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10 Jul 2018

The new Republic hub is bringing colour to a long-neglected corner of east London

Words by  Photo by Dirk Lindner and Mat Chisnall

With a vibrant multi-coloured facade as well as a dramatic ten-floor timber-lined atrium, east London’s Republic hub declares its individualism as soon as you step on site

The first thing you see as you alight from the DLR at East India Quay is colour. Courtesy of graphic designer Tom Hingston and Embrace Building Wraps, the geometric pattern that encompasses one facade of the 1993 Export Building symbolises a key transformation of this part of east London. Take a few extra steps along the footbridge extending out from the station, and the transformation becomes clear. 

Headed up by Studio RHE for Trilogy Real Estate and LaSalle Investment Management, the intriguingly named Republic complex aims to build a creative hub away from Canary Wharf and the City yet still within easy reach, and a workplace campus that is, brace yourselves, truly affordable. Quite the statement, one might think, but in an ever-growing residential area where amenities and retail spaces are surprisingly scarce, could Republic be a whole new ballgame? 

Republic east london studio rheThe stair is lined with geometric aluminium panels in Mexico blue

At the time of visit, parts of the site are still boarded up but the Import Building (previously known as Anchorage House), is already very much open to business, marking the completion of phase one of Republic. With a project that places such an emphasis on connectivity and well-being, it only makes sense to start with what isn’t quite finished yet: the public realm. 

This large strip of open space dividing the Import and Export Buildings (the latter acquired its colourful new facade in 2016 and its refurbishment is now underway as part of Phase 2 of the Republic development) is still brimming with yellow hard hats, but with a little imagination and the vivid description of Gary Whitechurch, project architect at Studio RHE, the landscape comes to life. By the time this issue lands in your hands, the medley of water gardens, wooden pavilions, direct walkways and green spaces should’ve blossomed to completion. 

Republic east london studio rheThe ninth floor terrace offers sweeping views across London

And with amenities like coffee shops (artisan coffee aficionados like myself may enjoy the mention of The Gentlemen Baristas who have taken up a spot on the ground floor), restaurants, a convenience store, as well as the soon-opening Pure Gym, the complex promises to draw people into what is hoped to become east London’s most exciting mixed-use community. 

“It’s not just for the office occupiers. We want this to be a bustling hub,” says Laurence Jones of Trilogy, leading the tour alongside Whitechurch. And when asked ‘Why Republic?’, he proclaims with a smile: “A state of independence for an independent state of mind.”

Republic east london studio rheThe entrance glows with Hexaben translucent panels

If confidence and expression are to be associated with such a motto, the tapered entrance certainly reflects this with the architect’s interesting choice of material. Manufactured by Bencore, these backlit Hexaben translucent honeycomb panels emit a soft glow that can also be spotted behind the reception desk and around some of the ground floor’s enclosed meeting spaces. 

Once inside, a ten-storey timber atrium serves as the core and focal point of the office building and speaks to the connectivity of the project. “It was a huge cavernous atrium,” says Jones, but what used to be clad in plasterboard and white marble is now an ode to engineered timber, punctuated by an outstanding staircase in Mexico blue. Studio RHE worked with Premier Engineering to create this aluminium panel-clad stair which provides access to the first two floors. To address issues like weight adding up, the staircase was pre-built in a factory, disassembled, then reassembled in situ. 

Republic east london studio rheThe timber structure reaches up ten storeys towards the glass roof

As for the atrium, it has been infilled with a cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glulam frame structure, a material that isn’t typically used in office space. “It gives a domestic, chilled-out vibe,” says Whitechurch. We are now standing on one of the many pockets of balcony space looking out into the atrium. Designed for informal meetings, these act as the perfect observation deck for the interplay of materials throughout the space. The infill panels are natural spruce timber which, seen up-close, contrasts with the CLT and glulam frame. 

“Timber as a natural material is a replenishable source,” says Whitechurch. “The only problem with engineered timber like this is the glues, but we’re getting much better with that.” The sheer scale of this project didn’t allow for glues to be replaced with the birch dowels Whitechurch speaks of next, but he is quick to point out that “timber as an overall material is much more economical, faster and more environmentally friendly” than its construction counterparts. 

Republic east london studio rheThe wooden dividers give privacy to atrium breakout spaces

To add vibrancy, the architects used back-painted glass, zinc panelling and louvre systems that also serve as shields when the sun pours in from the roof. The balconies are framed with mild steel balustrades sealed and powder-coated in black and hints of yellow. This black and yellow palette reminds me of the much-hyped cycle-in ramp at Studio RHE’s Alphabeta building in Finsbury Circus (OnOffice November 2015). No wonder, because the management and creative teams are the same, down to the same contractor (Galliford Try). 

Speaking of cycling, the basement of the Import Building has been refurbished to include end-of-trip facilities with the likes of bike racks designed by Studio RHE and shower facilities with timber benches made using offcuts from the timber frame. 

Republic east london studio rheBlack and yellow balconies look over the timber-lined atrium

“The hardest thing was working within the existing building,” Whitechurch says when we’re back above ground and touring one of the still unoccupied office floors. Jones adds: “We’ve kept the fabric of the building but everything within has changed. We’ve had incumbent tenants to consider as well.” The old reinforced concrete frame was left visible, but the studio has extended the floor plates inwards to maximise space, achieving ones that range from 1,200sq m to 2,600sq m. 

This being a Cat A office fit out, the space still hasn’t reached its full potential, but certain parts are starting to take shape. Co-working provider The Trampery has taken up the first two floors and other tenants include Deliveroo’s east London recruitment hub, digital agency Threepipe – which has chosen Republic over its previous Covent Garden home – and accountancy firm Hadley. “Not many places in London offer this quality of space and environment for £30 per square foot. That’s our modus operandi,” says Jones.  

Republic east london studio rheEngineered timber stairs connect upper the upper floors

The most premium space certainly seems to be the ninth floor, where a terrace hugs the corner of the building and offers vistas of the O2 arena, Canary Wharf, and London City Island. As Trilogy founding partner Robert Wolstenholme says: “We are surrounded by more and more residential such as London City Island, the Blackwall Reach Regeneration, and Aberfeldy village. The choice of location was to find a place in London where the talent can afford to live, and we believe will move to.” 

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