A large red wedge cleaves through the centre of this speculative and rather spectacular office block in the Paddington Basin. Designed by London-based architects Mossessian & Partners, the building completes an illustriuous triumvirate, also including work by Terry Farrell and Richard Rogers, alongside the Grand Union Canal. The final phase of European Land’s Merchant Square development, the site was a tricky one. Any architect wishing to enhance the public realm would be forced to contend with a vulgar housing block that severed the development from the city grid – effectively making the basin an enclave. Enter principal architect Michel Mossessian, who seized upon a Pythagorean solution. “I was given a big mass to work with. My logic was, ‘making a big square mass will be dull’,” explains Mossessian. “So instead of using the whole footprint I said: “Why not play with triangles to open it up?’” The resulting geometry unlocked sightlines of the public square, a forthcoming school and a small church north of the Westway flyover. This extends the building beyond its physical parameters and, as the architect puts it, engages with the city. Admirable sentiments, but tangible dimensions are the primary reason behind 5 Merchant Square’s existence. Unlike the east, west London is conspicuous by its lack of large floor plates. Mossessian’s building provides an extra 85,000sq m of workspace, redressing the balance in a striking, unconventional way.
Approached from the south-east, the building presents a precise form. Razor-sharp detailing on the first of three triangles that comprise the east and south elevations culminates in a point fine enough to skin an apple before cutting back to free up the square. Angling this facade outward at two degrees exaggerates the tautness, while a mix of treatments breaks up the mass. “We have these corrugated anodised aluminium opaque surfaces with frosted and clear glass. We tried to use a blue-grey tone with a play of the frost that reveals more of a bluish green, the opaque and the whiteness,” explains Mossessian. The serenity is disrupted midway along the southern facade, where the red triangle dramatically splices the south facade like a giant red axe. From here, the building’s appearance becomes more fractured as constellations of aluminium boxes cantilever 500mm from the glass curtain wall. Initially concerned with the cost of this addition, the client was won over when it emerged that the decision would provide an extra 2,000sq m of storage space inside. Reducing the quota of glazing by 40 per cent, and also hiding the clutter that plagues most offices, these boxes are suitably in keeping with the building’s marriage of logic and aesthetic.
The issue of engaging with the Westway, an intimidating artery that roars past into London, has provoked a variety of responses from architects – from confrontation to acquiescence. Mossessian decided on a more conceptual approach, using a configuration of dots (red outside, black inside) to create an optical illusion for drivers passing by. It’s a careful adaptation of an algorithm developed at Glasgow University (the pure version would mess with people’s minds, says Mossessian). “As you come into London you see that facade first. From the A40 it looks like clouds, but when you come closer it is actually curtains.” The roof inclines south to north and was originally intended to include photovoltaic cells. But, unable to square the energy consumed installing them with a long-term payoff, Mossessian dropped the idea. However, the topography was retained, allowing the red sculptural form to emerge.
Internally, the building begins with a double-height lobby bathed in light courtesy of a mullion-free 8.5m glazed curtain wall. The space is divided between shops, cafes and restaurants and the office reception, a stately black granite wall with stalagmite grooves signalling the transition between the two. Once the reception has been successfully negotiated, the workforce gravitate towards a soaring 15-storey atrium. Mossessian again experimented with light. The space is clad on three sides with red screenprinted glass, but instead of wall climbers so beloved by the corporate sphere the two lifts are instead hidden behind perforated aluminium panels. Consequently, fleeting glimpses of movement animate the chamber. The floorplates themselves are expansive, clocking in at an average 2500sq m and housing 240 workers. Perhaps in a reaction to his long career at corporate specialists SOM, Mossessian sought to democratise the layout. Every triangular point was turned into a balcony – preventing the bigwigs from hogging the corner offices. “I am very, very challenging to the corporate hierarchy that says, ‘on the corner this is the boss, the office that everyone wants’. Here, there is no corner office. It’s democracy, a shared space.” This also means that anyone on any given floor can nip out for a breath of air. That said, vertigo sufferers may want to ignore this suggestion.
Stepping into the point of the red wedge the corporate edifices of Canary Wharf and the City seem within touching distance as the structure leans enquiringly towards the West End. So as not to interfere with the open plan, Mossessian rammed the restrooms back to the baseline of the triangle so they overlook the Westway. This way privacy was retained in the areas that needed it without forgoing transparency. “There is very rarely any office space behind the red frit,” Mossessian points out. 5 Merchant Square is a hard building to define. A statement born of logic rather than a pointless flexing of architectural muscle, the overall sense is one of light-footed refinement rather than ponderous bulk or alpha male aggression. It’s a remarkable achievement when considering the project’s sheer volume and angular form and credit is due to European Land’s open-mindedness. It’s proving a desirable place to work too. The first nine floors of workspace have already been grabbed by Marks & Spencer staff spilling over from the retailer’s Richard Rogers-designed HQ next door. And for Mossessian’s practice, it became something of a dream project. “It was unique from day one. When I first went to them they loved the idea and I was back every two weeks. It was a very, very pleasurable experience.”