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20 Aug 2009

Cathedral HQ by Allford Hall Monaghan

Words by  Photo by Rob Parrish
  • Architect: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
  • Client: Cathedral PLC
  • Location: London, UK
  • Cost: £697,000
  • Duration: August 2007 - November 2008
  • Floor Space: 495 sq m

Cathedral property developers are renowned for their work with listed buildings, so it is fitting that they chose an at risk building from the 1700s to convert into their new HQ

You could call it poetic justice that Cathedral Group – radical property developers renowned for the gusto with which they take on listed building projects – have made their new headquarters in a grade II listed church from the 1700s. St Thomas is one of the most important survivals of Queen Anne Architecture in London, and one of the least known.

The brief: to provide 5000 square feet of usable office space, for thirty people, in an open plan area that reflects the company’s structure and provides relaxation areas for staff. Key to all of this though, was having a variety of spaces and not creating something overly corporate-looking. They wanted something with, as the client described it, “wow-factor”. 

“One part of the brief was quite prescriptive and the other more emotional. Our first job was reinterpreting the original brief, which called for cellular space for directors. We developed this with them to get to where we are now. It was taking some of the emotional things they wanted as a space and feeding that back into their area requirements. As a result the directors and senior team members now all share the same open plan area,” says architect Matt Thornley.

The existing building was constructed by Thomas Cartwright, master mason for Sir Christopher Wren, at the beginning of the 18th century. It sits in the courtyard of St Thomas hospital, made famous by Florence Nightingale. 

It had lain empty for many years and following the construction of the Jubilee line extension in 1995, finally fell onto English Heritage’s at risk register after it had structurally moved. Falling further into disrepair, extensive cracks appeared in the metre-thick walls. 

Thornley is quick to point out that Cathedral wouldn’t have been happy moving into a standard office space as “it’s just not very them”. They do a lot of work with listed buildings, so this truly demonstrates what they are about.

His point shines through in the juxtaposition of the old building with the contemporary art and design fittings throughout the project. “It was about creating a clear contrast between old and new. We thought that was more respectful than trying to do a pastiche of an existing building. The fact that the old isn’t straight and doesn’t line up, and has a texture to it, and the new is machined and modern - that contrast is where the building gets really exciting,” Thorney says.

“We worked openly with English Heritage from day one. We discussed what was key for them and interpreted it creatively, rather than be too scared of it”

The reception area is home to two vintage armchairs, with a large print perching awkwardly on the floor behind, propped up by bricks. Chapel-esque timber panelling surrounds the ground floor while a contemporary glass cantilevered balcony hovers above, creating the mezzanine. 

“We tried to make the insertions pieces of architecture, clean and as visibly new as possible, so that you can distinctly read what’s new and old. It highlights the qualities of both rather than trying to make it look like we hadn’t touched it,” adds Thornley.

The crypt houses three meeting rooms which are the only cellular space in the building. The centrepiece is the long tunnelesque boardroom with magnetic whiteboards running the length of the room, which serve as moodboards for visiting architects and creatives. Jacobsen’s Grand Prix chairs line the meeting room tables. 

The ground floor is the main work area for the team. Hanging from the oak panelling is Cathedral’s contemporary art collection. A central music system, controlled by an ipod mounted on the wall pumps low, calming electro music into the office through carefully positioned speakers. 

“We were very keen to create a space that was useful for them, somewhere they could put their art collection and their belongings and actually display them. Part of the brief was to house all of what Cathedral is. We provided the structure for that to happen within,” Thornley explains. 

The balcony is essentially a breakout area, envisioned for staff to take their coffee together in the mornings. White leather modular sofas sit snugly, while separate hotdesk spaces dotted with Cherner chairs offer secluded work areas for those who need some personal space. Overseeing all of this is an almost life-sized horse lamp from Studio Moooi, which pleasantly dominates the area. 

“Staff at Cathedral are highly valued, so that needed to be made clear in terms of making the space democratic. We also wanted this space to have a relationship to the office that was slightly distinct,” says Thornley.

Given the projects almost epic constraints, it’s remarkable that Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the architects responsible for the second phase of the project, following Richard Griffiths architects who managed the first phase, received listed building planning consent within just eight weeks. 

“We worked openly with English Heritage from day one. We had meetings to discuss what was key for them and interpreted it creatively, rather than be too scared of it. So it wasn’t like we got to the point where we put in a planning application and crossed our fingers,” adds Thornley.

Richard Griffiths, the first phase architects, acted as historic building consultants by researching the history of the building and the issues that needed to be faced in the conversion, the scope for new intervention and the repair of the historic fabric. 

Griffiths comments: “Conservation and progress are not incompatible; on the contrary, both are essential for a sustainable future.”

But there are many challenges when refurbishing a building of this historical significance, tells Thornley: “One of the other constraints is that everything had to be undoable, you have to be able to take it back to what it was originally, in the future, that’s one of the English Heritage requirements. Everything can be stripped back out, so everything touches very lightly.” 

Perhaps the biggest achievement is the building’s removal from English Heritage at risk register. Thornley concludes that this is how the success of the project should be judged: “The fact is that the building is back, operating, from the condition it was in. It’s really exciting to think that you can use a three hundred year old building as a property developer’s headquarters.”

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