UK: A bite out of Barkers. (2 of 2)

UK: A bite out of Barkers. (2 of 2) - Ken Holmes's troubles probably boiled down to two in the end. First, how do you push through an already immensely complicated building project when, a year and a half down the line, your client signs up a tenant, a n

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ken Holmes's troubles probably boiled down to two in the end. First, how do you push through an already immensely complicated building project when, a year and a half down the line, your client signs up a tenant, a newspaper group, which not only does not really want what you are building (offices) but, for quite a while after it signs the lease, still is not sure itself what it does want? Second, how do you demolish and rebuild a major landmark in a highly congested area without causing chaos? The answer to the first question is: with great difficulty and a lot of patience.

"They came on board in October 1986 and it all went very quiet for three or four months," says Holmes. "We kept saying 'We're carrying on with the landlord's scheme; are you sure that's what you want?' and they were saying 'It's probably not what we want, but we don't know what we want yet - just carry on'."

Every so often there were "earnest discussions", most of which resulted in the newspaper company requesting extensive modifications. What had once been common or garden offices were transformed into a custom-built newspaper office with all the specialist features which that entails, including two massive libraries and production floors.

In the event the inside work - shoehorning Barkers into much smaller premises and accommodating the Fleet Street Diaspora to top - was a piece of cake compared with what went on outside. It was the outside work which really tested the project manager's ingenuity.

It is hardly possible to imagine a worse place to do a complicated building job. Barkers overlooks one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in west London. And that is only the main road. Behind the store is genteel, residential Kensington Square and, joining the high street to the square, two narrow feeder roads, one containing a multi-storey car park, with all that that entails, the other acting as a service road to Barkers' two very busy neighbours, Marks and Spencer and BhS. Demolishing the inside of the old building and rebuilding it anew, while all the time keeping the temporary store open, meant that many hundreds of tonnes of wrecker's debris had to be shipped out along these congested roads and equal quantities of new materials shipped back.

Holmes kept in constant touch with the local authority, the police, the fire brigade, other local traders and, last but certainly not least, the local residents to ensure that the roads finging the site did not deteriorate into the third circle of hell.

The residents were the real problem. Most residents will play along, but some, either because they feel that the sanctity of their home has been disrupted or just out of plain cussedness, will always get stroppy. And so it was in Kensington Square. The leading protesters, says Holmes with studied understatement, were "a bit difficult". They were also, as it happens, lawyers, and talk of writs kept getting in the way of good relations.

The paradox, says Holmes, is that other protesters like these only prolong their own agony. The other Kensington Square residents, though untutored in the law, seemed to see what the protesting lawyers either could not or would not: that the quicker the builders were in, the quicker they would be out.

In the end Holmes won through. Perhaps the persistent drip feed of his logic simply wore the complainants down. "I said to them 'The more restrictions you impose on us, the longer we're going to be here. It'll just snowball. Why don't you let us just get on with it as quietly and cleanly and safely as we can and we'll be gone and out of your hair.'"

He is now. Holmes packed his bags in December 1988 and moved to another project just a couple of miles away - but he has left behind an unsolved mystery. When the surveyors and engineers were rummaging around among the various Barkers papers they found reference to three tunnels under the Kensington store. They found two, but the third one, it seems, has gone walkabout. So if in the future some other project manager is brought in to demolish and rebuild Barkers yet again, he has been warned: ask whether there is anything that the client has not told you about or you might find yourself, literally, in a hole.

(Malcolm Brown is a freelance journalist.)

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