David Chipperfield Architects’ One Kensington Gardens remodels an entire urban block
From a walk around David Chipperfield Architects’ One Kensington Gardens, you would reasonably assume that the scheme amounts to two streets of Victorian facade restoration and three new modern buildings; one stone, one precast concrete, and one brick, all recognisably by the same hand. Such a scheme would already be considerable in scope and ambition, but the project is in fact many times bigger again. The reality is best described by an extraordinary aerial photograph of the site under construction.
Hidden behind site hoardings, an entire city block has been taken down in the heart of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s De Vere Gardens Conservation Area. Huge temporary frames retain four-storey facades along both De Vere Gardens and Victoria Road, which run south from Kensington Gardens. A two-storey basement is being dug out across the whole site, its perimeter walls braced by giant steel props. Fifteen new concrete cores rise up, which will ultimately serve 47,000 square metres of high-spec residences. All this was designed by one team and is now managed, concierge-like, by one operating structure.
The processes of construction or demolition are invisible, as are the hands of the thousands of people who physically shape a building”
For the facade restoration, Chipperfield has again worked with its collaborator on Berlin’s Neues Museum (2009), Julian Harrap Architects. Previously disused entrances in the Italianate facades have been reinstated. Every window has been replaced, white paint and stucco layers removed, stone repaired and new slate-roofed mansards built. Over a century’s worth of structural interventions and accretions has been cleaned away and the exposed stone then washed with mineral paint to give a light earthy tone. The care and execution are textbook, as is the urban logic of reactivating the street frontages. However, all this effort is designed to avoid leaving evidence of the architect’s hand.
Model of ‘head building’ on Kensington Road (ph: Richard Davies)
At the head of the site stands the main Kensington Road building; monolithic, block-like and white. The unit size of the building’s construction – as is typical in Chipperfield’s work – is enormous; as big as can be cast, quarried or craned. Joints between materials, where required, are engineered to look close to invisible. As with much of the practice’s work, the resulting new building occupies a strange middle scale, preserving the unreality of a study model.
James Stirling said that a work of architecture needs at least two ideas, but Chipperfield frequently sets out to show it can be done with just one. The practice makes singular images, without big contrasts. Buildings appear to be made of one material, or if need be two, which when put together, look like one.
Even while referring back to an archetypal arrangement of base, middle and top, which speaks of a classicism that one could argue is contextually appropriate in Kensington, the new building still reads as an island cut from its surroundings or montaged onto them. The base is largely blind; the columns are set free from the glass; large horizontal floors express their concrete post-tensioned structure, in a part of the city historically characterised by buildings with brick walls and punched windows.
As restored, the facades are an object lesson in how window placement and variation, railings, porticos, thresholds, entrance lamps and door furniture act in unison to create an archetypal Victorian streetscape of human scale. Chipperfield’s modern insertions, despite their essential classicism, represent a shift from the scale of the individual, the dwelling or the street to the more detached, impersonal scale of the cityscape.
The head building acts as a gateway to the block as a whole, where one can be dropped off by taxi or access the communal lower-level spa and fitness facilities which contain what could well be the most luxurious private swimming pool in London.
The entry sequence has something of a hotel in that respect. It is possible for residents to walk from this front door, right through the middle of the development, always under cover, and end up at their apartment core, no matter if it is located at the other end of the site. Most residents living this far down either De Vere Gardens or Victoria Street will, you imagine, instead walk in directly off their road.
The key organising elements of the site plan are the cores which punctuate two major lightwells. These bring light into the middle of the plan but are otherwise unoccupied. Entering them fills you with the sensation of walking into a bottom of a limestone quarry, or a film set in some utopian future. They are serene, empty and monumental. Signs of human beings are absent. The trees and grass are artificial. Gutters, downpipes, flashings, all these workings that fascinate in the traditional mansion block lightwells – think of Adolf Loos’ paean to English plumbing – are concealed because they are distracting.
It is peculiar to realise that these archetypal rooms have been fashioned out of a site plan of such complexity, and to know that except for the residents who walk this route, they will be experienced so rarely.
The pale flush-pointed brickwork en masse is stunning; consider the energy invested in making such vast blank walls, completely devoid of movement joints or weep holes. An unadorned brick wall is such a seemingly simple ambition, but beyond the budget or ability of most architects. These walls are of evidently expert construction, but it is nonetheless possible to assume that their quality may only be appreciated by a tiny minority of observers.
In a sense, however, the building has no back – or rather, no back-of-house. The lightwells, every service stair, the car park signage and services are as rigorously detailed as the main entrance. A singular approach to quality is applied at every level, which cumulatively borders on the over-whelming; few practices right now other than Chipperfield’s could hope to realise such an exacting project on this scale.
Modernity – and, indeed, capitalism – is inherently attracted to this endless labour, by this idea of construction which hides its ‘technologies’ and erases quotidian edges. In David Chipperfield’s work, the object is always presented to us as a perfect thing. The processes of construction or demolition are invisible, as are the hands of the thousands of people who physically shape a building. It has surface figuration, but no actual markings.
David Chipperfield Architects
Julian Harrap Architects
Structural and facade engineer
Sir Robert McAlpine
De Vere Estates
Precast reconstituted stone cladding
Portland stone cladding
Grants of Shoreditch
Lyons & Annoot