If you have ever had to negotiate your way around the vomit, urine and hordes of zombified children (with asymmetrical haircuts) on a Friday night in Shoreditch, it may be a struggle to believe that the area was once a haven of sprawling meadows and pastureland. But this treeless corner of east London was a rural idyll until as late as the 19th century.
With this in mind, Hût Architecture – a fast-growing London practice – has drawn inspiration from the area’s pastoral roots in the refurbishment of a 1950s office block. “It’s a tenuous link,” admits one of Hût’s directors, Andrew Whiting. Nonetheless, the “Hoxton as a meadow” concept has proved to be a good basis for the design, as well as a savvy marketing tool. The kinds of tenant drawn to the area are likely to prefer a building with a story and a strong identity, and this one in particular has generated quite a lot of interest because of its courageous design.
Thankfully, there are no floral decals in sight. The result at 85 Great Eastern Street is more about colour, light and natural materials than trite interpretations of a bygone era. Nestled between the Hoxton Hotel and a Grade II-listed building, the facade draws in passers-by (even those quite a way down the road) with its fibre-optic LED “buttercups” and green and yellow translucent glass fins that light up at night. The meadow motif extends into the building, with coloured film in slot windows around the core and exterior, while timber slatting in the reception and new outdoor terraces lends a feeling of “woodiness” – albeit a slick and modern one.
The design was a gutsy move as far as speculative office buildings are concerned, especially in the current economic climate. But Hût has done some very clever things to ensure that it nets returns. Adding a rooftop pavilion (a timber-clad lightweight steel frame structure – now the fifth floor) and converting the ground-floor car park and archive basement into simple office space has nearly doubled the amount of lettable space (from 790sq m to 1,450sq m) – a huge bonus for the client.
As the building is also compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act and uses low levels of energy under the government’s sustainability charter, it is ticking a lot of the right boxes.
What is striking for a seven-storey office block is that it manages to marry functional office space with the raw and open feeling of some of the less refined buildings in Shoreditch.
“As an office building, it’s the opposite of Canary Wharf,” says Whiting. “When you go there, you feel as if the rest of the world is deliberately separated from you. This is a building in Hoxton, where everything interesting is going on – you can see it.” Indeed, the first four floors of offices, each 230sq m, are fitted with full-height windows that open out over the rooftops. The building’s mechanical services haven’t been tidied away, which makes it seem a bit more honest and gritty than other buildings of this size.
A new galvanised steel staircase, visible from the glass frontage at street level, connects the ground floor to the basement, which are both finished with sandblasted brick walls and cast concrete floor tiles. “It’s the type of building that will improve with time,” says Whiting. “Natural materials . . . scuffing feet. It will look better rather than worse, which is kind of a key thing for Hût projects. We don’t design precious buildings that you have to tiptoe around.”
A lightwell has been carved out near the back of the building, which provides outdoor access on several floors – useful for smoking or a deep breath of fresh Hoxton air. “The idea was that it is supposed to be natural, you know, the meadow thing,” explains Whiting, bringing us back around to the theme. “There aren’t loads of applied finishes, and where there are, it’s of colour. They’re very carefully used and supposed to be summery fresh and spring-like.”
Traversing the building, though, one can’t help but feel that the amount of green and yellow coloured film is perhaps too much of a good thing – that the building’s facade, reception and terraces, which are all quite distinctive, are enough to support the original idea. But Whiting seems to have considered this. “We were careful to give it a very strong brand identity, but equally not one that an incoming tenant would be absolutely stuck with,” he explains. “The thing is, future tenants can easily adapt things because all the coloured film can be changed in a day – the glass fins are all on brackets and can be replaced.”
This is true, but as an office building, there is no denying it takes major risks.
“When we were designing it, we had all sorts of options,” says Whiting. “But we’re so bored of doing modest buildings that please everybody but excite nobody. We thought: ‘Let’s go for it, let’s stick massive coloured glass bits on the front and hope for the best.’ It was a leap of faith, but I think it works.”
If Hût’s design convinced developers that a speculative office building needs tonnes of light, lovely outdoor space and a little quirky character, then frankly, it’s a leap more people should take.