Amid the tired office blocks that line the City Road, the Alphabeta building’s ebullient branding stands out like a beacon. Though its heavy masonry and rhythmic arches predate even Miesian corporate architecture by a long chalk, the building, formerly known as Triton Court, is being marketed as “the newest architectural expression of the ‘new economy’”. From the outside it seems a more likely home for some dusty financial institution, as indeed it was, until the financial crash. Currently, the building is undergoing a substantial renovation, but not in the way one might think.
Overlooking Finsbury Square, a few strides from Moorgate station, this is unquestionably a ‘City’ building. A quick glance at the new designs cooked up by architects Studio RHE, however, shows the new audience could not be more different to the suits of yesterday. The funky graphics are intended to seduce the rapidly expanding Telecommunications Media and Technology (TMT) sector massing around Shoreditch and Old Street. The changes are way beyond cosmetic. In effect, the architect has spun the building around by inserting the main entrance on Worship Street, thereby opening it up to face Shoreditch rather than the City. When it opens for business (expected to be around Christmas this year), the new occupiers will be able to cycle down a ramp directly into the basement, before parking up next to the basketball court and heading to one of the casual work areas. The workers of the new economy cycle, shoot hoops and, crucially, have bundles of cash.
It is a far cry from wood-panelled boardrooms and corner offices, so it is perhaps not surprising that Studio RHE’s designs sparked some consternation among the City establishment. The small east London practice does not churn out office blocks in the manner of many that operate in the Square Mile, and came to the project with a cavalier spirit. “We’ve had corporate architects who work predominantly in the City saying, ‘Is that you with that bike ramp? I knew it was you!’” says director Richard Hywel Evans. Despite appearances, Alphabeta is no gimmick. Aside from the unpicking and steady unification of what is in reality three buildings mashed into one, the practice has included restaurants, bars and shops into the concourse that runs through from Worship Street to Finsbury Square. There are a myriad of communal and events spaces, while sheets of blackened steel, charred ash, concrete and enamelled glass are all deployed to stave off what the architects see as the sterility of corporate architecture.
From the CGIs, the building is unrecognisable. In the language of property agents this is dubbed ‘repositioning’ – adapting a building’s design to appeal to a different occupier. The symbolism is clear, however you choose to phrase it: Alphabeta represents a shifting balance of power in London. The decision to move the entrance was prompted by financial returns rather than some aching desire to join the in-crowd. “The only sector that is showing any growth is TMT and everyone is chasing it. Rents in Finsbury Square were £28 a square foot,” says Hywel Evans. “In Shoreditch, it was £35. And that was 18 months ago. Now, they are up to £55 and the City has just not kept up with that.”
We have been here before, of course. The tech company explosion at the tail end of the 1990s promised a future as bright as the primary colours that daubed the office walls. Computer programmers working out of a basement found they were stock-market millionaires virtually overnight. It didn’t last. The dotcom boom quickly morphed into a bubble and then popped. But things are different this time around. According to a recent report in The Economist, the structures to create digital services and products have become so abundant, sophisticated, and most of all, cheap, that the tech-minded can quickly build a company from a kit of parts. Drooling with excitement, venture capitalists are investing billions in start-up IT companies. The World Startup Report, compiled by self-described “serial tech entrepreneur” Bowei Gai, pegged the UK third behind the US and Japan in a table of internet firms. In short, TMT is here for good.
Developers and property agents, the sharper ones, have watched all this with interest. Derwent London, the firm behind Shoreditch’s Tea Building, was among the first to realise that next-generation entrepreneurs preferred working in studios, like real creatives, rather than offices. For its White Collar Factory, the developer drafted in regular collaborator AHMM (onoffice 81) to distil the ideas into a building type that combined the efficiencies of a new build with the character of a 19th-century warehouse. Large floor voids and suspended ceilings were out in favour of a stripped-down aesthetic. Technology has shrunk as it has grown more powerful and, when coupled with cloud computing, means the need for a gigantic on-site server room has lessened. The M&E-driven designs of the 1970s and 1980s are now looking prehistoric. “What people really want is a place where they can open a window,” says Hywel Evans.
The plot thickens when you consider Alphabeta’s first tenant is not a bunch of bearded, app-munching fixie riders, but an American hedge fund based in west London. “They were talking about how they dress down, and their art collection. They were actually trying to sell their cool to us,” says Hywel Evans. However nauseating the image of a bunch of funked-up, art-acquiring bankers might be, it does suggest that although these offices are aimed at TMT, their appeal is far broader. One architect deeply immersed in workplace design is Matt Yeoman of BuckleyGrayYeoman. His practice recently completed the Buckley Building (onoffice 76) in Clerkenwell and has won planning for a comprehensive overhaul of Maple House, off the City Road, and Epworth House opposite. The designs will be suitably edgy, but Yeoman is sanguine when it comes to the potential occupiers.
“This whole thing might have begun with the TMT sector but now it is purely generational,” says Yeoman. “What you are seeing is a young generation of lawyers, accountants and bankers that don’t want to be seen as working in an office. The property agents are asking, “shall we aim for City or TMT?” but actually it doesn’t matter as long as you are providing something that the next generation of workers want. The younger agents that get it are doing very, very well.”
Exposed brickwork/and or services have already overrun most of our social interactions: high-street coffee outlets include pretend brickwork in their shop fit outs, in a hollow attempt at gritty urbanism. Typically, the large offices delivered by developers and let by established agents are the last building type to ring the changes. So does this amount to a hipster takeover of the mainstream? Well, possibly. Yeoman believes that when you account for much shorter leases, sometimes only three years, that office design will be driven by the mood of the moment, or even, whisper it, fashion. “I think it might be a case of creating a timeless building on the outside that can be quickly adapted internally.”
More than ever before, a tenant’s desire, as opposed to an institutional brief, drives office design. The changing landscape is partly owing to the recession and the entrepreneurs it has spawned. Although the cookie-cutter approach is far from obsolete in most areas of the country, in London it is failing to attract the tenants.
The sea change has caught some napping. As Duncan Walker of property agents Helical Bar puts it: “TMT moved the dial in office fit outs.” Walker is currently working on a 4,000sq m new build on Shoreditch’s Clifton Street bought from McLaren Property for £21m last November. The proposed scheme for the building had already secured planning but the generic steel and glass design was “totally unsuitable” for the area. Helical Bar called in new architects to replace the glass facade with bricks, expand the reception and common areas, and add a high-powered comms room and extensive bike parking. “A lot of traditional occupiers are adopting some of the new ways of working, but it’s more the fit out and feel of the cutting-edge guys. Even five years ago you would not get funding trying to buy a raw building in Shoreditch. Now they are top of everyone’s list.”
The geographical middle ground is Norton Folgate, the stretch of land between Bishopsgate (where the City officially begins) and Shoreditch High Street. Its western side is currently a building site, the hoarding surrounding it declaring it “The Un Square Mile” with pictures of a besuited man wearing trainers. It heralds a mixed-use development, Principal Place, by Foster + Partners, which belonged to Hammerson before Brookfields bought its office portfolio. The plans, which originally involved demolishing much-loved drinking stalwart the Light Bar, crystallised fears that the City’s eastward expansion would simply squash Shoreditch under a cavalcade of glass towers.
Instead, the opposite is true. Revised designs in 2009 spared the Light Bar from the wrecking ball, but the new owners went much further. “Hammerson was pedalling Principal Place as an extension of Broadgate,” says Brookfield’s head of leasing, Martin Wallace. “We have taken a look at what is happening in Shoreditch and redesigned it to reflect the character of the area.” Aesthetically, this meant swapping the polished steel and glass for a rougher brown-waxed finish. More significant is the space for 600 bikes, shops that promise to target independents and a large plaza in front of the main entrance on Norton Folgate. The interior office spaces are intended as a blank canvas, which will allow inhabitants a degree of interpretation. As with Alphabeta, a variety of tenants are enquiring, with online retailer Amazon, banks, solicitors and even the odd financial services regulator expressing interest. “What is different from the dotcom boom is that these companies are now corporates,” says Wallace. “They have quite a maturity about them even if they have only just taken on a surge in growth.”
What projects like Principal Place and even the White Collar Factory lack is authenticity. No matter how much effort one expends, it is impossible to design in a history, which is where the Alphabeta, with its quirky original features, wins out. Though by definition TMT is a forward-thinking industry, heritage is a selling point these days. Then again, the success of the self-consciously cool Boxpark retail development made from shipping containers shows that perhaps authenticity counts for less than we think (unless of course the Shoreditch crowd is enjoying it in an ironic fashion).
What we might be witnessing is a meeting of minds. In some quarters, the TMT sector seems ready to enter the world of corporate new build, which all of the above are betting on, but is doing so on its own terms. Conversely, the collaborative working styles and the ‘edgy’ buildings that support them are assets that older professions are seemingly desperate to get a piece of. As a result, the rising demand for more characterful workplaces presents architects with tremendous opportunities. Office design needs to be far more nuanced than before. Those at the cutting edge saw which way the wind was blowing long before the big developers, and now that the BCO house style is losing its sheen, architects hold a far stronger hand. “There is no reason why we couldn’t do a fit out like Alphabeta in the Gherkin or the Natwest tower,” says Hywel Evans. A fascinating prospect indeed.
Camden council has granted AHMM planning permission for Google’s Kings Cross HQ. The plans, reported in our August issue, reveal the details of the £650 million project, which will include 67,400sq m of office space, accommodating 4,500 Google staff. Construction will start early next year on the project, which will include a rooftop swimming pool and running track.
BNP Paribas also have development plans for the King’s Cross Central Development site with 32,500sq m of offices, set to be completed by 2015.
Original story, published July 2013:
AHMM has unveiled designs for its £650m Google HQ in King’s Cross, which aims to achieve BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum ratings. The 330m-high building will be made from steel columns, pre-cast concrete panels and low-iron glass to reference the area’s industrial architecture. The steel frame and cross-laminated timber panels used on the inside will be a first for a modern building of this scale. Its 67,400sq m of office space will house all London-based Google staff, with completion scheduled for 2017.
Onoffice is inviting Clerkenwell's creative companies to open their doors to visitors during Clerkenwell Design Week 22-24 May.
London's EC1 postcode has long been regarded as the creative core of the UK – home to a plethora of new media agencies, graphic and interactive design studios and more than 200 architectural practices - more per square mile than anywhere else on the planet.
So this year, Clerkenwell Design Week, in association with OnOffice, would like to celebrate the area’s dynamic creative scene by inviting you to participate in the highly popular Open Studio programme during 2012’s festival.
Building on the exciting, multi-disciplinary focus of the three day event, CDW is looking for creative companies to open their doors between 9am and 10am or 4pm and 6pm daily between 22 and 24 May to offer the public a unique through-the-keyhole peek into their day-to-day working life.
A group of derelict buildings in Hayes, Middlesex, once the home of legendary record label EMI, is being restored in a joint effort by Studio Egret West, Duggan Morris Architects and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. The £250m project by Cathedral Group and Development Securities will see the 1927 Art Deco complex updated for offices, residential and cultural space.The Old Vinyl Factory, as it will be called, hopes to celebrate the unique heritage of the site, which was originally acquired at the turn of the 20th century by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, eventually EMI. It is the largest surviving complex of buildings designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, best known for Art Deco gems such as west London’s Hoover Building. Up until the 1970s the plant pressed records for all the biggies including The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys and Elvis. In its 1960s heyday, it supported 14,000 employees.
The first phase of the project is underway with The Vinyl Canteen, designed by Morag Myerscough, having opened its doors in the partly occupied Shipping Building. Cathedral’s creative director Martyn Evans says the masterplan for the whole site will be revealed in spring 2012: “Our aspiration is that the architectural, cultural and industrial heritage of the place will inform every aspect of the design, resulting in an innovative and creative workplace.” Here is a taster…
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) has won planning from Southwark Council for an innovative development including office space and eight Passivhaus apartments overlooking Weston Street Park. The practice worked with AZ Urban Studio who acted as planning consultants on the project. The design features landscaped courtyards for the office areas, double height internal spaces, winter gardens, balconies and roof terraces to residential areas.
AHMM’s Head of Sustainability Nic Crawley said: ‘Weston Street is a great example of how the integration of architecture, structure and a carefully considered environmental approach can create exciting, excellent quality internal spaces whilst greatly improving long term occupant comfort and resilience to a changing climate and rising fuel prices.’
Bringing an outdated office building up to standard is one of the key challenges in our industry. onoffice magazine invites you to to discuss the topic in the third talk hosted with B&B Italia on 28 June. Steve Smith of AHMM and Paul Williams of Derwent will present on the newly overhauled Angel Building, followed by Linda Morey Smith on 200 Aldersgate. Don’t miss it!
28 June at 7pm
Architects Lounge at B&B Italia
250 Brompton Road
London SW3 2AS
“I wouldn’t call it a refurbishment – it’s really more of a reinvention,” says Wade Scaramucci, a lead architect for the newly revamped Angel Building designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. He’s right. Anyone who saw what previously stood on the corner of London’s Pentonville Road and St John Street would attest to the scale and extremity of this transformation. In its previous life as the Angel Centre, an early 1980s office block cut off from the street by a segment of awkward landscaping, it was arguably the most loathed building in the surrounding area. “A boil on the bum of Angel”, was how one unnamed architect who lives nearby once described it. But after tenants British Telecom moved out in 2006, developers Derwent London acquired it and, together with AHMM, resurrected it as the Angel Building – now a clever bit of modern architecture with a Breeam “excellent” rating – much more suited to this prominent corner site in Islington.AHMM’s two key initial ideas were to strip the building back to its concrete frame and extend it towards the street on the eastern facade, explains Scaramucci. The internal finishes hadn’t aged well and the whole scheme, which now has a gentle curving frontage, had to be woven back into the street. “That’s what made this project really interesting to work on – the building had space to it,” Scaramucci says. “Plus the way they designed buildings in the 1980s, there was quite a bit of spare structural capacity. That allowed us to do a lot of things in terms of keeping the old building. We saved 300,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions just by retaining the frame, not to mention all the programme advantages because the structure was already up – so it was just a matter of extending it.”
There were sound sustainability grounds for keeping the existing frame, but the plan had other benefits: the generous floor-to-ceiling heights of the original structure were maintained, and the time and money saved meant a fifth office floor could be added to the top of the building – envisioned as a white box atop a black plinth. This new level, recessed behind roof terraces with panoramic views of the City, was a coup for the client because along with the eastern extension, it increased net lettable space by 9,300sq m, or 40 percent. An internal courtyard, rarely used except as a goods delivery route, was closed off to create a top-lit atrium and reception, fed into by one new public entrance – instead of the three disparate ways in from before. The architects gave a lot of thought to how to connect the inside and the outside, Scaramucci says, and the entrance, now flanked by two retail spaces, helps to do that by opening into a kind of promenade from the street to the atrium – the new heart of the building, buzzing with a cafe, sunken break-out areas and a striking installation by Ian McChesney Architects that extends nearly all the way up to the concrete grid of the roof. “It seemed such a strange thing in a city that’s so dense to have had all that space that wasn’t used, like the courtyard. So it was finding ways of taking what you’ve already got and making it work better,” Scaramucci says.The atrium’s double-height internal glazing and exposed concrete finish – apparently tricky to get right and eventually poured in situ – are the Angel Building’s defining features. The architects liked the idea of using an honest material, says Scaramucci, and with all the tie holes left as is, the calmness and humility of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute comes to mind. “Using exposed concrete is a pretty brave move for developers. It’s not normally done,” Scaramucci says. “That’s why I’ve got a lot of time for Derwent. They’re happy to push ideas and try things that are a little bit different, even when agents are warning against it.” The reception desk is to the rear of the ground floor, behind which is a hidden stair leading to break-out areas on the first-floor mezzanine. This level holds most of the conference rooms, but the second and fourth floors also have little break-out spaces in Juliet balconies open to the atrium. The effect, looking down from one of the top office floors, is reminiscent of a cityscape. “We learned that if you’re going to have atriums, unless you find ways of making them active, they become very cathedral-like. People whisper as they walk through. So the idea was about creating lots of opportunities for people to use space,” Scaramucci adds. Up on the office floors, relics of the Angel Centre can be seen in the strange caps at the tops of columns and weird corners that once shaped the building. “Most people would put a suspended ceiling in but by opening the space up, it’s much cleaner and simpler,” he continues. It’s certainly much more energy-efficient – the building uses a low-velocity underfloor displacement system so the 3m-wide windows can open for ventilation. One of the other big questions for AHMM was how to reclad the structure considering its new position in the street. They took inspiration from the modernists: “Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank [Manhattan, 1953] by Gordon Bunshaft is a perfect example of how buildings can sit on a street and get all the things right about reflection, translucency, transparency, depth and shadow,” says Scaramucci. “Mies van der Rohe obviously had nice ideas about how to articulate structure and we reinterpreted some of those ideas too.” The canted windows along the top floor were inspired by the reflection of a group of mature trees along the side of the building, he says: “When you read the facade, it’s mainly the reflection of the trees, a lot of black and green contrast. We thought it would be nice to break that reflection at the top.” But after three years of work, and some quite complicated architectural and engineering acrobatics – would it not have been easier to knock the Angel Centre down and start from scratch? Scaramucci balks at the idea: “It’s not always done well, but I like the idea of doing interesting things with old buildings. In terms of redeveloping cities, it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “I believe there really are no buildings that can’t be made good. And the Angel is a great example because, although it may not be for everyone, it shows how a pretty bad building can be completely reinvented.”