Friday, 14 June 2013

Britannic House

Architect: Edwin Lutyens, 1921-5.

Lutyens' first large (and lavish) corporate project, in which he achieved maximum floor-space, yet failed to disguise the building's bulk with classical ornamentation stretched over seven storeys.

The crowning structure of Dance the Younger’s Finsbury Circus (designed well over a century earlier), Britannic House was Lutyens’s first foray into the Square Mile, and represented a marked shift in scale as the earliest of his London behemoths. Taking its cue from Northern Italian Mannerism, the structure was built for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, a joint-venture between a London millionaire and the Shah to capitalise on Iran’s newly discovered oil reserves. The stately grandeur of the building is testament to the growth of the company following investment from the British government (principally to ensure fuel for the Navy), that eventually led to the renaming of the company as British Petroleum in 1954. It is said that Lutyens revelled in the lavishness of his tycoon patrons, a scenario far removed from the endless quibbles over government budgets experienced in New Delhi.

Built in what Lutyens himself termed the ‘High Game’ of classical architecture, requiring "hard labour, hard thinking, over every line in all three dimensions and in every joint," the edifice is an exercise in precision and opulence. Spanning seven storeys, the curved Finsbury Circus frontage sits on a rusticated base with arched openings mirroring those of the upper storey. The latter comprises giant Corinthian columns connected by garlands, perched on a balustrade and surmounted by a recessed attic storey. The entire building is bejewelled with fenestration of various shapes and sizes; several of the second storey windows appear to have been pressed into the fabric of the building, squeezed between two columns, with the composition surrounded by lightly etched horizontals. Such detailing accentuates the unusual flatness of the elevation, punctured only by its windows and sculptures of Britannia and an Indian Water Carrier, a quality even more emphatic on the straight Moorgate facade.

The interior was remodelled in the late eighties by Inskip and Jenkins, a sensitive refurbishment including a vast central atrium. More work has been done in the last few years by Gaunt Francis Architects, creating over 16,000 square metres of new office space. The building is now occupied by Natwest Bank.

Best time to visit: the building is not open to the public.

Address: 1 Finsbury Circus, London EC2M 7EB.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Bracken House

Architect: Albert Richardson (1955-59), conversion Michael Hopkins Architects (1989-1992).

A double helping of exceptional architecture; where Richardson's original Financial Times building played down its industrial nature, Hopkins' office conversion did the reverse (although the exposed 'structural' metalwork doesn't actually support much).

When Michael Hopkins undertook the commission to rework Sir Albert Richardson’s post-war masterpiece in 1989, he was presumably dealing with a similar set of philosophical questions to his predecessor: how to design for the future whilst preserving the past? For Hopkins, the problem was, in essence, material: how to replace the iconic octagonal printing room of the former Financial Times headquarters in a way that would stylistically, sensitively and functionally reconnect the original sandstone wings. For Richardson, it was a question of representation: how to design for an institution whose reputation was rooted in its heritage, yet its success as a financial newspaper relied on its ability to anticipate and speculate on future events.

Richardson’s solution was an elegant arrangement of two wings composed of Hollington sandstone piers and rose-coloured brick (perhaps to reflect the publication’s famous pink pages), sandwiching a central glass construction. Stairwells on the south side resolve in turrets, with a patinated copper cornice lining the flanking structures and an astrological clock by Philip Bentham above the north door. Classical in its consistency and monumentality, eclectic in its use of materials and carved detailing, and modern in structure, bold surfaces, and functionality, the celebrated building was deemed worthy of heritage status in 1987, the first post-war building to be listed in Britain. It is for this reason that Hopkins connected the preserved flanking parts of Richardson’s structure with a glazed steel-framed core that stays true to its predecessor’s restrained modernism. Now a glazed, six storey office block with a central system of exposed elevators and working parts, the interior space feels mechanical, perhaps a reference to the days of the press. On the exterior, the façade bulges as if squeezed by the heavy wings, a device that emphasise the lightness of glass and agility of its exposed bronze and gunmetal supports. 

Best time to visit: access to the interior is prohibited to the general public. However, the exterior is unmissable. 

Address: 1 Friday St, London EC4M 9JA.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Blue Fin Building

Architect: Allies and Morrison, 2005-07.

It says much about Bankside's recent office architecture that blue metal fins are considered interesting enough to name a block (even allowing for the jokey tuna reference).

In April 1856, the Metropolitan Board of Works sought to transform the London borough of Southwark by knocking through a new street linking London Bridge station with the West End. 150 years later, Southwark Street was again the focus of a major improvement programme, with over 40% of the borough subject to that controversial  euphemism – ‘regeneration’. The Blue Fin building, or Bankside 1 as it was originally known, was the first phase of a trio of buildings (Bankside 1, 2 & 3) developed by Land Securities in 2005 as part of this process. Providing around a million square feet of mixed-use floor space behind the Tate Modern gallery, the three buildings, designed by Allies and Morrison, occupy a former industrial estate and the sites of Tabard House and St Christopher House, the latter of which was inhabited by the Ministry of Defence. 

The Blue Fin building is the most striking of the three structures, named after the blue aluminium fins that shade the glass curtain wall facades. These are undoubtedly the most exciting part of the building (which isn’t saying much). With huge 42,000 square feet floor plates, the structure is essentially an open plan office building with a glazed exterior that forms occasionally interesting angles. The ground floor contains retail outlets and restaurants, lining walkways provided by exposed concrete piers or pilotis. A large but relatively uninspiring addition to the increasingly corporate streetscape of Southwark.

Best time to visit: after a trip to the Tate Modern. The offices are inaccessible to the general public but most of what ought to be seen can be viewed from the retail and restaurant units on the ground floor.

Address: 110 Southwark Street, London SE1 0SU.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Bishopsgate Institute

Architect: Charles Harrison Townsend, 1895.

A little bit of non-city in the City; the Bishopsgate Institute was established to relieve the perceived social and cultural deficiencies of the Victorian metropolis.

Hidden in the looming shadow of Broadgate opposite, you could be forgiven for walking straight past the curious façade of this socially-progressive institution. Designed by C H Townsend, who later achieved fame for the Whitechapel Gallery and Horniman Museum, the structure is one of the most surprising in the City. Without any obvious precedent stylistically (although the broad-arched entrance may have been influenced by the American H H Richardson), the building incorporates symbolism and skilled workmanship that was intended to reflect the institute's cultural aims. The main Bishopsgate elevation is a symmetrical terracotta composition, with twisting tendrils (variants of the Tree of Life) embracing turrets capped by what appear to be stylised beehives (emblems of industry and cooperation). Between them, a finely-worked panel proclaims the institution's name. The  architectural ethos of the building derived from the Arts & Crafts movement (designed to be built by artist-craftsmen, not wage-slaves), but its sinuous detailing owed much to continental Art Nouveau.

Overall, Townsend's arrangement is grand yet domestic in scale, a successful contradiction befitting the establishment's enlightened, charitable role. Opened in 1895 "for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts", the institute was founded with the help of educational reformer, the Reverend William Rogers, using funds from the nearby parish of St Botolph. Recent refurbishment has helped revitalise the building as a centre for culture and learning, hosting educational events and evening courses for adults. Its domed, wood-panelled library (championed as one of the first public libraries) is open to all, and a specialist repository for literature on the labour and cooperative movements, political activism, and free thought. Nevertheless, the new glass fronted cafe (by Sheppard Architects) adjacent to the Brushfield Street side-entrance, now buzzes with mezze platters and iPads aplenty.

Best time to visit: open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10.00 – 17.30.

Address: 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Battersea Power Station

Architect: Theo Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott, 1929-35 & 1944-55.

The once mighty cathedral of power, often celebrated in London’s popular culture, yet now a forlorn mouldering ruin; too loved to lose, but a nightmare to save.

When the first part of Battersea Power Station was completed in the 1930s its bold geometrical form was a symbol of progress adorning the landscape of London. Built in two identical phases (1929-35; 1944-55) and designed by Theo Halliday with Giles Gilbert Scott (of red telephone box fame) as consultant to the exterior, the structure was one of the first super-power stations to be built under the aegis of the London Power Company, the new, publicly owned supplier of electricity established under an Act of Parliament in 1925 to quell the inefficiency and inconsistency of competing interests. The largest brick structure in Europe, the power station was strikingly moderne at the time of construction with a hard-edged aesthetic informed by its function, yet acquiescing to detail in the grooved towers, fluted column-like chimneys, and elaborate parapet. This exterior, however, stood in contrast to Halliday’s unexpectedly sumptuous interior, which comprised a rich display of faience tiles, bronze doors with relief sculpture, and marble walls – a decadent celebration of industry somewhat incommensurate with Gilbert Scott’s utilitarian outline. The station’s cooling system in turn provided heating for the Churchill Gardens housing estate on the opposite side of the river.

Today the power station is less a symbol of progress than a memorial to it, standing derelict as London’s greatest modern ruin. Decommissioned in 1983, the Grade II* listed carcass has been at the helm of a controversial planning and heritage war for the last two decades, with proposals for a football stadium, concert venue, urban park among the many suggestions for its redevelopment, all falling prey to conservation laws or financial hurdles. Of course the true value of the building to developers is as prime real estate and it is a scheme for a primarily residential area, in the form of Rafael Viñoly’s masterplan, that the site currently awaits. Restoration of the structure is due to commence this October, lasting three years, and it seems likely the new Malaysian developers (since former Irish owners, Real Estate Opportunities, folded in 2011) will see the project through to completion. Nevertheless, given the building's chequered history, it's not unreasonable to suppose Battersea Power Station might yet remain an evocative relic for some time to come. 

Best time to visit: the building shell cannot be entered, but is easily seen from afar.

Address: Kirtling Street, London SW8 5BN.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Barbican Estate

Architect: Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, 1959-1981

The City of London’s project to re-introduce a residential population to the historic ‘Square Mile,’ set within a spectacular Modern urban landscape.

There are two common misconceptions about the influential and imposing Barbican complex. The first, that it was the product of post-war socialism, constructed as council housing. The second, that it is ‘Brutalist’ to the core. To dispel the first myth, this modern-day fortress was commissioned by the City Corporation to provide its middle and professional class workers with not so affordable but highly desirable accommodation. Conceived as a residential village (the arts centre was in fact an afterthought, completed eight years later in 1981) by architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the chosen scheme was the fourth version for a coveted 35-acre site (testament to the diverse political interests of the LCC and the City) that had lain empty for over twenty years following the decimation of the Blitz. 

To dispel the second myth, you only have to spend time journeying through its complex maze of high-walks to notice that the considered detail, rich materials and picturesque rhetoric of ‘surprise and delight’ are anything but brutal, frequently denying rather than obeying the mantra of structural honesty. Comprising three triangular, 125-metre high towers (the tallest residential blocks in Europe) with jagged cantilevered balconies, alongside giant low-rise blocks (supposedly the longest in Europe at the time), the designs are highly sculptural, their mass reinforced by the homogenous colour of the concrete, appearing to be carved from a single block. The latter is not, in fact, the exposed structure of the building, but a rich aggregate concrete facing with dark Welsh granite, pick-axed (by hand!) to give a rough texture and dull finish, as if to pre-empt its inevitable weathering. 

Wrapped around a large central lake with private residential gardens, the water feature is both a scenic addition straddled by graceful pilotis, and an ingenious form of secondary insulation for the new stretch of Tube line below – the invention of Anglo-Danish engineer, Ove Arup. Contrary to some public opinion, the estate is highly sensitive to its historic surroundings, embedding parts of the old Roman wall and fortifications into its fabric, preserving and framing historic sight-lines and restoring the medieval church of St Giles. Receiving heavy criticism for its complex circulation system and harsh aesthetic (and consequently ‘softened’ by various refits in the last two decades), the arts centre contains a library, exhibition space, concert hall and theatre. The fly-wall of the latter is the centrepiece to The Conservatory above, a glazed structure housing plants, birds and fish pools, opening onto the (empty) crescent-shaped sculpture court.

Best time to visit: take one of the brilliant Barbican Architecture Tours for an informative overview and access to hidden treasures such as the ominously named ‘Sample Room’ containing swatches of the various concrete experiments tested for the exterior.

Address: London EC2Y 8BD.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

No. 1 Poultry

Architect: James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates, 1997.

Stirling was a world-renowned architect, but on such a celebrated and valuable site it was almost inevitable that planning and commercial considerations would take priority.

Standing brazenly among three institutional icons (the Mansion House, Bank of England and Royal Exchange), Stirling’s design reads like a ship that has run aground at the most prominent intersection of the Square Mile. Originally intended for Mies van der Rohe’s tower and plaza, the site, owned at the time by developer Peter Palumbo, was subject to twenty years of debate concerning the shape of its new building. The planners were finally persuaded by Stirling's jaunty, allusive wedge; seemingly a happy compromise acceptable to both conservationist and contemporary factions.

Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, the building received a mixed reception. For many, it was a posthumous exercise in Post-Modernism, a movement that was arguably dead and buried. For others, Stirling’s undulating and dynamic edifice perfectly encapsulated the unforgiving pace of the deregulated City, whilst its classical references (the ‘all-over’ rustication effect, exaggerated entablature, and sculpted frieze above the courtyard entrance on Poultry) point to tradition and longevity - the key to the City’s success. The Pevsner Guide considered the building’s "expression of interior volumes" rendered it a triumph: jagged fenestration seems to burst through its bulging pink and yellow limestone skin. When viewed from Cornhill or Threadneedle street, the structure’s bloated form seems to resist its pinched perspective. A synthesis of solid and void, its apparently swollen mass is disrupted by arched openings on either side, leading into a large courtyard allowing another access point to the Underground. The view of the City from the rooftop restaurant Coq d’Argent is worth seeing.

Best time to visit: anytime, although public access to the interior is extremely limited.

Address: No. 1 Poultry, London EC2R 8JR.