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The revamped 25 Soho Square treads the line between corporate and cool A polished new entrance area now sits on the same level as the street Exposed ducts, yes - but "more designed and considered" than usual Extending the top floors creates some rare outdoor space for workers 199 Bishopsgate's onyx wall replicates the quality of nearby buildings The new double-height reception area gives the entrance some gravitas A more austere facade sets the building apart from its Broadgate neighbours Moving the entrance creates a desirable Bishopsgate address
18 Feb 2013

Making our existing corporate building stock more sustainable is much more pressing issue than creating new space; two London projects show how it’s done

Soho Square in London is the epicentre of media land. The British Board of Film Classification, 20th Century Fox and Paul McCartney’s MPL Communications all live here and, until recently, so did the Football Association. Notoriously stuffy, the FA’s presence jarred with the dynamic environment. In a rare bout of self-consciousness, the organisation moved out in 2009 leaving behind a building that, although only 15 years old, was in dire need of an overhaul.

Enter Shoreditch-based BuckleyGrayYeoman (BGY), which triumphed in a competition to transform the building for client Aviva Investors into something more palatable for the area’s hip citizenry. “It had a terrible reputation as a boring corporate space. Our mission was to change the perception of the building,” explains lead architect Paul White. At street level the original was a mess, with a clumsy disabled access ramp disfiguring the entrance onto the square. The practice ripped this annoyance away and levelled off the ground floor to meet street level, carefully avoiding a substation buried below. In a far-sighted move, the architects converted a small car park on the Goslett Yard side into a new entrance with its own reception, in anticipation of Crossrail’s arrival.

With building access a much simpler proposition, the focus turned to the thoroughly underwhelming Soho Square reception. The architects wasted little time in doubling its ceiling height and installing floor-to-ceiling glazing framed in bronzed steel. BGY has a strong track record of creating cool office spaces in east London, and its experience paid off here when it came to selecting materials. Marble and limestone were deemed too corporate and were replaced by a terrazzo floor and concrete-clad walls. At the rear of the space is a snaking black steel staircase revealed by rectangular apertures in the concrete. Barcelona chairs, the calling card of high-end office space, are nowhere to be seen, instead replaced by a configurable Tadao Ando-designed seat that resembles a child’s beach windmill. Faintly amusing is the pink neon “25 Soho Square” sign squiggled onto a black steel partition, which recalls Soho’s seedy underbelly. “Not us!” says White. One hopes the irony was intentional.

BGY extended the top three floors, generating an extra 200sq m of office spare and thereby clawing back some of the metreage lost in the reception. This had the added benefit of creating four wraparound external balconies – an all-too-rare boon in central London. Echoing the reception’s aesthetic, the office space features riveted black steel columns.

By channelling services through customised steel boxes and galvanised ductwork, the architects stretched the room heights (originally a stooping 2.3 metres) without the traditional mess associated with exposed ceilings. “These aren’t your run-of-the-mill services, which can look cheap. This is designed and considered,” says White. As one might expect with a BREEAM Excellent-rated building, a great deal of time (and money) was spent shoring up the insulation. The windows are high-specification and can be opened for natural ventilation and, on the Goslett Yard side, the architects added floor-to-ceiling glazing to capitalise on natural light.

London at rush hour increasingly resembles Saigon, so to meet the demand for bicycle storage BGY removed plant from the basement and placed it on the roof, making room for 40 bikes, plus lockers and four showers. Other eco-friendly measures include rooftop photovoltaics (which feel a tad tokenistic to be honest) and a resilient resin and reclaimed timber composite, Ecodek, used for the terraces. The upshot is a 33% reduction against the benchmark and an impressive EPC B-rating. So far only the basement space has been inhabited – by an online-betting odds agency – but according to BGY the reinvigorated 25 Soho Square has been warmly received.

If 25 Soho Square was originally a bit of a basket case, then by comparison 199 Bishopsgate still possessed its faculties, but was getting a bit long in the tooth. Completed in 1989 as part of the Broadgate development, the building’s placement was akin to a frontier town marking the final stop before you descended into the wilds of a pre-gentrified Shoreditch. “It really was regarded as the end of the known universe,” says Festus Moffat of John Robertson Architects (JRA), which was charged with reviving the building for owner British Land.

Strangely, the original design (by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) placed the entrance on the corner of Primrose Street, thus denying the building a Bishopsgate address. Anyone coming from Liverpool Street had to walk past metres of dead facade to get in. Moffat immediately shifted the entrance to Bishopsgate, doing away with its dated crown-like canopy and replacing it with a robust anodised aluminium portico framing a brace of revolving doors.

In a similar fashion to BGY’s work in Soho, Moffat created a double-height reception fronted by floor-to-ceiling glazing with the intention of ramping up the building’s street presence. This move fractures the harmony between this building and the main Broadgate development. The ornamental lamps, greeny copper-clad bay windows and granite are gone, and the result is a slicker frontage that sacrifices much of the building’s character in return for greater transparency. Bathed in sunlight (at least on the day onoffice visited) and featuring a pair of halo-like chandeliers, the reception is a bright and pleasant place to be. It is intended as a statement, with a towering backlit onyx wall forming a dramatic backdrop to a shiny polished-steel reception desk. “We were trying to pick up on the high-quality timeless materials that are seen elsewhere on the estate, like at 201 and 155 Bishopgate,” says Moffat. “It is an expensive feature but it was decided that the statement was worth it.”

Continuing the levity is a light travertine floor and a Barrisol light that tracks the curve towards the eastern facade and the lifts beyond. To access the lifts you must first negotiate a set of electronic turnstiles and two shallow, mildly hazardous steps (Moffat confirms a handrail is under consideration).

At the summit JRA demolished a mezzanine to create one super-office with five-metre-high ceilings and external terraces with views all the way to the Olympic Park. Moffat calculates this move, coupled with the enlarged reception, lost British Land 200sq m. “Better to make really good spaces rather than have two sub-par ones,” he reasons. British Land demanded a well-performing, sustainable building mirroring shifting attitudes in the City. Equal to the task, JRA extricated inefficient plant (which blighted every floor) and replaced it with a single plant on the roof, reclaiming 445sq m of lost space. This, allied with a raised floor that allows for a displacement ventilation system, results in very flexible workspaces. Also working in the architects’ favour was the quality of the original building, which Moffat describes as “a BMW rather than a Trabant.” Minimal work was needed in tightening up the facade, aside from better-quality windows. The architects saved a great deal of energy by incorporating more daylight, and movement sensors into the lighting. Unlike BGY, Moffat decided against rooftop PVs – the cost was deemed too high for what were negligible gains – but the practice did make room for 50 bikes. Credit must also go to British Land, which has included electric and thermal metering that feeds back to the occupier, so that running costs and inefficiencies can be monitored and tackled. Formerly one of Broadgate’s forgotten buildings, 199 Bishopsgate is now much harder to ignore.

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