Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

By Chris Rogers, May 15 2021 03:17PM

The disconcerting new scheme to open up the old Daily Express Building to the public but also engulf it in a towering pastiche of itself proves that Fleet Street can still generate stories decades after the last newspaper left. Front page news in the Architects’ Journal on Thursday, the property trade press carried the item two weeks ago whilst popular outlets such as the Evening Standard have covered it not at all. As ever, reading beyond the headlines adds detail and a bit of investigative journalism reveals much more.



Developer CO-RE, acting for owners Chinese Estates, have announced a goal of “renovation and opening to the public of the Grade II* listed Daily Express” by 2025 along with “complete redevelopment of the existing River Court building”, the large banking offices erected next door and behind the historic Art Deco block in 2000. Both were occupied by Goldman Sachs before they relocated recently. The Daily Express lobby will be used to showcase the history of the building and the writing, publishing, print and communication industry it was once part of, with “cultural tenants” invited for the upper floors. Architects Bjarke Ingles Group (shortening, highly appropriately, to BIG) have designed an even larger building than River Court to satisfy the second part of the plan, to feature the usual contemporary benefits of roof terraces, cycle facilities and flexible floorplates for multiple occupiers as well as increased natural ventilation. Its appearance, we are told, will “respond to the context of nearby buildings and environmental constraints. In particular, the horizontally-banded façade on Fleet Street will be sympathetic and make reference to the Daily Express building”.



Before analysing what this actually means, a bit of history…


The Daily Express building was completed in 1932 to designs by Owen Williams, an engineer not an architect but one who nevertheless crafted the visual appearance as well as the structure of the Dorchester Hotel, the first Wembley stadium, the Boots factory in Nottingham and bridges across the country. On Fleet Street his reinforced concrete portal frames created the space for the basement printing presses that made the entire project viable yet also yielded the building’s exterior finish since the material – distinctively radiused at the corners – was to be left exposed, with windows mounted flush. The small but vital change that occurred before construction, whereby the glazing was brought forward of the concrete which was in turn clad in opaque, black Vitrolite, has been attributed variously to Williams himself, newspaper specialist Bertram Gallanaugh of associate architects Ellis & Clarke and Express owner Lord Beaverbrook. Regardless, the resulting treatment was genuinely ground-breaking and admired by professionals and the public, who were welcomed inside Robert Atkinson’s dazzling lobby with its twinned murals of Empire and Industry, chromed sunburst ceiling and Betty Joel furniture to place small ads, read the paper and conduct related business.

Victorian buildings to the east prevented Williams from finishing his block with a second full-height curved corner; forty years later these were swept way for Aitken House, a much-needed extension, but this further subverted the original design intent by butting hard up against Williams’ work at its lower levels and subsuming his curved top storey corners within its resolutely flat frontage. And since this was clad with horizontal bands of Vitrolite in crude mimicry of the Daily Express (the fenestration of the two were not even aligned), that building even lost its existing autonomy as a vertical pavilion, as architectural writer Ken Powell describes it.



Another twenty years passed and the changing face of the newspaper industry led to the Express group vacating the ‘Black Lubyanka’ for Southwark, leaving Williams’ building lost within further extensions to the north and, when found, tired and empty. The furniture had gone from the lobby along with chromium snake stair handrails and even the floor of linoleum ‘ocean’ waves, other spaces were subdivided and a new use seemed elusive.


Fortunately this sorry situation coincided with the rash of ‘groundscraper’ developments driven by late-80s banking deregulation, and eventually a buyer and a plan emerged. Aitken House and the rear ranges would be demolished in favour of a large new block capable of housing the desired trading floors and associated functions. In accordance with City planning policy, the Williams building would be restored and sensitively integrated so as to form a new complex occupying the same wedge-shaped island site the Express once held.


In 2000, then, Hurley, Robertson and Associates working for then owners The Fleet Street Partnership carried out this scheme which included rescuing and in fact completing Williams’s design.


The original lobby floor pattern was reinstated in durable terrazzo, the snakes recreated from photographs and – highly ingeniously – the lift shafts, now too small, were sealed and employed as air vents and service risers. The décor was refreshed and repaired and all of the glass replaced by thermally and acoustically efficient double glazed equivalents whose appearance was rigorously matched to the originals. In an accommodating touch the new client allowed the vertical metal ‘EXPRESS’ logos framing the entrance to remain on show even if, in later years, a discreet and literal veil was drawn over the windows themselves, suppressing views of the lobby including the much larger and more explicit advertisements of the previous tenant on its rear walls. It was also persuaded that Williams’s concrete frames should remain visible inside, after accreted suspended ceilings and the like were removed, anticipating the current trend for such things.



On the plot occupied by Aitken House a frontage for the new building was needed, and HRA partner in charge John Robertson deemed it essential that this should stand apart from the Daily Express both physically and aesthetically so as to emphasise it.


A deep recess between the two buildings, emulating St Bride’s Avenue opposite and leading to the formal entrance of the combined complex, achieved the former and an all-glass façade was conceived to address the latter. Planners, however, directed the use of stone here in recognition of the surrounding conservation area, criticised by some as regressive yet in its final form (white, rectilinear) the quiet inverse of the Daily Express (black, rounded) and so letting Williams' work shine. Vitally, too, a completely new curved corner was finally added to the east, “creating a clear divide between old and new” and allowing “the separate identity of this key 1930s building [to be] elegantly reinforced” (Powell).


Now, after another twenty years, we are told that HRAs work needs to be revisited and in places undone.


At the Williams building, the pre-planning consultation on the proposals (which ended yesterday and whose website is neither mentioned on, let alone linked to from, CO-RE’s own site) asks the leading question ‘Is restoration a good idea?’ It’s certainly possible for even the best restoration work to need attention after so long, but the lack of any condition report means it’s simply not possible to answer. Reopening the lobby to the public and indeed widening access to the building as a whole for talks, exhibitions and creative events – a rooftop garden is also intended – is commendable and fits with the repurposing of Holborn Bars, the former home of the Prudential, and Pearl Assurance (now the Rosewood Hotel) in nearby Holborn, for example.


Far more worrying is the BIG building, as it were (it will be renamed 120 Fleet Street). Of course it’s always easy to puncture the surface of press releases to deflate the bombast, but CO-RE’s seems particularly vulnerable to such probing. Its assertion that retention of the existing, double-height Williams basement – a given in the City anyway these days for obvious reasons of cost, practicality and sustainability – will “reduce the impact of redevelopment” is thus a little hard to believe when said scheme will have almost three times the floor count of the Daily Express and be more than fifty percent taller. This is clear in a simple comparison of a photograph of the rear of River Court today and a CGI of the new block.


But the real problem with this scheme is its blunt and frankly baffling reversal of the considered work done in 2000 to centre and celebrate the Daily Express.


We are told that the BIG design process “investigated all options”, particularly taking into account “improving the setting of the listed Daily Express”, and that “in a direct homage to its neighbour, the façade on 120 Fleet Street plays tribute to [that] forward thinking design”.


What in truth this labouring has produced is a facile, even crass emulation of the Williams block once more, as if the last twenty years had never happened. Worse, it is to wrap the entirety of the new building with no relief whatsoever. Combined with its dominating scale, this ensures Owen Williams’s building will again be lost in obvious opposition to common sense and the stated desire to recognise the “finer grain” of neighbouring buildings and “the separation of 120 Fleet Street from the Daily Express”. Replicating that unique original Fleet Street entrance signage on one of the new elevations just adds insult to injury. Unsurprisingly the consultation portal does NOT invite comments on this portion of the scheme.


To be fair said separation is also to be achieved by turning HRA’s recessed, simulated alleyway into an actual arcade leading from Fleet Street, around the back of the Daily Express and into Shoe Lane. It will be lined with the usual retail. This, too, is a good idea and aligns with the provision of similar small passageways in a range of current schemes.


In terms of the overall scheme, though, it remains entirely unclear as to why so damaging a move is even being thought of let alone applied for. Planning policy and planners’ tastes change too over time, but it is to be strongly hoped that this awful idea is comprehensively rejected when that happens. Otherwise, given the unwelcome City of London Law Courts project going ahead across the road, the Street of Shame will be living up to its nickname even today.


By Chris Rogers, Apr 11 2021 11:23AM

Twenty years on, director Ridley’s Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is still acclaimed for its textured visuals of ancient Rome, background for a drama involving the actual historical figures of aging Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his decadent, capricious son Commodus. From the cold forests of Germania to the stony grandeur of the Forum, and from the lush silks of Imperial wives to the ghastly splendour of Legionary combat, this design work was hailed as fresh and original for its dark palette and sombre overtones. Yet director Anthony Mann’s much less recognised The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) not only addressed the same characters but did so using a style that is astonishingly similar to Scott’s epic, from the black-hued armour to the Fascistic imagery.


Arguably the most striking correspondence between the two films is also the first to be encountered; an early opening battle in a snowy wood against barbarian tribes. In both cases near-monochrome cinematography – hailed as a first when seen in Scott’s film, which arrived only a few years after Spielberg’s bleached Saving Private Ryan (1998) – sees the Romans’ armour rendered dull, almost black, and in both the snowflakes fly and torches burn. This is clear in both close-ups and distant shots.


Back in Rome, the centre of the Empire is again depicted in cool, distant style for the most part. Scott’s inspiration was Nazi architecture and its representation in propaganda films, and his concepts were realised with CGI. Mann used the traditional equivalent, the matte painting on glass, for his establishing shots but seems to have chosen an allied aesthetic.


In contrast the principal female character, Marcus Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla, appears in rich, warmly-toned costume in many scenes, whether played by Connie Nielsen or Sophia Loren. Yet both actresses have their moment of froideur too, when once again black or near-black serves to symbolise the hollow power of a declining regime.


The increasingly unhinged Commodus’s martial fantasies, of combat in the field or the arena, are also indicated by a shift to black and an emphasis on arms and armour. The glories of past rulers, which gave him the forces he commands, are seen only in the flashes of silver and gold.


Finally, both films let the extravagance for which Rome was known come to the fore when needed, whether in Scott’s Imperial ‘box’ at the Colosseum or Mann’s Capitoline Wolf behind the Emperor. Each is based on real architectural features, exaggerated or modified to suit the needs of the story. Sic transit gloria mundi.



By Chris Rogers, Mar 26 2021 10:52AM

It started with our chance find together – at the bottom of a drawer in my mother’s house – of a slipcase of visitor information cards for the Museum of London dating from its opening in 1976. I had never seen it before, despite living in the same home for three decades; it was designed by David Stuart and illustrated by John Gorham. But as I delighted in its elegant and unusual layout and wondered how on earth it got there*, I realised that certain other items quietly present on my own bookshelves all had the same distinctive quality – the very specific design style of non-fiction publishers in the 1970s.



Several came to mind: a book on the history of weapons, another on historic European town houses, trade magazines issued by an oil company… all shared the same elegant and powerful visual language. Clean typefaces, often in large fonts. Bold illustrations, whether line, axonometric or pictorial, were always isolated against the white space of the page. Flat planes of colour were common, with contrasting hues often employed to highlight a mechanism, design or feature. Even the tactility of the paper played its part, with selected sections in a different weight or colour to carry a different style of image or type of content.



The military book is The Lore of Arms by William Reid, published in 1976 by AB Nordbok, Gothenburg and designed by Tommy Berglund. It is, frankly, gorgeous and contains not a single photograph. Instead drawings of armour, flintlocks, swords and pistols jump off the pages, in various scales, some cutaway, some in profile. Many are in monochrome but many are rendered as exquisite blocks of colour through what the jacket calls a process of hand lithography, the latter a printing method, now widespread, that uses a flat rather than an incised or raised plate with the image formed from a medium that repels water. A bit of Googling reveals that my book was part of a series; other entries covered trains and ships, images from the latter confirming the style.




The house book is (East) German – Town Houses of Europe by Horst Büttner and Günter Meissner – and is from 1983 but the approach is similar with its delightful, hand drawn plans and elevations. By this time there are colour photographs albeit corralled into separate bound sections.


The origins of the approach seen in these books appears to lie in the International Typographic Style, which began in the USSR, Holland and Germany between the wars and matured in Switzerland during the 1950s. Sans-serif types, an underlying mathematical grid and self-assured use of colour images were its attributes, and some of this is seen in those magazines I mentioned. They have no inscribed date of publication or copyright, oddly, but a little more online research confirms my issues of Air BP Magazine (‘The Journal of the International Aviation Service of BP’) are from the mid-to-late 1960s. Their headline text is sometimes vertical, sometimes diagonal and often pushed to the very edge of the page, and there is a delightful – often playful – mix of visual material within each edition, from striking photography to charming illustrations. Especially notable is the synthesis of the physical, such as short internal flyleaves in a different paper.



The same angles are also characteristic of architectural and other design-led periodicals of the era, including – I recalled – my May 1971 copy of The Architectural Review focusing on Venice. This features gloss paper for its photography sections but a quarter of a dozen different colours of a rougher, matte stock for its text and illustrations. A dramatic landscape-format cover sends its own message(s). The edition is almost identical in layout to The Lore of Arms from just five years later, contextualising the design of those weighty tomes and pushing the ideas contained forward to the 1980s.





Thinking back, my interest in graphic design must have started when my father used to bring books like these home for me from the library next to my mother’s workplace; books on space exploration, military fortifications, emergency vehicles. Highly illustrated with impressive cutaways, intricate line drawings and coloured diagrams, sometimes arranged as foldouts, and I pored over them endlessly.


Unfortunately if inevitably trends in this industry, as in so many others, changed, and books became almost entirely full of conventional photography, bled to the edges of the pages and with dull, unremarkable typography. Only Dorling Kindersley carried on the concepts from the 1960s and 70s with their splendid books from the 1990s and 2000s that pushed the punchy technique of knolling, whereby multiple related objects are arranged in a tight grid and photographed from above, like the parts from a model kit.


Decades on from the 1970s, though, it’s clear that my exposure to the style of that period embedded that has stayed with me to this day.




*I visited the newly-opened museum with my primary school; I do remember the impression Powell & Moyer’s mysterious, dark building had on me, with its Lord Mayor’s coach ‘floating’ just above the ground, so we assume the slipcase must have somehow come home with me from then.


By Chris Rogers, Mar 16 2021 06:04PM

The intended height of the courthouse in the planned City of London Law Courts scheme has been reduced by over a metre. Both the Victorian Society and Heritage England have lodged objections to the size and scale of the new building, but it seems to have been complaints about the reduction of daylight to the flats opposite the court that swung the axe.



Actually the old Daily Telegraph building sits immediately across the street, but it wasn’t the bankers that cried foul. Instead it was the owners and occupier of the apartments in the upper levels of the buildings to its west, a nicely varied run of narrow, period frontages of the sort that typify the Street, that stood up to be counted. As a result of some detailed analysis, the parapet of the courthouse has been lowered by 1.2 metres and two rooftop elements of the massing of the block have been cut back to lessen the impact, as shown above.


The amenity societies’ criticism is quite trenchant, saying “The proposed new buildings entirely fail to reflect the characteristic scale and grain of the historic built environment” and that its “articulation is weak, and does nothing to reduce the impression of overbearing monumental bulk”. I hate to say I told you so, but… They are also both unhappy at the proposed loss of historic fabric, namely the demolition of all of the existing buildings along the Fleet Street side of the site and some in Salisbury Square.


As it happens there are rumblings down below, too, with the owners of the building to the south east of the overall development objecting to the proximity of the commercial block to theirs and the servicing arrangements, which would have required them to fall in with the shared basement. The building lines have been adjusted and a new access point created, separate from that supporting the court, police and office development itself.


Evenin’ all.


By Chris Rogers, Mar 10 2021 05:49PM

Over a mile long, home to retail flagships and the ‘West End’ for many, there can be few Londoners who have never trodden the pavements of Oxford Street or entered some of its grand department stores. But Bhs closed five years ago, Debenhams will not reopen when lockdown eases and arguments about buses and traffic along the Street continue even as Crossrail fails to arrive beneath it. Last year John Lewis won permission to convert more than half of its store to offices and yesterday afternoon Marks & Spencer announced the complete demolition of its Marble Arch branch in favour of a mixed-use alternative. So, just as we are receiving protection against the virus that has accelerated this crisis, is such repositioning enough to inoculate what has been called Britain’s high street against the threat of no-one actually wanting to use it?




It’s important to note that tenants of the current generation of large Oxford Street stores, imported from America as a typology in early twentieth century, have always been fluid and the carcases of several prove this. Sir Edwin Lutyens, no less, designed a façade for Gamages at the western end that became C&A and is now Primark, whilst Bourne & Hollingsworth’s Moderne block further east is also now on its third incarnation. All stacked large, internally-focused sales floors (you will find very few windows) behind impressive façades and whilst Gordon Selfridge himself, arch showman that he was, did much to enliven this trading model the only real change architecturally speaking during the next one hundred years was the atrium, bringing more daylight and here developed from the necessary stair and escalator wells (but still, cleverly, preventing views out).


Now, though, with already-growing online sales given a sharp boost by the Covid pandemic and – crucially – forecast to keep climbing, those retailers who have avoided other pressures such as outdated stock, competition from newcomers (Polish clothing chain Reserved occupies Bhs’s old space) and the legacy of poor business decisions are facing up to the expense of vast edifices that are simply no longer needed to enact their core business or function poorly in the context of contemporary sales practice. Quite how to reshape this estate portfolio in response is the key consideration now, and both John Lewis and M&S’s approaches are instructive.


John Spedan Lewis opened a drapery store on Oxford Street in 1864; rebuilding on the current site was already underway when World War 2 broke out, accounting for the Deco-style rear elevation to Cavendish Square. This survived the Blitz but the remainder of the store did not, and by the time funds and government licensing permitted work to restart it was 1955. A new aesthetic was adopted for the phased scheme that followed, with glazing framed by deep reveals faced with Portland stone and subtly-coloured tiles. Completed in 1960 the store was state of the art and this included the facilities for staff; not only was there a large rooftop dining hall but also a multi-level car park within the envelope of the store and accessed by lift from Old Cavendish Street – able to hold 50 vehicles, partners could book its spaces for their cars and it remains today.



Introduction of two large atriums a few years ago is the sole significant modification to this post-war block that is large, yes, but holds itself well thanks to that subtle façade, refurbished only a couple of years ago when a new canopy was installed along Oxford Street. It is surely notable that the recently approved plan to remodel the upper floors as offices will not alter this to any degree externally. Inside a new lift core will be added in the north east corner to service the offices that will be installed on floors three to eight. They will be accessed from a new entrance on the corner of Cavendish Square and Holles Street. Remodelling of the existing sales, stock and support areas will of course be required, and some basement bike parking and associated spaces are to be introduced. This is, then, a major change but one that will be almost entirely invisible from the outside – reflecting, perhaps, the staff-owned company’s image of dependable pragmatism.


Marks & Spencer shares that image, to an extent, even if its Victorian ‘penny bazaar’ origins are more transparently commercial. Its solution, too, is the same – retain the Oxford Street site, keep retail on the lower floors and introduce commercial offices to the upper levels – but the method of achieving it is rather more radical. In yesterday’s surprise announcement a ready-to-go scheme by Pillbrow + Partners architects will replace the three conjoined premises that make up its L-shaped Marble Arch branch with a single block on the same footprint. This will be purpose-designed for the contemporary needs of shop and office functions, clad in brick and feature set-back terraces. Unlike its rival none of the existing buildings is of any architectural merit, and it’s thus unclear why the firm indulges in the developer’s sophistry of deliberately unflattering images of the current buildings or disingenuous language in its online consultation exercise.



The other key difference at Marble Arch is the integration of the new building into the street pattern. An arcade will run from Oxford Street, through the new retail space (where it will be “framed by concessionary retail”) and open onto Granville Place at the rear of the store, which will be remodelled as a pocket park. A second through-building link will connect this space to Orchard Street to the east, effectively formalising the common practice of shoppers leaving the current M&S foodhall by the side exit, passing straight through Selfridges and coming out to St Christopher’s Place beyond.


Will either of these moves be enough to arrest the decline in Oxford Street’s footfall of the last few years? Is more needed, and I don’t mean an artificial grassy mound dumped on the corner?


For a decade at least luxury brands have been reformatting their shops from simple outlet to three-dimensional calling card through new architecture, lavish fit-outs and cutting-edge display technology, blurring the boundaries between marketing and purchasing. The very high associated costs make this unlikely to cross over fully into the mass-market. Selfridges, for example, which sits somewhere between those extremes, may have had success with the self-contained ‘Louis Vuitton Townhouse’ concept in 2013 but its centrepiece, a cylindrical glass lift that rotated as it moved, broke down within days of opening and was quietly removed a year or so later.


In-store ‘experiences’ are seen as another possible answer, with fashion shows, performances and events being staged amongst the aisles and ‘lounges’ provided to encourage hanging out. Related to this are the simpler – or, perhaps, seemingly simpler – fit-outs that emulate the kinds of ‘found’ or as-is industrial spaces current in commercial interiors, which are appearing in retail in an attempt to create a less artificial set of surroundings.


The real concern now though – especially in the current and projected climate – is achieving genuine integration with a retailer’s online presence, as M&S acknowledged in yesterday’s press release. What that might actually look like, though, is anyone’s guess since technology has a nasty habit of becoming outdated very, very quickly. Samsung’s recently-opened Coal Drops Yard store featuring a digital graffiti wall that can be ‘painted’ by a phone disguised as a spray can, internet-enabled appliances and a working kitchen for demonstrations sounds great but will it last and would a non-electronics retailer find anything helpful to emulate? M&S has itself tried large, desk-like touchscreens in its clothing floors to no real effect; in any case, shoppers will already have their iPhone browser open so it’s arguable that this adds value. Virtual and augmented reality, personalised ‘talking’ advertising boards and much more have also been mooted, again without much impact.


Personally I think these are all answers, but maybe to the wrong question. Instead of asking what can be done to make in-person retail more attractive, why not look to other end of the process altogether?


Britain started the Industrial Revolution and London was and still is to an extent a manufacturing city – in 2018, London’s gross value added from the sector was similar to that contributed by all of Wales’ industries combined. Things were and are made here – things like clothes and bicycles, furniture and beer, watches and suits. With that rich heritage and a real interest now in craft, repairs, provenance and sustainability, might not a more compelling ‘offer’ be to add makers’ spaces to some of these stores and show people what it takes to put something together? The potential is already there at a small scale. New premises for tailors Hackett in Savile Row (where each firm must produce at least 60% of the shop’s output on the premises) and Bonhams’ specialist staff in New Bond Street have daylit workspaces – both could be opened up to visitors. Wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd’s new buildings on Pall Mall already host tastings in bespoke function spaces. Shoppers never used to be so distant from the activity of making, whether the in-house adjustment services in the earliest department stores or the stock warehouses in adjacent streets, and my own reminder last year of the flatted factory after the war provides another useful precedent.


It may thus be that the true ‘experience’ we desire and will travel to see is the one of watching something physical be created.







By Chris Rogers, Feb 16 2021 05:13PM

The National Gallery in London wants to remodel its Sainsbury Wing entrance by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates from 1991 to give it greater presence on Trafalgar Square, improve the visitor experience once inside and better connect the Post-Modern extension in which it sits to the Victorian Wilkins building next door. The project is to be finished in time for the Gallery’s bicentenary in 2024.


Great controversy surrounded construction of the Wing almost a generation ago, although subsequent public acceptance, ongoing critical acclaim and award of the highest grade of heritage protection have all occurred since. Unfortunately, too, has the realisation that a quarter-century-old building no longer entirely works for today’s users, and so – a few years after Lloyd’s of London, who trod an identical path – another historic institution in the capital is faced with the need to alter an acclaimed, listed work by a ‘starchitect’.


Personally, today’s announcement comes as no real surprise. Although I’ve come to like the absurdly grand yet false perspective of the huge scala regia that gets you to the Wing’s upper floors (from whence the chronological sequence of galleries begins) whilst providing elevated views over the Square, the Wing entrance does fail in most respects. It’s in the wrong place in relation to the complex as a whole, far to the left of the main portico (which is after all on axis with Nelson’s Column), and is not actually in the Square at all. Already a storey lower than its traditional cousin and so lacking in presence, it’s additionally burdened with a kind of negative doorway, a vanishing void of black glass and steel unannounced by anything at all (intriguingly a model of the scheme before it was built is slightly more welcoming). Inside, I wonder whether the shop – a pale shadow, after two major redesigns, of the original and anyway replicated several times elsewhere in the building – is necessary any more. The lobby is just a space between that, the main stair rising to the right and another tucked away ahead that leads down to the main temporary exhibition space.

Pleasingly, if unexpectedly, the competition brief accepts all of this criticism and adds some more. The lobby is neither obvious nor visually connected with the main building, to which it is attached by a bridge link over the pedestrianised Jubilee Walk, cannot accommodate the necessary security screening facilities, fails to aid orientation and is uninviting and inflexible. Ways to address all of those points are keenly sought, therefore.


Beginning outside, I was pleased to see the brief confirm the Gallery’s ownership of the raised lawned areas immediately in front of the Wilkins building’s flanks, something I had doubts over when encountering slumbering individuals there the summer before last, and the strong suggestion that these elements might be modified and improved to help achieve that connection between the two blocks is to be welcomed. This would also tie together the ground level entrances either side of the Wilkins portico. There is also careful reference to the existing “black glass curtain wall that runs alongside the grand staircase” of the Wing, though perhaps ‘blank’ would be equally accurate as an initial descriptor since that is the unwelcome effect from the point of view of anyone looking from the Square. I would thus expect – as is now happening with many commercial PoMo buildings erected in London in the same era – removal of that glazing in favour of conventionally clear glass.




The same intervention is undoubtedly going to be applied at the entrance portal proper to mitigate what the brief bluntly refers to as its “fortress-like appearance, […] established by the gates and black-tinted glazing which prevent passers-by seeing in and create an off-putting impression”. Any more than that here would be difficult to pull off though given the very absence of trimmings is part of the architectural essence of the Venturi scheme. On the other hand, surely ADDING a pediment in a suitably contrasting material or style would be topping the joke…?


Inside I do not expect the shop to survive. It will be stripped out and the space used instead to solve some of those capacity problems – after all, the Louvre did the exact same thing beneath Pei’s pyramid, a contemporary of the Sainsbury, just a few years ago. What scope there is for altering room heights is unclear so anything more radical might not be possible, but some changes to the cloakroom and other spaces is probable; that much of the ‘structure’ visible in this area isn’t, in fact, but merely applied decoration is also pointed out, as is that Grade I listing being based on “the events surrounding the building’s commissioning and public debate” rather than its “actual architectural qualities”. Ouch.


Whatever happens the result will coincide with the rather more significant reorienting of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery under its own scheme of works. Should be interesting.



By Chris Rogers, Feb 12 2021 04:41PM

A formal planning application for the new City of London Law Courts complex, including the police block and commercial office, was lodged last month. Its documents confirm almost all of the conclusions I reached in my previous posts whilst adding detail; more on that below, but for now I’d like to focus on what to the vast majority of Londoners will be the most significant aspect of the scheme – does the principal building actually look like a court of law?



That is the same question that Eric Parry Architects addressed in October’s consultation by stating that their proposed design has "a substantial civic presence on Fleet Street”, something repeated in January’s application. I suspect most people would assess that claim by what the building looks like, and how it’s made – its massing, articulation and materials, in formal terms. But EPA make it clear that they are defining civic presence in two ways only, both of which are peripheral to the building’s architecture: “integrated public art commissions” and “a sense of place in the connections through the site”. This is a rather extraordinary approach and one somewhat at odds with history and precedent. It does, though, explain my earlier doubts about the court’s main façade, which neither conveys its function nor responds to the local context. Nothing in the application changes that.


Thus granite, limestone, the Royal arms and those of the City of London do not on their own a public building make, let alone a courthouse. There is little to indicate unambiguously the fact of the latter or to break up the bulk of what is a very large building; the slight “inflections” or chamfers to the corners of the plan are weak.


The public entrance on Fleet Street is described as being “clearly marked […] by the oriel window”, this last a reference to the facetted treatment of the elevation here that I divined before. That is technically correct, but the feature is rather shallow and reads more like a simple sub-division of the façade than a true oriel. Anticipating the separated circulations necessary within any court building, “A separate street entrance for Jury members and a separate entrance for the Judiciary have been provided” – their locations are redacted although elsewhere we are told that “The western façade to Whitefriars Street incorporates additional entrances at the ground floor for courthouse use.”



Other than the main doors no glazing is apparent to the ground floor at all, excused as necessary for security. One could see this as a nod to the Central Criminal Court nearby, yet given recent court buildings nationally have managed to include fenestration here it is disappointing that a better balance between architectural expression and safety could not have been managed in the capital. Instead we are to be treated merely to commissioned artworks incorporated into the wall panels, the explanation for those curious dish-shaped features I noted last year. Placed behind those panels at height will be hidden or “cryptoporticus” windows (the term, I discover, originated in ancient Greece to mean a covered corridor or passageway lit from openings at the tops of its supporting arches), to bring daylight into the lower levels of the building. These measures too have precedents in the City, though that does not mean they are welcome. At the former Unilever House (1932) the upper floors were pushed back to permit skylighting of the windowless ground floor, though car noise was the enemy there rather than car bombs, whilst the ‘blind’ street frontage of the GPO’s Fleet Building (1961) featured ceramic panels by Dorothy Annan.



More art is suggested for the oriel, namely an expanse of stone suitable for incised text that might reflect “the ethos of the justice system or possibly the history of the area” and the possibility of overlaying the glazing with decorative metalwork or similar. This seems uninspired and, again, a poor replacement for actual architecture. It will be interesting to see if even these ideas are taken up – it was some years before Westminster magistrates’ court in Marylebone acquired its contemporary art installation, and a hundred of them for the National Gallery’s name to appear atop its portico.


We are forced to imagine the interior since not a single image of it appears anywhere in the application pack. The “feature” or “cantilevered high-quality” public staircase that I identified previously is the main element. Surprisingly reminiscent of that in the now-demolished Clements House (1957), a post-war office building in the City, right down to its position at the very rear of the floorplate where it is backlit by extensive glazing, it serves only the first four floors before a more conventional example takes over within the central, top-glazed lightwell. There are two more of the latter, all of them forming a sandwich with the service cores.




There will be eighteen courtrooms in total (eight crown, five magistrates Courts and five civil) though rather oddly “The exact location of these has been redacted on the plans for security purposes.” Ambitiously, daylighting will be provided on all four sides of each – the driver is wellbeing and this feat will be achieved through clerestory windows giving on to the exterior of the building, the public lobbies or those lightwells. Intriguingly, “open justice viewing areas” are promised, albeit with no explanation of what these might be. Those attractive boxed-out oriels to the south are consultation rooms for clients and lawyers. On the private side of the building, upper levels will contain “social rooms for the judicial [sic] and HMCTS administration staff with access to the garden terrace”; this outside amenity is for both to “de-stress, take some air and enjoy the views”.


Servicing will be from the shared basement primarily, which stretches across all three buildings. At its lowest level, basement 2, sits an energy centre that powers the courthouse and the police building assisted by plant situated on some upper storeys of the former. Above this, basement 1 holds fleet parking for rapid response police vehicles, who will exit (only, it appears) via their own ramp at the southern edge of the police building and for which traffic the local road layout will be adjusted. The “lower ground floor level” above that houses spaces associated with the courthouse including a cycle store, lockers and showers and a couple of parking bays for those with disabilities. Prisoners for hearings and police processing will also be received and despatched here via a custody area; cellular prison vans as well as delivery vehicles for all three buildings will use the same secure gate and ramp at the southern tip of the site, incorporated within the commercial block.


Returning to street level, as I predicted two years ago most of the courthouse will sit within a stockade of bollards. They will run up the northern end of Whitefriars Street, along Fleet Street (where they will be complemented by “stone sculptural elements which are either plaques for scripture or benching”; the road is part of the City ceremonial route) and continue along the turn into Salisbury Court. Here, the “new public green” offered in the July consultation that had, predictably, been downgraded into an expanse of hard landscaping dotted with planters by October remains, with a few tweaks to improve hostile vehicle mitigation. This is a pity as the current arrangement isn't perfect but at least feels like an actual London square. Baffling, though, is the word that could be applied to the continuing refusal to carry forward the existing pedestrian stepped link between the square and Primrose Hill to the south.



As for the rest of the scheme, the police building will, it is now clear, contain an operational station with a public counter as well as the City force’s headquarters; the open, glazed ground floor thus “promotes increased visibility and presence”. The greened area at street level, meanwhile, is revealed as a “wintergarden” enclosed by triple-glazed glass planks with small air gaps between them. The use of weathering steel, which I questioned last year, is now justified as expressing “institutional gravitas” but such a statement is illogical at best given the rarity and variety of the material’s use in Britain to date. Solemn reference to red enamel brises soleil recalling the old Ludgate railway bridge, absent almost a generation, merely prompts a bemused shake of the head. The commercial building covers its rational floorplates in a frenzy of terracotta, in reference to its neighbours, but is otherwise unremarkable.



This, then, is the scheme that will no doubt be approved in the spring; the window for comments has passed. It is unquestionably an important one, to the Square Mile, the capital and the criminal justice system. But whilst it may well evolve slightly as it is built out, I think that the awkward, bland and heavy design for the courthouse currently before us as well as the associated public realm represents an opportunity that has been missed, and by some distance at that.







By Chris Rogers, Dec 5 2020 09:03AM

The relentless pace of change in central London’s built environment continues, despite the pandemic. The evidence is everywhere, the sense of progress enhanced by the jump-cut editing of less frequent trips into town. As an example, albeit one that has also been decades in the making, I give you the angular framework of black and gold that is completing immediately south of Centre Point. It’s called the Now Building, and is part of a wider development by Outernet Global that includes more new-build, some façade retention and a sizeable basement. But what, exactly, is it?




The site is a roughly triangular block bounded by four streets. Charing Cross Road, famous for its book shops and actually quite modest in width, is the local high street for an area that is still very residential – some of the shops and services here reflect that. To the east, Denmark Street has been the locus of Britain’s popular music ‘scene’ since the fifties and is still dominated by guitar sellers and related trades. Around the corner from there is a short stretch of St Giles High Street, all that remains following the construction of Centre Point itself, a previous interloper and either the victim or perpetrator of a time when the car was king and comprehensive redevelopment the goal. Finally – and nominally, since it was largely erased by the remodelling of Seifert’s complex a few years ago – there is the ghost of Andrew Borde Street. The entire street block was also bisected by Denmark Place, which ran behind the north side of Denmark Street and was one of several narrow alleys in the locale.


Architecturally the area sits between the regular street grid and Georgian terraces of Soho and the red brick Victorian mansion blocks marching north from Trafalgar Square. A number of large schemes have appeared since but these have largely hidden behind frontages broadly sympathetic to the existing historic fabric and massing arrangements that push the taller elements to the rear. Only in the last ten years or so have things really began to change, with planners permitting two glass wedges announcing the arrival of Crossrail at Tottenham Court Road station and Renzo Piano’s sizeable Central St Giles precinct. These introduced a more aggressive style that appears to have paved the way for the current project and loosened considerations of context, as will become clear.

As for that Outernet concept, the venture “offers visitors a unique multi-sensory experience using the very latest in broadcast screen technology that promises to evolve the nature of both immersive content and experiential advertising” to quote its website. Outernet London is the pioneer, offering “an immersive media and entertainment business boasting the world’s largest high-resolution wrap-around screens, a new 2000 capacity live events venue, the unique Denmark Street apartments and session rooms of Chateau Denmark, alongside proudly independent restaurants and bars.” The planning application, filed almost ten years ago, envisaged something very reminiscent of the original idea for Paris’s Centre Pompidou, with ‘live’ spaces inside and screens displaying constantly changing information and images outside. For the Outernet, these are to be built around standard categories but the content will vary according to the time of day – news in the morning, food at midday, hotels in the evening, that kind of thing.




Physically, what the project has meant in practice so far is widespread demolition coupled with erection of the new structures mentioned. The buildings on the northern tip of the site vanished thirty years ago (the photo shows the situation somewhat later) in preparation for a much earlier iteration that failed due to safeguarding of the site for Crossrail, which scheme brought about the elimination of everything that was left including a run of attractive Victorian frontages on Charing Cross Road (pictured when intact). For the current Outernet scheme proper, the entirety of Denmark Place was demolished save for a few preserved frontages on either side, the listed structure housing a historic blacksmith’s forge and all but the principal elevation of the block facing St Giles High Street. This has not been without controversy, whether the hard-fought closure of the 12 Bar Club, an increase in pre-existing concerns about the pricing-out of businesses from the area and the linked perception of a move toward more corporate occupiers.



Walking Denmark Street today reveals glimpses of the insertions behind retained façades, themselves a pleasantly mixed group, but it is of course the new work designed by ORMS Architects that draws attention.


Unusually in today’s parametrically-modelled world the Now Building is reassuringly Cartesian. A closer look suggests its west and north sides are entirely open on their upper levels, though, the framing members clad in black granite (faience was chosen initially) and containing only air. This is in fact correct: brass-coloured vertical panels or louvres will open and close during the course of a day to allow the building to flex for different operations and, one assumes, weather conditions. Behind them will be folding LED screens but inside, forming the walls and ceiling of the building, are those main digital screens – four storeys high and described as 360 degree, 8k, 4D and interactive.




Beneath all of this lies a new gig venue, scooped out of the ground in an impressive piece of engineering that had to steer its way between, and co-ordinate with, the Crossrail works. Piling as deep as 64 metres and coming within a metre of the Northern line tunnels, extensive propping was necessary to provide a flexible, acoustically isolated space that was built on the ‘box within a box’ principle – a steel frame structure with composite floor and roof slabs, all fitted within the main reinforced concrete frame basement. Construction proceeded below and above ground simultaneously.


The Now Building has smaller sisters, sharing the family name – Now Trending, a product display and handling space, and the Now Arcade, a covered ‘walk’ lined with more screens that might, that aged planning document proposed, display tweets and live footage from the event audience inside. Denmark Place is to be reconstituted though some might say sanitised, as the new alley will have a significant amount of new-build, be pedestrianised and have a different alignment. There will be a connection with Denmark Street for the first time via portals cut through the ground floor of existing buildings in both.


Going back to that stated aim, a curated programme of video art for the complex was recently announced and gaming and film will also be represented, but Outernet Global are clear that the principal intent behind the blocky grouping is to “help brands bring their ambitions to life in new and surprising ways” – so a Piccadilly Square, if you like, to balance Piccadilly Circus on the other side of Soho. As the man behind the plans is Philip O'Ferrall, who is likely to be related to the More O'Ferralls of television and advertising fame, this may not be a surprise. He is presumably seeking to harness the long-established creative industry of Soho and move it in another direction, via some contemporary architectural interventions. The question is whether this will be achieved, both architecturally and practically.

The Now Building is rammed rather abruptly (some might say crassly) against the stepped brick gables of Shaldon Mansions, behind which the ‘Chateau’ is being built; certainly it does not knit itself “into the existing urban fabric” (that original document again). By design, the project as a whole will play best to – and attract – very large crowds and I’m not sure the crossroads of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road – very busy in normal times – is the right place for that to happen given even nearby Leicester Square, remodelled for that very purpose, struggles during film premieres. And it is of course too late to mourn the demolitions but not, I think, to call out the disingenuity of an application document that concludes – not inaccurately – that “the triangular block originally defining St Giles has been eroded beyond repair” but which at the same time is intended to facilitate removal of more of that fabric. As I have pointed out more than once, it’s an unhelpful approach that plays into the hands of our ‘precedental’ planning system.


Ah yes, ‘in normal times’… The whole thing is due to open next year. Fingers crossed, or it will be less turn on, tune in, drop out and more mask up, keep your distance and stay home.


By Chris Rogers, Oct 4 2020 11:15AM

On Wednesday more details of the proposed new City of London Law Courts building, police headquarters and commercial block by Eric Parry Architects were released on the consultation website, including photo-realistic CGI imagery, diagrams and text. Though undeniably welcome, additional information seems to have been provided only to the trade press and as in July’s announcement - covered further down on this page - questions are prompted as often as they are answered for anyone seeking to meaningfully assess this major new scheme.



Its central element, the new courthouse, is still poorly illuminated. Just four CGIs have been provided, two of which match the viewpoints chosen for the drawings (probably by Parry himself) published in July. A third is encountered as a thumbnail illustration to the sustainability section before being seen at full size only on the feedback page; the last is merely a night-time version of the same picture. There is a ground floor plan of all three buildings and the associated landscaping and street furniture (note the line of bollards along Fleet Street, just as I predicted 18 months ago), and a new drawn aerial view of the scheme from the west. Renaming what was called the Fleet Street Estate project ‘the Salisbury Square Development’ suggests a change of emphasis that may explain these presentational decisions and other findings, as I’ll discuss.


The extent of building losses along Salisbury Court on the eastern edge of the site is now evident; both number 8 and 1 Salisbury Square on the south east corner will go. A “new public house” will be installed within the listed 2-7 Salisbury Court with an outdoor terrace stepping down to the square. This will be remodelled and, it is said, enlarged although without dimensions it’s impossible to tell, especially as Salisbury Court itself will be re-laid as a shared surface to blur the distinction between square, pavement and road. Flora will be dispersed rather than focussed as July’s “new public green”.



The east-west pedestrian routes between the new buildings are set out, although the axial perfection implied by the paving design is curious given the doorway of 2-7 Salisbury Court is not actually aligned with it and the spire and nave of St Bride’s. More seriously, the new commercial block will touch its pre-existing neighbour to the south of the square, whilst no replacement for the current (albeit blocked) passageway beneath the building it will replace is shown. These decisions – both of which I cautioned against in 2019 – run counter to an avowed wish to open up what was termed an “impermeable” site, and may imply a change in the target tenant. Indeed, all references to the commercial block having a retail component and encouraging movement toward the Thames have been removed from the website.



What, then, of the new buildings themselves?


The courthouse does, as I noted in July, strongly echo the massing of the Reuters building next door, particularly at its upper levels. Lutyens’ masterpiece is clad in Portland stone and the court, too, will be sheathed in limestone. It will have “a substantial civic presence on Fleet Street”, the description asserts, though as it is seen only obliquely, cropped or at a distance in all of the images, this claim is virtually impossible to judge. The principal façade is somewhat facetted in plan, a gesture that emphasises the entrance, but it will have minimal articulation. Neither responds to the location. The overwhelming majority of buildings facing Fleet Street do so with flat frontages and most of these are highly modelled even if limited by the conventions of their era. As the courthouse is already dramatically wider than any other building on the street, this must be a concern. How, too, the building will be a “contemporary reworking of the historic civic buildings that pepper the Square Mile”, given the above and when no examples of that very wide chronological and stylistic spread of predecessors are cited, is also uncertain.


We are told that “public art at the base of the building will be commissioned and used to create a truly civic space”, but not how, whether this is inside or out nor to what degree it will be integrated with the architecture. True, there intriguing depressions visible in the granite plinth reminiscent of the great circular windows carved from polished black stone in the former Coutts bank building at nearby 188-190 Fleet Street (Anderson, Forster & Wilcox, 1963-7) as well as passages of what might be carving between the windows on an upper floor, but no other clues.


It’s worth noting that ‘civic’ is defined on the consultation website as a place with connections and art rather than one with inherent quality in its buildings. And repeating that, two years ago, the City announced this as the City’s “second iconic courthouse after the Old Bailey”. On the admittedly scant evidence supplied to date, it is difficult to agree with either statement.


At the rear (the south elevation), the oriels that I identified in my summer post are also confirmed and multiplied across the façade, giving a pleasantly Mid-Century feel recalling St George’s Hotel, Portland Place, London or Deans Court and Cumberland House, Crown Square, Manchester. Reference to “A large public entrance foyer” that will include a “processional” staircase validates the rest of my analysis of that same drawing, though in the CGI equivalent its curvature – if any there is – is much less pronounced. In stating that this stair’s presence will be “reflecting both the history and the importance of the building’s function” there is again no real substance, not least as few courthouses actually have such a stair.

There is an awkward reference to “the different courts – each jurisdiction with its own design requirements”. Justice system insiders will know that ‘jurisdiction’ in this context refers to the criminal, civil, family and tribunal arms of the law, and they do as I explained before have varying physical requirements within a building. With not a single interior image available, however, the exact impact on this design is not known, though the crown court hearing room option mentioned in 2019 but omitted in the summer is now firmly back in play.


There is confusion about the number of courtrooms it will contain – 18 is mentioned on the website, but 20 in the trade press – and it is a surprise to read that underground parking will be permitted, as this was banned in the 1990s’ court design guide. That it will be “resilient” is comforting and hopefully addressed my points about cyber security (it would be ironic if not, given the stated focus of the complex on this crime).


Moving to the City of London Police headquarters, the primary material here will weathering steel, broadly as I divined. Its surface oxidises on exposure to moisture but then stabilises, providing protection against further corrosion and its own finish. Usage here is justified by its “distinctive colour” that “complements the brick of the neighbouring listed building”, as well as notions of longevity. It is though tempting to speculate whether it also alludes to cell bars or even the oversized chains that once decorated the front of Newgate Gaol, located where the Old Bailey is today. Vertical planted ‘bays’ bring interest to the public alleys, as is becoming common in such developments.

It is far larger than initially suggested, with ten or eleven floors above ground depending on how they are counted that include a roof terrace and a greened hamper level that probably screens plant. Three additional storeys in the basement will no doubt house the reported firearms range, vehicle parking and custodial suite, not to mention the usefully imprecise “specialist spaces”. Also picked up from the media is the only structural contribution highlighted – a 24-metre clear span at ground floor to give a more visually clean lobby, though I wonder about the security aspects of this when considered in conjunction with a pedestrian alleyway immediately outside, not a great deal of ‘stand-off’ from Whitefriars Street to the west and the apparent lack of bollards or other hostile vehicle mitigation covering the approach from the square to the east. Slightly disingenuously, it would seem, a greened area off of Whitefriars Street that appears to be part of the public realm on the plan (which item is titled as such) is in fact overhung by the building’s upper floors and adjacent to the secure van dock entry.


Finally, the commercial block. Glimpsed in one of the images it will be shorter than the police building though with its own roof terrace and a façade “formed of panels of pressed unglazed terracotta, above a precast concrete base of a similar tone to the steel of the police headquarters.” Also emerging as a wider trend, it and the rest of the scheme will benefit from a ‘consolidated servicing’ hub located outside of the City of London.



That, then, is the plan as you and I can see it today. Feedback on July’s initial concepts has influenced the plans, apparently, and further comments are encouraged at this second stage before a planning application is submitted “later this year”. That being so, the lack of explicit details for the courthouse is even more puzzling, but taken together with the imagery bias toward the square and the other changes mentioned it is obvious that that central open space is now driving the scheme, almost to the exclusion of the rest and at least as far as the public consultation in concerned. Is this a welcome realignment that addresses the lack of public space in the City, especially in light of Covid-19? Perhaps. Might it reflect a certain nervousness at the security aspects of the project, or commercial concerns? Again, maybe.


For now, the last word is that of the developers: “If a consent is granted, our intention is to start on site in towards [sic] the end of 2021.” But when the planning application that seeks that consent is filed, it will be yours and mine.


See: http://salisburysquaredevelopment.co.uk


-----------------------



By Chris Rogers, Sep 18 2020 03:25PM

Another day, another new office tower for the City of London. Or so it appeared when 55 Gracechurch Street was announced last week. But after reading the design and access statement it became clear that this was something different; a legible arrangement of unpretentious elements with more than a nod to the past, an open-air public garden positioned for interest and intimate linkage to pre-existing alleys and courts with ideas to enhance them for the future. Each of these has been considered with unusual care.



On a site mid-way along a street block of Gracechurch Street, Fletcher Priest Architects proposes to insert a 32-storey tower atop a 6-storey podium, behind a new façade infilling the gap left by removal of the existing building. One street over to the east stands 20 Fenchurch Street, the Walkie Talkie, but what is intended for 55 Gracechurch Street is no wilfully-facetted competitor. Instead its tower will appear as two simple, conjoined boxes – one for the office floorplates and the other for the service core. Each is treated differently to emphasize this reading. The new building is aligned with its site, which faces west and is much deeper than it is wide. This means the axis of the tower is perpendicular to the Walkie Talkie, with its taller, rear service core providing a visual ‘step’ down from it.


This massing arrangement clearly echoes the corporate Modernism that emerged in the United States after the last war and which took the principles of the International Style and applied them to the office tower. Although the pioneers – Portland’s Equitable Building (1948) and New York’s Lever House (1952) – still placed lifts, staircases and toilets inside a single rectilinear floorplan, within a decade the desire for more efficient use of space saw this service core pushed out of the office area. It formed a ‘bustle’ or projection to the rear of the Seagram building (1958), also in New York, but just a year later had become fully detached at Crown Zellerbach, San Francisco; it was this model that was adopted in Britain for the prestigious CIS building (1962) in Manchester. In the new scheme, too, the small detail of glazed top storeys with visible structures within recall the openwork ‘hampers’ common to the summits of many London towers of the post-war period. By following these paths for its tower at 55 Gracechurch Street, Fletcher Priest Architects shows a restraint that is welcome in today’s often aggressively-architectured Square Mile.



A podium is to contain communal and amenity space for start-ups and maturing companies, places for “recreation and interaction” and retail units including those fitting the concept of ‘Exchange’, for example the fabrication of online orders and personalisation. It will have on its roof a landscaped public terrace, on two levels connected by a ‘green’ or living wall. Quite how – or indeed whether – this semi-accessible approach will work is an open question; the closest equivalent will be the lower levels of 22 Bishopsgate, which nears completion to the north. More intriguing, however, is the ‘face’ that will be presented to Gracechurch Street. This will take the form of a deep masonry grid, reminiscent of cubby shelving, that will continue the existing building line but do so in a manner that is permeable throughout. Thus the cells on the upper tiers will be of double height and recessed within them, behind built-in planters, will be for the most part the glazed elevations of the podium floors but also sculpture. Those on the lower storeys will be triple height to indicate the main entrance and elsewhere form the pedestrian and vehicular portals to the alleyways that perforate the site. At all levels some of these cells will merely contain air.



This is an impressive and innovative solution to a problem which is acknowledged in the planning submission; how freestanding towers should relate to their immediate context. Historically these have risen from either a piazza formed – more or less by default – from the demolitions necessary to build them or a conventional podium that itself completed the building line; recent examples of this include, respectively, 30 St Mary Axe and 100 Bishopsgate. This scheme for 55 Gracechurch Street introduces a third option, a framing device or delineator separate from tower and surroundings but related to both.


The current building on the site is wound about by three separate alleys or passageways, bridged over by it or other structures, albeit two have been reduced to cul-de-sacs through successive waves of rebuilding. It is very much to the developer’s credit that all three are to be kept and linked to form an east-west route across the site that might eventually encompass a fourth alleyway, outside the site boundary, to provide a branch to the north. Retaining the enclosed quality of these spaces – a key topographical feature of the City – contrasts positively with other recent or putative schemes that have tended to pull buildings back from near neighbours to widen such alleys, losing their unique character, or, as with Eric Parry’s plans for the Clothworkers’ Company nearby, erase them all together. A separate architectural treatment has been worked out for each façade of the new building where it fronts these passageways, drawing on historic evidence for the materials and arrangement. Not all of these currently work, it seems to me, whether the black granite aggregate finish for Talbot Court – its warehouse legacy would be better evoked in a modern equivalent to London stock brick, or, pace the inter-war building across the alley, faience, itself ‘in’ once more – or the overly fussy diapered brick in Brabant Court, yet at least Fletcher Priest are again actually thinking rather than reaching for a cliché (which, here, would be more white concrete, stainless steel and glass). In the same vein two large vehicle lifts serving the basement are to be situated outside of the building curtilage, flush with the pavement during opening hours, removing the need for ground level loading bays and maximising the public realm in the largest alley.

But there is more. The practice has undertaken a rich and original piece of research into two dozen alleyways and courts in the locality, analysing their location, purpose and footfall and also the shape, size and nature of their entrances in relation to the buildings they sit within. The results have helped inform the design of the portals for 55 Gracechurch Street and are also – like all of the material in the planning documents – superbly presented. Indeed, with the designer’s name and date of construction added and a line or two of history included or fleshed out, showing for example that Corbet Court – one of those featured – led only to the underground car park of the previous 1960s building on its site but now continues through to St Peter’s churchyard, this would have value for historians in its own right.


It can be difficult to divine genuine architectural progress, even – pr perhaps especially – in a monoculture like the City of London. Both simple and complex, 55 Gracechurch Street feels like something new and needed.

Chris's first book examines the career and works of British architect Michael Pearson, the third generation to head the practice founded by his grandfather in 1904. Pearson's presidency of the Architectural Association and his pioneering and prescient Burne House building are covered.

 

"Throws light on significant achievements" 

 

 Patrick Duerden, Practice Director, Donald Insall  

   Associates

 

Black Dog Publishing, 2010  

 

ISBN  978 1 906155 73 5

PoP as pub - cr

Become an architectural detective with Chris's second book, investigating the styles of a thousand years of building in the world's most visited city from the middle ages to the present day. Illustrated and with photographs, maps and addresses, also included are a list of resources and a two-part introduction.

 

"A little gem"

 

Terry Philpot, Tablet

 

Ivy Press, 2016 with Larousse (French edition) and Akal (Spanish)

 

ISBN 978 1 78240 406 4  

 

cover apr 16

Chris's third book - a publisher's best-seller - reveals the hidden gems as well as the iconic landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village. Covering the West End, City and Docklands, the book follows the same format as How to Read Paris.

 

"Rather wonderful"

 

  – Don Brown, The London Society

 

Ivy Press, 2017  

 

ISBN 978 1 782404 52 1  

final cover L

Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

 

Ivy Press, 2018  

 

ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3  

Portfolio - cover BSMC

Commissioned from Chris by the Chief Magistrate for England & Wales to mark the closure of Bow Street Magistrates' Court, this pamphlet celebrates the world-famous institution and its final home. It was given exclusively to guests at a commemorative reception.

 

"I really like both the research behind it, and its clarity and accessibility"

 

Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, Her  

   Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service  

 

Private press, 2006        

Building-for-Business-cover-scaled

The Twentieth Century Society’s new peer-reviewed Journal on commercial architecture in Britain since the 1920s includes Chris’s piece on Fitzroy Robinson's pioneering atrium buildings in the City of London. The piece is founded in original research including archive imagery, interviews and site visits.

 

Twentieth Century Society, 2020

 

ISBN 978 0 955668 76 0