In London, I had some time on my hands so decided to have a wander around Charing Cross and the Centre Point tower, located at the junction of Charing Cross Road and New Oxford Street. I’ve passed this building many times, its name has remained in my memory since childhood. Despite my love of modernist architecture, I’ve always viewed Centre Point as a place that has a certain darkness hanging over it.
From the Middle Ages to the 15th Century this busy crossroads was the site of a gallows and a cage for prisoners.
I found an account from 1761 of a bricklayer called John Duke who was buried beneath the crossroad with a stake driven through his body. Duke had murdered his wife and then committed suicide. In the past, suicides were often buried at crossroads, this was to confuse their wandering souls. The stake was used to ‘earth-fasten’ the body.
‘..buried in the centre of a quadrivium, or conflux of four roads..with a stake driven through his heart, And over him drives the ever uproar of unresting London’
Iain Sinclair. Lud Heat. 1975
Up until the 19th century the area was the site of a ‘Rookery’, a term used to describe the poorest of slums. The St. Giles Rookery, nicknamed ‘The Holy Land’, was a notorious place, a network of alleyways occupied by the lowest strata of society, the destitute, criminals and prostitutes. The St. Giles Rookery was the location for William Hogarth’s 1751 engraving, Gin Lane.
This 1870 engraving by IR & G Cruikshank also depicts the Rookery. Its title, Tom & Jerry Masquerading it amongst the Cadgers in the Back Slums of the Holy Lands.
The slums were eventually cleared during the 19th century to make way for New Oxford Street. In 1964 work began on the Centre Point tower. On completion, the 36 storey building became London’s first skyscraper. Ernö Goldfinger called it ‘London’s first pop art skyscraper’.
Developer, Harry Hyams wanted to lease the building to a single occupant and allowed the building to remain empty for a number of years. Hyams was happy to leave the building unoccupied, sitting on his investment as it escalated in capital value. Being empty, the building was not liable for the payment of rates to the local authority.
In 1974 London housing campaigners organised a successful occupation of the building to draw attention to the housing crisis in London.
In the 1980’s the building became the headquarters for the Council for British Industry (CBI) called by some, ‘the bosses organisation’. It has also been the HQ for the Saudi national oil company, Aramco, and the Chinese oil company, Petrochina, amongst others.
In 2015 work began to convert the building from commercial to residential use, the building became ready for occupation in 2018. A combination of unsold flats and flats being bought by overseas concerns have meant that few flats show signs of occupation, this is most noticeable on an evening when much of the tower is in darkness. The tower has joined the growing list of London’s ‘ghost towers’.
The tower became a Grade II listed building in 1995
1, 2 & 3 bedroom apartments are currently on sale with a price range of between £1.8m – £8.5m. The current price of a penthouse is undisclosed. In 2018 the Guardian reported the cost of a penthouse as £55m.
The housing crisis in the capital continues to worsen. In 2021 The Evening Standard reported that 250,000 Londoners were on waiting lists for council homes.
I was discussing my thoughts on the tower with my friend and native Londoner, Clive Martin, his thoughts on the area.
Charing Cross in general feels like a bit of a dark portal, no matter what they do to it… There’s this walkway near the station, that was home to this slightly sinister magic shop for yonks. The Paul Daniels posters only added to the eeriness.
Lud Heat. Iain Sinclair. 1975
Occupation Image via Working Class History
The Guardian – How Centre Point attracts the rich and sidelines the poor 2018
The Evening Standard – London is ‘epicentre’ of housing crisis as 250,000 Londoners await council homes. 2021