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.