Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

A breath of fresh air in the City of London? 55 Gracechurch Street

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.

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