strategic guidance.

In the end it was the precedent set by the huge Penta hotel scheme, not the misconceived bus terminal, that unleashed a wave of inappropriate hotel, residential and even private hospital development to blight the local residential areas either side of Cromwell Road from Gloucester Road to Marloes Road. The mish-mash of secondary schemes that suddenly proliferated meanwhile often penetrated deep into the adjacent Victorian residential estates, laying waste to hundreds of fine Victorian residential properties in the process.

How did it happen? How on earth was planning permission ever given for such monstrous accretions along Cromwell Road? It is inconceivable that such planning decisions would be made today if the demolished period stock still existed. There would be public outrage at the sheer vandalism. It is difficult to sustain an ‘in-hindsight’ excuse for the Penta development decision in the early 1970s in this context as London had already seen more than a decade of increasingly vociferous protest at the mindless destruction of Victorian and Georgian stock. That the Penta scheme was given planning permission at all remains inexplicable to this day, even allowing for attitude changes towards the preservation of our Georgian and Victorian heritage over the last 40-50 years.

How the Council planning committee members of the time justified to themselves the destruction of valuable period stock is unknown. Perhaps in the light of the extraordinarily destructive 1950s Great West Road expressway development leading to the M4 motorway, that bulldozed Victorian terraces from Earls Court to Chiswick, the loss of a few hundred more Victorian houses on Cromwell Road was considered by the Council to be unimportant. Or perhaps they thought that roadworks had caused such extensive architectural damage that it no longer mattered what happened to Cromwell Road.

But there is another reason why these sorts of secondary commercial development would not be sanctioned within or abutting Kensington conservation areas today. The value of the Victorian residential stock, that was obliterated to make way for roadworks and commercial developments, is now so high that they would render these sorts of secondary developments unviable. To recklessly demolish hugely valuable period stock, the jewel in London’s residential crown, simply for the sake of introducing secondary commercial development that can be located anywhere would rightly be construed as economic lunacy. A bit like levelling part of Pelham Crescent to make way for a DIY superstore. It is the value of the whole that matters, not the value of an individual site. Unfortunately planning permissions are site specific: that the developments along Cromwell Road permitted might undermine the value of whole period residential estates was seemingly never considered by the Council.

Which begs the question, if the Penta development would be considered wholly unacceptable today, what possible justification can there be for repeating the errors of the past by allowing the current development to be replaced by another equally damaging mixed hotel/residential scheme? Doing so is simply compounding the obvious planning mistakes of 50 years ago. If a wand could be waved and all the damaging post 1955 accretions in Cromwell Road had never occurred, the fine Victorian stock in the area would still remain wholly intact and be far more attractive and valuable as a residential area. The development allowed has severely diminished the residential amenity of the area. Nobody today would consider knocking down swathes of period town houses to make way for secondary commercial development in Central London, let alone roads. The idea is simply unthinkable. Any council that tried would rightly be pilloried.

The only possible argument now for replacing the Holiday Inn with yet another intrusive big-box modern development containing hotel uses unsuited to the locality, to blight the area for another 50 years before it is pulled down, is that the Cromwell Road environs have been so heavily damaged by feckless planning decisions since the 1960s that the area itself is no longer worth preserving. The tired ‘we-are-where-we-are-cannot-turn-the-clocks-back’ excuse we have heard for decades simply allows local municipal vandalism to continue in another guise. If the clock cannot be turned back, there still needs to be a line drawn somewhere. The obvious time for intervention is at the point of redevelopment. That is the point at which the potential for restoration comes into play.

It is a great tragedy in this respect that all Georgian and Victorian properties in the United Kingdom were not listed at the time of the 1947 planning acts to force councils to direct unsightly modern commercial development to locations where they caused no damage to residential amenity. As already mentioned, it was also a tragedy that choices regarding the distribution of key uses, like modern hotel development, were ever delegated to borough councils in the first place instead of being decided at the strategic level for the benefit of London as a whole. It is the lack of any central strategy for the location of key uses that has caused so much damage to London over the years with me-to borough-led schemes popping up like mushrooms in all kinds of daft locations.

The ideal regarding the Holiday Inn site now, as has occurred in many European cities and on some of London’s landed estates, is to simply revert to the original uses and restore the damaged Kensington residential terraces by infilling with 100% replica frontages so that at least streetscapes in the area can be restored to their Victorian form. Properly done, it is not possible to spot the difference between original and replica frontages. Repairing the damage to period residential estates, because it is now so extensive in Kensington, would of course involve monumental cost. It would however add huge value to the estates as a whole. But there are other options.

Times have changed, so have market conditions and market demand. We are no longer living in 1972. The primary demand in period London residential areas today is for residential, not eye-sore 3* hotel stock serving the budget tourist/business market. The Council will simply compound the errors of the past if it seeks now to defensively protect a commercial use mistakenly introduced in 1972 that always was inappropriate for the location. The Penta hotel never should have been built in the first place. It was the wrong scheme in the wrong place.

The Council will doubtless argue the ‘jobs’ line. Jobs miss the point however. It is not that schemes such as the Penta, and the jobs that go with them, should not exist in London but that they do not belong in Kensington’s period residential estates abutting the Cromwell Road. There are plenty of other locations in the borough and elsewhere in London, that are far better suited to this sort of secondary mass-market off-pitch hotel development. Whether the notional employment gains accrue to Kensington & Chelsea Council or other London boroughs is neither here nor there, what matters is that developments are located in the right place for London. Boroughs are simply not in a position to decide the best locations for commercial developments that require a city-wide overview/strategy to locate properly.

If the Holiday Inn building is now to be demolished, because it has reached the end of its very short useful life, then the Council is free to revert to the residential use attaching to the site prior to the Penta development in exactly the same way it dumped residential uses in favour of hotel use to wave through the Penta development in the first place. Nothing in planning is irrevocable. There is in this respect no ‘precedent’ involved that requires the Council to continue with a previous use that is inappropriate when redevelopment occurs. As already mentioned, times change. The Council needs to look at uses appropriate today, not what a planning committee made up of elected members with no knowledge of either use or conservation needs, imagined to be appropriate in the mid-late 1960s.

Bearing in mind the chronic residential property shortages in London today it would make sense to drop the hotel use altogether: it is difficult to conceive of a credible argument today for continuing hotel uses on the site because it is so obviously damaging to the residential area and there are anyway plenty of sites available elsewhere in London far more suitable for mid-market branded hotel schemes. It is already proposed that the hotel element on the site be substantially reduced in size in favour of residential, implying that the viability of hotel use relative to residential is in question. Is hotel use to be included simply because the Council wants to stick with a late 1960s use decision, to save face? Who is demanding hotel use and why? Why not bite the bullet and revert to residential? Doing so would be win-win for the developer and adjacent residents, in the latter case by reducing extraneous external tourist and business visitor traffic. Importantly, dumping the hotel use would free the immediate area of the current damaging hotel related blight contributed by the Holiday Inn. There should be no viability issue in doing so because residential is a higher-value use in the area than hotel uses. It is anyway an exceptionally poorly located site for a major hotel.

A modern high-rise residential scheme would still inevitably be very visually intrusive (as other modern residential blocks in the immediate vicinity already are) and will continue to debase the immediate Victorian streetscapes. But removing the nuisance hotel use on the site would still be a major step forward for local residents. Reverting to 100% residential use is, in this respect, a least-worst option if there really is no way financially to avoid continuing with incongruous big-box development on the site because of mistaken past Council planning decisions.

Of course modern architecture does not have to be horrible. In the right context it can and often is very beautiful. It just happens that most of the post-1950s developments in the Cromwell Road area near Gloucester Road tube are hopelessly mediocre and almost laughably out-of-place. It is difficult to think of a group of modern building in core central London of less architectural distinction. Even if restoring damaged Victorian streetscapes is considered a step too far, it does make sense to seek the least intrusive residential development possible for the Holiday Inn site, as well as restoring the entirety of the gardens facing Ashburn Gardens to further mitigate the visual damage to local streetscapes caused by the Penta development. The redevelopment also needs to relate to the surrounding stock in scale, unlike the current Holiday Inn hotel where no thought was given to bulking at all. There was at least an attempt with the later Millennium Gloucester to mitigate immediate bulking, perhaps limit the Holiday Inn redevelopment height accordingly?

The Holiday Inn redevelopment proposals provides an opportunity to finally draw a line in the sand to say ‘no more damage’ to the Council. If there is no opposition to what is happening the myopic destruction of Kensington’s period architectural heritage will inevitably continue unabated, at least outside landed and private estates where there is a recognition of the value of the period stock. It is a great pity in this respect, in the absence of comprehensive listing, that the whole of the Kensington and Chelsea area was not landed-estates owned (like the inter-linking estates of Portman, Howard de Walden, Crown Estate, Grosvenor, Cadogan et al in central London). Much of London’s finest period architecture only survived the depredations of post-war planning because it was landed-estate owned.

The Penta development site was historically Victorian residential. It should be exclusively residential again. The site is fully part of a Victorian residential area. The only reason it is not part of the conservation area now is simply that the Penta developers knocked down the very properties that would have resulted in the site falling within the conservation area when it was designated. Reintroducing, for another 50 years, the same inappropriate mass-market hotel uses on the site, of exactly the type that has for years blighted the area, would be simply unforgivable.

If restoring the damage is considered too continental (it is commonplace in historic centres in Europe, less so in the UK) and we must have yet another soulless modern big-box development dumped on the site, at the very least let it be 100% residential with every effort made to minimise the immediate streetscape damage through sensitive design. Plus insist on the full restoration of the original gardens facing Ashburn Gardens, with some nice tall trees, to blot out whatever is built.

*Later became the London Forum and more recently The Holiday Inn.
May 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Teale