If the forces of mediocrity aren’t challenged then ambitious architecture is too easily threatened with eradication, as the case of 15 Clerkenwell Close only too sadly shows.
Amin Taha is showing a cleaner around his considered concrete-floored and ceilinged apartment, telling her how to put it back together after the departure of the weekend’s Airbnb guests. “It always gets five stars,” he says. Although it’s unclear whether his guests will be receiving a similar glowing endorsement: they appear to have helped themselves to vintage booze hidden at the back of a cupboard. “They also had a fire but didn’t ask how to use it,” he says, surveying a pile of ash. But, actually, he doesn’t seem that put out.
Perhaps it’s because Taha has other things to worry about. Well, one thing: Islington, his local London council, has written to him saying that they want him to bulldoze his home, those of his downstairs neighbours and the glorious offices from where he runs his architecture practice Groupwork. And it’s the second time they’ve tried to erase his work – an earlier enforcement notice was withdrawn after the council found its own claims to be erroneous.
The building with an enemy is 15 Clerkenwell Close, designed and built by Taha and completed in 2017 (and the recipient of two Royal Institute of British Architects awards). It sits in a part of London that has a rich history of commerce and architectural ambition and you’ll find this recent addition tucked in a corner opposite the perched-up-high 17th-century St James’s Church.
The dispute has become a cause célèbre because there are two stories at play. The first is a complex, if dry, one about whether Taha failed to reveal key details during the planning stages; this currently seems to focus on whether he showed the nature of the stone to be used. It’s too rough with too many fossils, says the council. Taha, however, insists nothing was hidden; that he provided photographs in advance. It will go to appeal in April.
The second story, the one that’s really got everyone riled, cuts to what makes a good or bad building. In short, Taha vs Islington is also a battle about taste and judging beauty. That’s because the building is challenging when set next to mediocrity, ambitious in its use of materials, witty and, yes, something you notice with its dramatic exoskeleton.
We leave the cleaner and head up to the biodiverse roof. No sedum here but, instead, large trees and beehives. Taha stops to fill up drinking trays dotted with pebbles for the bees to perch on (“They’re thirsty, I only just filled these”). A fine drizzle falls on his black curly hair and jumper, which is porcupine-spiked by dog hairs. Taha takes time to point out Victorian buildings that surely turned heads in their time too – mock Venetian, anyone?
Then it’s back down to his basement office lair and, after he’s made coffee and his dog has come to say hello, we find a place to continue talking. For someone who’s been caught up in such a complex battle, he seems calm when he takes you through all the twists and turns of his struggles with the council. He sees it as a process that has its own inescapable mechanism and one that he still believes will deliver a decision in his favour. Although he cautions that “if there’s the ability to ignore facts, common sense, then there’s a high chance this will continue. It’s a land of foolishness but you hope that the inspector will see through it.”
Taha worked with Zaha Hadid – a master of the statement building – for many years and, while he insists that 15 Clerkenwell Close “is reasonably sober; there are no structural gymnastics”, he thinks that when it comes to taste, we need buildings that excite.
“Look at the great cathedrals; we wanted places of pilgrimage with crazy exuberance.” The alternative, he says, is all too often a “sub-pastiche, ill-educated expression of architecture”. He can land a verbal hit. You hope that this painful story will end soon and Taha can just focus on his career and nice list of commissions. But you also hope, for the sake of London, that this building is left alone. It says more about what the city can be than all the bland ugliness regularly nodded through by planning committees.