Kenneth Frampton applauds Eric Parry Architects’ Four Pancras Square
Ever since 30 Finsbury Square was completed in 2002, Eric Parry’s reputation has been linked to the facility with which he designs medium-rise office buildings, a type which one may well regard as an endangered species given the current spate of freestanding mega-high-rises which, irrespective of their programmatic content, are popping up ad-infinitum in every capital city around the world; a dystopic ‘value-free’ cancer capable of destroying the socio-civic fabric of every historic city. This, fortunately, has so far not been Parry’s destiny as an architect, which raises the imponderable question as to how does a reasonable, ethical developer – a rare species – find an appropriate architect and vice versa. In this instance we are referring to one David Partridge of Argent, the lead developer behind Parry’s Four Pancras Square at London’s King’s Cross.
Eric Parry Architects’ 11-storey office building, which completes the enclosure of Pancras Square, is an exceptional one-off; a quality that arises in the first instance from its compact civic form – which stems as much from its carefully calibrated height as from its site-imposed trapezoidal plan – but equally from the subtle topography of the square itself, warped to accommodate below-ground servicing (all factors determined largely by the King’s Cross development’s masterplan, originally devised by Allies & Morrison and Porphyrios Associates).
At the same time it is patently an abstract, rhythmic composition of great refinement which not only depends on its modelling and proportion but also on a particular alternation between advancing and receding planes, the displacement of which gives an all-but musical structure to the building in section. Thus where the ground-floor foyer is recessed, the floor above (the traditional piano nobile) is advanced behind a monumental long-span steel vierendeel truss that establishes the tectonic language of the building, not only for the front-facing square but also for the other three sides, enabling the use of widely-spaced steel stanchions upon which the building rests.
The building is articulated in section into two groups of four floors each, of which the first group is recessed and the second advanced within an eight-floor sequence above the foyer level, while the building is crowned by an attic that is recessed by an open, steel-framed loggia continuing around its perimeter in lieu of a cornice. An equally syncopated rigour obtains in the detailing wherein prefabricated, welded spandrels of weathered steel make up the structural facade, rhythmically articulated by pairs of mullions in five-bay units. These spandrels are hoisted into position in a manner reminiscent of the construction of the facade of Mies van der Rohe’s twin apartment towers at 860 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, completed in 1951.
At Four Pancras Square, however, the entire perimeter is loadbearing, so that the facade rises in coordination with the internal columns and the central structural core. This woven, loadbearing wall may be seen as an evocation of Mies’s ‘beinahe nichts’ (almost nothing); a representational tectonic in welded steel, comparable to the flutes of a classical column. At the same time, the weathered steel, the structural perimeter wall, the cast glazed terracotta brise soleil and the white soffit panels and glazed terracotta fascias over the inset balconies on the second to fifth floors, jointly testify to the aim of achieving a low-maintenance, enduring structure.
A rental office building, as opposed to a bespoke corporate headquarters (though in this case a pre-let has made the building quasi-bespoke), is always a challenge for an architect, since apart from its capacity to produce income it tends to lack cultural significance. It may also afford well-serviced, well-lit, commercial space at grade, which Parry has succeeded in doing at Pancras Square. Otherwise the only gratuitous provision is a landscaped green roof, which apart from its ecological potential (as wildlife habitat and to counter the heat-island effect) provides for a certain amount of ‘park-space’ for the use of the occupants at the top of the building. It is noteworthy that the western flank accommodates a ramp giving access to bicycle racks, showers and lockers. This is a sustainable touch par excellence (as well as servicing a fire escape).
Appropriate to its situation, close to the threshold of Thomas Cubitt’s King’s Cross station, this is a twenty-first century tour-de-force playing a discreet homage to the heroic engineering achievements of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Eric Parry Architects
Sweco (ex Grontmij)
Ceramic brise soleil
Toilets, shower rooms