Squire & Partners self-built office is a celebration of history and craft
Searching for a new office for its own use, architect Squire & Partners came upon a characterful but dilapidated Edwardian complex in Brixton, south-west London, whose original role offered a metaphor for the way in which it might be redesigned and reoccupied. The building had first served as the furniture department of the UK’s first purpose-built department store, Bon Marché, and the idea of creating distinct ‘concessions’ within a coherent whole informed the design approach and the organisation of space for 220 staff. The Department Store, as it is now known, is twice the size of the architects’ former office, says Squires partner Tim Gledstone. “We didn’t want that just to fill it up with more people, but to have a range of spaces that enable us to be more creative”.
Site plan – the scheme also includes retail units rented to others and an additional development site across the courtyard.
The impression of variety begins with the presence of diverse retail outlets on the fully refurbished ground floor: a post office, record shop, coffee wholesaler and a bar (another restaurant within a new oak-framed upper floor is for the practice’s own use).
Architectural and interior design were done by independent teams, working simultaneously says Gledstone. “We didn’t want to miss a single opportunity, and for that to happen you have to think of everything really early”. Major structural alterations include removal of a lift shaft to reveal the grand main stair, and the creation of internal voids to make visual connections between office floors and between the reception area and a capacious basement events space.
Since its closure as a retail outlet, the store had been variously neglected, squatted and used as a venue for raves, and its opulent interior had taken quite a battering. Squires stripped layers of paint and later alterations to reveal the original fabric. Anything that didn’t come away in the contractors’ hands was retained, leaving a rich patchwork of surfaces: pitted brick in some places, ornate but scarred plaster in others. Repairs are undisguised, and graffiti was preserved as a testimony to the building’s history.
Existing fabric – from reddish mahogany and teak floors to copper roofing and green glazed tiles – also informed the colour and material palettes for new additions. “What we inherited had a lot of soul already”, says interior design leader Maria Cheung. “We focussed on how to work with that”.
Arriving visitors are met by the first of many custom-made elements on which Squires collaborated with a range of other designers. Blown glass lamps by Czech maker Lasvit hang over a reception desk resembling a nineteenth-century haberdasher’s counter, made by Interior iD and Based Upon using a resin/metal composite called Tramazite. On the floor, rugs woven by Laguna feature bespoke patterns by locally-based fashion design company Eley Kishimoto.
Upstairs on the three office floors, the desire to represent the processes of craft and making in which the practice is involved has shaped the design of workspaces, where areas for project teams of around 16 people are separated by freestanding plywood units aligned with the piers between windows. Open shelves on one side allow for the display of objects and materials related to the project on which that team is working, while the reverse side provides a pin-up surface for the neighbouring team.
Allowing project teams to leave drawings and models on permanent display has a decorative function, says Gledstone – the work forms a third ‘layer’ to the interior, over the existing building and the architects’ interventions – but also has a practical benefit. “Each project area is really like a Cabinet War Room”, he suggests. “The strategy and thinking are all around you, and continue to grow over the life of a project”. Moreover, visible evidence of what staff are working on spreads understanding of where knowledge lies within the practice.
The desire to foster communication between teams also prompted the designers (working with consultant Spacelab) to use digital modelling to anticipate areas of low traffic, and eliminate them through the location of printers, for example. “We work so much by instinct and experience that we thought it would be good to cross-check that with what science could tell us”, says Gledstone.
Restaurant within a green-oak-framed rooftop extension. Crittall steel windows matching those found in the existing building lead onto a terrace. A glass dome replaces a copper roof on an adjacent tower.
Modelling also indicated that the restored main staircase should be supplemented by an additional stair at the wider tail-end of the building. This has the character of a secret passage, winding upward behind a kitchenette on each level, past small meeting areas set mid-way between the floors. This eccentric route also reflects a “romantic” desire to subvert the building’s horizontal stratification, notes Gledstone, and as such is a telling symbol of the project as a whole. The Department Store is rooted in a solid business case and careful space planning, but elevated by endless attention to detail and an evident sense of the pleasure to be had from a thing done well.
Architect, interior designer
Squire & Partners
Flos, Original BTC, Lasvit, Louis Poulsen, Atrium
Carl Hansen & Søn, Benchmark, Knoll, Vitra
CP Hart, Samuel Heath, Dornbracht, Billi
Eley Kishimoto, Kusan, Laguna
Opus Magnum, Intervari, Interior iD
Based Upon, Interior iD
Domus, Bert & May
Green oak frame
Carpenter Oak & Woodland