Eric Parry Architects’ nimble repair of an urban block at One Eagle Place embodies London’s volatile compound of continuity and change, finds Simon Allford
London, the ‘Unique City’ whose continuity so engaged Steen Eiler Rasmussen, is a unique city in which to make architecture – one where architects and informed clients are combining new into old to challenge ideas of programme, place and development. Having established its reputation by inserting new architecture into historically charged parts of the city, Eric Parry Architects has now delightfully refined this model of development-as-palimpsest with One Eagle Place, an office and residential project in St James’.
This project is in part Parry’s response to Blomfield and Nash’s interest in the use of the facade to define the West End as an urban stage set. As I am working with the same client, the Crown Estate, to build a city sandwich between Regent Street and Parry’s own 23 Savile Row building (AT200), I have followed progress from the near distance, and have enjoyed witnessing the emergence of Parry’s considered but bold risk-taking as he confronts comfortable ideas of taste.
Parry articulates the relationship of the site’s urban and architectural history to the cultural, financial, technological and political context in which he operates, then utilises this to define the architectures of his response. Following surgical removal of failing and exhausted fragments, the retained is combined with the new to accommodate a rich mix of uses in an urbane, coherent yet commercially astute block. This repair and remaking is made more complex by the fact that the site is bisected by a building and theatre whose long leases preclude the possibility of negotiated adaptation.
Eagle Place references an interest exhibited in Parry’s ‘palazzo’ at 30 Finsbury Square (AT136), still for many a touchstone for its intelligence and wit. There, he detached structure from the cage-like constraint of the planning module expressed in the thermal envelope, and thus facilitated an independent exploration of architectural aesthetics – one where the loadbearing structural stone facade references the rationalism of both Gruppo Sette and the engineer. At Eagle Place the two new facades offer a richer take on Finsbury’s bald idea of ‘back’. Again the facade is structural, but this time used not to support a frame but to enable a material to be explored in depth; to generate an alternative idea of the aesthetics of the punctured wall.
The new Piccadilly facade is traditionally constructed of jug-white glazed ceramic and lime mortar, specifically so that it can be sculpted to capture reflections from the famous neon of Piccadilly Circus”
The first of these, a ceramic facade fronting Piccadilly, is sandwiched between elderly stone neighbours, while the second, faced with stone, forms a new corner where Eagle Place meets Jermyn Street. Parry likens the project’s challenge to extracting and replacing teeth, though I note that one tooth – the Baron building, formerly a menswear shop owned by the family of Sacha Baron Cohen – has been dismantled and re-erected five feet higher up (these are buildings designed in imperial dimensions) on a new base that is carefully related to, but inevitably somewhat different to that which was vandalised in the 1960s. The shock of the new ensures that the Piccadilly facade, with its polychromatic Richard Deacon frieze and red reveals, has already achieved a certain notoriety.
The programme behind provides three ‘new’ buildings – one office, two residential. While the office sits behind new and reconstructed facades, the two residential buildings are behind historic facades, one retained and the other carved out of a listed building. This is definitely a single project, however, concerned with the remaking of the city block, and challenges orthodoxy by prioritising the programme of the city over the programme of use – which is entirely logical: the use will change. The city will change, too, but the former much more rapidly than the latter.
The commercial programme is skilfully woven in plan and section. A sequence of interlocking parts that work together, sharing servicing, lifts and stairs to create an urban whole, reminding us that London’s urban blocks – even when in single ownership – are a collection of parts, of uses, of leases, of buildings. Large-scale development is challenged not just by commerce and conservation but by the urban morphology that can be traced through the language of facades expressing party walls. Parry’s skill is in undertaking large-scale redevelopment while celebrating the complexity. Modern servicing and infrastructure weave between new volumes which, through engagement with the ‘found’, have acquired more specific and thus memorable characteristics.
In the office, beyond the crafted volumes of the entrance hall (which like its neighbour, Luytens’ banking hall, has longevity) Parry understands that a lesser level of architectural control, reflecting the inevitability of fit-out and change, is appropriate. In the apartments, however, he has designed everything beautifully, simply and economically, from the carving out of habitable space in unique found volumes down to the throws on the beds. The refurbished and reinvented interiors of these apartments are a microcosm of the project: in the architecture of remaking and the urban palimpsest, merzbau becomes gesamtkunstwerk.
Relationships between new and old, inside and out and building and city are never quite as might be anticipated. The new Piccadilly facade is traditionally constructed of jug-white glazed ceramic and lime mortar, specifically so that it can be sculpted to capture reflections from the famous neon of Piccadilly Circus. Versions of this material have long been used to bounce light, but in secondary elevations, lightwells and courts, and always for amenity not effect. Here ceramic is used on one of London’s greatest, widest streets. Again, in contrast to the norm, Portland stone is then used on the ‘lesser’ Jermyn Street and Eagle Place, in a rich mix of bed types articulated by string courses and worked transoms (a nod to a history of tailoring and the figure of the dandy) and topped by Stephen Cox’s sculptural relief. There are of course other logics at play here: following conservation battles, the neon of Piccadilly Circus is celebrated as an important urban and historical asset while commercial logic dictates the use of Portland stone on Eagle Place to give this reinvented address the stature that the office requires.
Both new facades are studies in scale and proportion, in light, shadow and depth, and in bay widths, rhythms and modulation – a play of the neutral and the vibrant. Which is neutral and which vibrant is perhaps less certain than first glimpses might suggest. The Piccadilly facade is actually a modest and subtle play of black and white. The stipple effect stencil arund the windows is, on inspection, not red but a ‘blush’. This elevation is a play of modulated interlocking bays that decrease in size, complexity and evidence as they rise to the open loggia and then to the sky beyond. Its vivacity is largely concentrated in a polychromatic frieze by Richard Deacon, whose 39 steps draw a sculptured line across at cornice height. While this line harnesses the technology of the same architectural craft that constructs the facade, the mark of its maker ensures that artifice is transformed into art.
Through its detail, depth, oriel and terrace, this new Piccadilly facade allows the inhabitation and enjoyment of the threshold between room and city. It also questions our understanding of the likely longevity of building and facade. Parry’s engagement with the detail of its making suggests to me that he believes that the ‘facadists’ Nash and Blomfield were in fact right to construct an urban stage set that is still the locale’s defining quality.
This challenges my ‘flat cap rule’ that suggests no-one ever sees above the shop front, so a demolished facade is instantly forgotten by even the most assiduous observer of architectural detail. (Ask yourself what you recall of the supposedly much-loved facades that preceded Parry’s). Alan Powers’ recent Royal Academy exhibition, ‘Eros to the Ritz: 100 years of street architecture’, offered the same challenge, encouraging me to scurry from Burlington House onto Piccadilly to discover for the first time the facades of the street that I believed I knew.
One Eagle Place is a variegated container of uses, architectures, histories and technologies, and challenges our thinking on design strategies, on the relevance of use and on the urban importance of the aesthetics of the constructed facade. It questions aesthetic and artistic predilections and speculates on ideas of time and context. It is a project in which the architects are testing themselves, their audience (both lay and professional) and our shared ideas of history, present and future.
At the unveiling of his frieze, Richard Deacon diverted eyes from his art by doffing his cap and thus elegantly drew attention to the fact that it was adorned with but two words: ‘No Fear’. I can think of no more appropriate an epithet for this most particular, creative and challenging project.
Eric Parry Architects
Richard Deacon, Stephen Cox, Alan Micklethwaite
Shaws of Darwen, Szerelmy
Portland stone cladding