In truth, the space created is a difficult area to categorize; spatial compromises with the premises either side mean it is an awkward shape, and the fashion of the times decreed modern grey granite office blocks (shown in the photo below) having no architectural or visual connexion with the Cathedral. Lacking atmosphere, it has been deserted by day, and at night a haunt of drunks and drug users - so much so that I heard Cardinal Hume refer to the Piazza as 'a great improvement, but also a great weight upon our shoulders.'
For over five years, working together with local residents, I have been trying to get Westminster City Council to redevelop the space and make it more attractive for the right sort of users. My first thought had been to make it a place of vibrant activity, filled with entertainments and coffee shops. Indeed, the architect used by the City Council suggested a redevelopment that would emphasize the Piazza as a civic space in which such activity could be encouraged. To that end, we encouraged the use of the Piazza for events such as the parish summer fair (as seen below).However, over the last month news has broken of the radical redevelopment of the entire Victoria area by Land Securities, with an enormous projected increase in local population, new shopping areas, and a suggestion that Victoria Street will rival Oxford Street (the busiest shopping street in the country). Faced with such an overwhelming and intense development, I feel that the Piazza must become a threshold, and a sanctuary, protecting the sacred atmosphere of the Cathedral and the residential areas alongside it.
A meeting with Sir Roy Strong (a well known cultural historian, and a neighbour) and Colin Amery (British head of the World Monuments Fund, and a parishioner) helped focus my views. They explained that the space in front of the Cathedral is not a Piazza - it is far too small - but a forecourt. Our Piazza already exists across the road, in the cafeterias and restuarants of newly built Cardinal Place (left). Our 'forecourt' is much more like the area in front of a mosque, anticipating the sacred space within, and providing a boundary and threshold or, if you like, a buffer to the outside world. You can see the idea in thhe photo below, showing the forecourt to the Sultan Suleyman Mosue in Instanbul.
At a meeting with the ecclesiastical architect Richard Griffiths, the suggestion was made of a boundary, or some way of marking entry to the forecourt (without, of course, hindering access). This would accord with another of my concerns, that externally the Cathedral is not obviously a Christian building (from across the road, an unknowing passer-by might not realise it is a church, and increasing numbers of visitors believe its exotic architecture denotes a Mosque!). Proclaiming the identity of the forecourt with a cross, or even Stations of the Cross, would give it a character, and proclaim its identity. Many regular visitors will remember the Millennium Cross that stood in front of the Cathedral in the year 2000 (in the photo above left), and which gave a strong character and focus to the space. Further, the use of materials in repaving or other landscaping might reflect the materials used in the Cathedral, and visually link the space to the building.
At a long meeting last evening, the residents and I put this vision to the City Council officers, who were receptive. Many further meetings have to be held, but it is hoped that a draft proposal mught be prepared for consultation by the end of the year. It is a step forward - but don't hold your breath! So, as Cardinal Hume hinted, the 'Piazza' (forecourt?) remains both a blessing and a problem to the Cathedral.