Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

Black, white and red all over?

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.


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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.

 

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