Richard Reid is impressed by a subtle but confident analysis of context on an important London site.
Photo: Morley von Sternberg
To suggest that Richard Meier’s Museum of Decorative Arts in Frankfurt and Robert Adam Architects’ 198-202 Piccadilly building have a shared urban strategy, despite the marked stylistic differences, seems potty. Yet both designs show evidence of context as the generator of a matrix of embedded and overlapping geometrical figures used as a scaling device for controlling the bulk, mass and spread of a building.
The cynical London view is that it’s all about ‘fitting in’ with a rough and ready cornice line and the like. And this is certainly true from many a planner’s perspective. (An earlier modernist design for the Piccadilly site was rejected on the basis that the proposals detracted from its neighbour, the 1936 Grade II listed Simpsons building – now Waterstone’s – by Joseph Emberton). Appointed by developer Bellhouse Joseph, Robert Adam Architects undertook a detailed analysis of the urban context and created a classical design ‘able to complement the modernist building by contrasting with it’, which was unanimously approved by the planning committee.
The building, comprising approximately 11,000 square metres on nine floors, occupies the western end of an urban block of three buildings bounded by Piccadilly to the north, Jermyn Street to the south with the narrow pedestrian ways of Church Place and Eagle Place marking the west and east edges. Adam’s building is located at the western end facing Wren’s church of St James across Church Place. Sandwiched on the east side is Emberton’s former Simpsons building, while a bank building by Alfred Waterhouse, circa 1894, completes the block along Eagle Place.
Along Piccadilly the building has a high ground floor complete with mezzanine for retail framed by a giant rusticated order of three bays supporting a large encircling cornice. Above are three principal office floors divided into two storeys of nine pilastered bays supporting a second cornice which in turn supports an attic storey (the third floor). The attic storey is divided into three main bays articulated by the capitals of the giant principal order which support a projecting eaves cornice above. The corner of Piccadilly and Church Place is articulated by a polygonal tower of six storeys crowned by a glazed ‘tempietto’. Above the eaves along Piccadilly, the roof steps back in a series of pedimented dormers. Facing the church, the five-bay facade drops a storey in the central three bays (in brick in response to the church), creating a lower eaves line from which a curving seamed metal roof rises in a dormered two storeys to support a three-storey roof structure complete with seven-bayed, two-storey columned and glazed ‘loggia’.
In production terms, the building is very interesting – a steel-framed structure with prefabricated stone cladding – with the construction information prepared using the project integration software 4 Projects, an online collaborative system similar to BIW or BuildingOnline, which gives everyone involved access to the information using a standard web browser.
In urban design terms, Adam has cleverly exploited a strategy for working in the urban context that is particularly English in its approach to architecture and townscape. Adam explains that the client wanted it to be ‘clearly one building. This is an office building. All office buildings do is wrap space and this is a wrapping. When you wrap a building you provide an identity and you’re responding to the urban setting. Piccadilly has a columnar display and so does our elevation; Jermyn Street is very restrained and so the wrapping on that side responds.’ Because the surrounding buildings, including Emberton’s design, are crowned by ‘rooftop buildings’, this is reflected in Adam’s contribution. In many ways there is a chameleon-like quality in the way the design cloaks itself in fragments of surrounding geometries while retaining a presence of its own.
In Frankfurt, Richard Meier described how the ‘urban form evolved between type and incident, fabric and discontinuity, history and the moment of design’. He described how the parti developed out of a notion of context that takes in not only geographic features, but also historical and typological ones. His museum design is meant to connect: to respond to, enlarge and reinforce the public context and the urban fabric. The organizational grid of Meier’s building is derived primarily from two geometries; that of the existing Villa Metzler, a near perfect volume, and that of the slightly skewed angle of the site to the river bank and the existing buildings.
Accepting the marked difference in style, building context and programme, Adam’s selective search for clues amongst the surrounding townscape evidences similar ideas. The agglomeration of volumes compressed tightly together in Piccadilly and imprinted with a trace element of surrounding geometries is also present in the Meier building, where the pattern language of the Villa Metzler is the basis for the abstraction of the museum’s elevations. However it is in their particular re-interpretations of Ruskin’s concept of changefulness that the two are most alike.
In Ruskin’s analysis of The Nature of Gothic he set out in ascending order of importance six key points – savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity and redundance – that represented the characteristic elements of Gothic. In changefulness, he saw ‘change’ as being ‘most delightful after some prolongation of monotony… that there is a sublimity and majesty in monotony’. He argued that change in a facade would add character, but repeated too often it ceased to be delightful. He saw monotony in a certain measure as giving value to change, and above all that ‘transparent’ monotony, ‘like the shadows of a great painter, suffers all manner of dimly suggested form to be seen through the body of it’. Monotony, in the sense he meant it, provided a sense of decorum that provides order to the changeful bits. Good examples exhibiting this idea of changefulness are the Law Courts by Edmund Street; Ashbee’s houses in Cheyne Walk; the Salvation Army shelter in Paris by Le Corbusier and Aldo Rossi’s residential and office building in Schutzenstrasse, Berlin, a perimeter block of eight-storey buildings creating the additive character and variety of the urban fabric – each example moulded by the idea of walking along the street.
The key thing with Adam’s design is that he doesn’t regard his building as a separate entity but as a component, playing a part with the Emberton and Waterhouse buildings to make a coherent but sculpted urban block – the main volume addressing the street, rather like the walls of an acropolis, with a roofscape crowned by a variety of volumes, both modern and traditional.
Adam doesn’t do ‘modern’ buildings but certainly makes the most of modern technology and construction techniques to create classical buildings with sympathetic scale. But at a time when demolition has begun on Bucklersbury House, that 14-storey monolith between Queen Victoria Street and Cannon Street, one of the largest and bulkiest of late 1950s London buildings, the urban lessons raised by this project, which go beyond matters of style, are extremely pertinent. It stands out at a time when urban design is so often presented as ‘big building’ (mostly glazed), and when many architects seem to have lost the art of designing decent hole-in-the-wall buildings.Whatever your stylistic predilections the contextual endeavours of Robert Adam and his colleagues have produced a building that is a great foil to Emberton’s modernism, and can still turn a corner nicely, which can’t be said of many buildings in today’s new townscapes.
Richard Reid is principal of Richard Reid and Associates, whose current work includes the Lower Mill Estate in Gloucestershire.
Robert Adam writes:
Speculative office buildings wrap space for unknown users. The parameters for minimum-structure open floor plates, floor heights and window spacing are set by the market. The exterior the building is its image and its urban context.198-202 Piccadilly has three urban faces: Piccadilly, Jermyn Street and Church Place. Each face has a quite different context. At the same time, this is a single building and, rather than pretend each face is a different building, the elevational treatment should adapt to suit its location.
The classical tradition is very well suited to the selective modulation of facades. Full classical orders can have detail (and sculpture) added and subtracted while maintaining the integrity of the design. Furthermore, the classical tradition is the predominant architectural type in this, one of Europe’s most important streets.
The design recognises particular opportunities of the site such as an unusually prominent corner to Piccadilly and the possibility of hiding an unfortunate roof extension to Waterstone’s. The design is also based on a detailed analysis of the character of the streets such as typical roof-edge treatment and shop front bases. The elevation is comprised of layered and stacked classical orders: a giant order is faced with a secondary columnar display on Piccadilly; the Piccadilly shop fascia order becomes the dominant base as it steps down into Jermyn Street; the giant order is suppressed and the cornice replaced with a copper bay-leaf frieze on Jermyn Street; the orders all but disappear on Church Place, where brick replaces stone. Crowning the whole design is a modern classical rooftop temple with cast-iron capitals and steel columns over a glass curtain wall. This lightweight termination to the design is a final confirmation that this is not a copy of an old building but a modern development of the classical tradition.
Architects: Robert Adam Architects; design team: Robert Adam, Paul Hanvey, Stuart Bloese, Robin White, Hanan Hussain; qs: Gardiner & Theobald; m&e engineer: Roger Preston & Partners; structural engineer: Whitbybird; fire consultant: Jeremy Gardner Associates; rights of light consultant: Gordon Ingram Associates; party wall surveyor: Drivers Jonas; planning supervisor: Gardiner & Theobald; planning consultants: Paul Kentish & Co; main contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine; client: Standard Life Investments.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Precast panels: Marble Mosaic Company; steelwork: Rowen Structures; cast metalwork: Black Isle Bronze; red granite rustication to columns: Realstone; French limestone pilaster shafts: Rocomat; column capitals and bronze artworks: Alexander Stoddart; brick: Farnham red and Horsham red multi by Charnwood Forest Brick; grey granite weathering copings above windows: Realstone; polyster powder-coated bronze windows: Reynaers Aluminium; standing-seam copper roofing: NDM; Permaquik flat roof: Radmat Building Products; natural lime render: The Lime Centre; bronze-framed glazing to office entrance: DML Architectural Systems.
AT181/September 07 p26.