With the completion of The Bower a year after White Collar Factory, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has now remade two corners of Old Street’s famous Silicon Roundabout in central London.
Designed for Helical, The Bower is a £100m+ office, retail, bar and restaurant development that is part retrofit, part new build. Completed last August, the development delivers 41,800sq m including office floor plates of up to 1,670sq m.
AHMM was appointed in 2012 to reinvent the underperforming 1960s buildings on the site as a new mixed-use quarter. While the practice has a track record in reinventing tired office buildings, The Bower provided a particularly complex challenge because of the odd arrangement of the two buildings. Designed for British Telecom by Cecil Elsom of EPR Architects, these consisted of a 14-storey narrow-footprinted tower fronting Old Street and a robust, eight-storey warehouse marooned within carparking at the rear, reachable only via a walkway leading from the base tower. The largely hidden warehouse was by far the better building, according to AHMM, and a natural candidate for office conversion, if only it could be liberated through the provision of new direct access from Old Street.
But before the practice could address the intricacies of the individual retrofits, it needed to establish the broader urban strategy for the block. It is this, rather than the improved commercial space that the project delivers, that is The Bower’s biggest achievement. AHMM is keen to emphasise the contribution to the public realm made by both its Old Street roundabout projects. At The Bower, this is clearly not just talk. Motivated by a desire to break up the previously impenetrable block, the practice came up with the idea of a new 6m wide pedestrian street stretching the depth of the development alongside The Warehouse to Baldwin Street at the rear. This is accessed via new links from the Old Street City Road corner and from Old Street itself. This new route generated the idea of creating a mews by adding a new build office (The Studio) along it to face The Warehouse, and introducing a row of bars and restaurants at the lowest level of The Warehouse. “We’re using the public realm to define the buildings rather than the other way round,” says Allford.
Rather than a monolithic development, the result is a collection of Bower buildings and associated public spaces enlivened by features such as an art wall designed by DeMakers Van and plentiful seating to encourage street activity. Already, it feels very Shoreditch.
The Warehouse was something of a gift for office conversion, helped by a generous core and by original architectural features that give a clear identity to the new accommodation. Externally AHMM cleaned up and retained the distinctive concrete precast panels at either end of The Warehouse as well as introducing new glazing and repointing the brick elevations.
Internally, each floor benefits from distinctive concrete columns with angular capitals that AHMM stripped back for maximum impact. Throughout The Warehouse, soffits were stripped of asbestos-ridden acoustic panels, leaving a distinctive mottled pattern to add character. Services are exposed in keeping with the industrial aesthetic.
The Tower retrofit, the last phase to be completed, was the toughest nut to crack due to the poor quality of the original building, which in less than 15 years had undergone extensive alterations that removed many of its features. Although the client considered redevelopment, they instead decided to retain and reconfigure, thus benefiting from a quicker, more economical transformation. This still left the problem of how to make the narrow office floors appealing for tenants despite their low ceilings – heights range from 2.3-2.65m with services concealed behind acoustic mesh rafts – and the presence of two rows of columns down the middle.
The solution was a rather ingenious extension strategy. At the front and rear, AHMM added 4.5m and 5m deep wings respectively from the second floor upwards to create 5m tall double-storey spaces at the perimeters. These are staggered so that each floor has access to one of these at lower level on one side, with views through the upper level on the other side. With floor heights impossible to change, this was the next best way of making a positive out of a negative, creating uplifting, generous spaces with potential for tenants to use as they see fit. Views from the extended Old Street elevation are particularly impressive – out to St Leonards, Shoreditch to the east and St Luke’s to the west.
AHMM also added three 1,070sq m floors on the top of The Tower, providing more generous and unimpeded office floors with impressive views. Less than six months after its completion, The Tower is already 70% let with tenants including WeWork, which has taken six floors, and online fashion company Farfetch, which has space in the fully let Warehouse.
Regeneration on this scale inevitably changes the character of an area, although founder Simon Allford points out that the original tech city character of the area had long evolved with the influx of larger creative businesses. And, as AHMM associate director Philip Turner makes clear, this particular site had been doing nothing for the local area. “The public realm story was a nightmare. The back of the building was a source of anti-social behaviour and the front building was ugly,” he says.
If anything, he adds, The Bower brings Old Street character back to the site through the new mews rather than taking it away, quite apart from the knock-on benefit of the influx of 3,000 workers to what was previously something of a ghost-ship of a site employment-wise.
A bower is, according to the dictionary, a shady leafy shelter in a garden or wood. As a name for a development on the gritty Old Street roundabout, it seems rather fanciful, despite its reference to an arbour that was apparently on the site long ago. But that’s the only misstep in this deft reworking of an under-performing development that previously offered nothing back to the surrounding city.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the March edition of OnOffice.
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has taken on another Silicon Roundabout building and created an office space already rented to clients including WeWork and Farfetch