In the last ten years, AHMM has changed the face of office design, conjuring landmark buildings from once-unlovely structures and making efficient, stripped-back, easy to read workplaces. onoffice found them just as lucid in person
In 2004, Shoreditch’s Tea Building opened its doors, marking the end of a ten-year process to overhaul a warehouse first built for the Lipton tea family more than a century ago. It was around the same time the satirical comedy Nathan Barley hit our television screens.Written by Chris Morris, the show was a razor-sharp send-up of the “self-facilitating media nodes” that bounced up and down the gritty East End streets, proving so London-centric that not everyone got the joke.
The architects behind the Tea Building, AHMM, surely saw the funny side. The practice’s retouching of 19th-century warehouse into cool studios crystallised what the city’s new image-conscious entrepreneurs in search of flexible, cheap space, had been doing since the mid-1990s.
The Tea Building marks the moment when the fringe entered the mainstream, and ten years on, it is impossible to image Shoreditch without it.
Most significantly, it offered a genuine alternative to the glass towers its brick facade rubs up against. “It showed us what modern tenants wanted from a building. It is not about the glossy things they wanted ten years ago,” says AHMM’s Paul Monaghan when I meet him and his fellow directors (Simon Allford, Jonathan Hall and Peter Morris) at their Clerkenwell office. “The lifts take a long time to arrive; it gets hot in the summer; but people wanted to be there because the mix of tenants created a great spirit in the building. That is what’s important.”
AHMM’s impact on office design cannot be underestimated. No UK practice of recent times has pushed the boundaries quite as far in a section of the market distinguished by its conservatism.
Its willingness to approach each project with a fresh pair of eyes, a characteristic that all four directors subscribe to, fired the imagination of Google, with AHMM winning the competition to design the company’s super-HQ at King’s Cross.
There were other high-profile contract wins as well – the revamp of Scotland Yard and the BBC Television Centre – but the £1bn project to deliver a new home for the most famous start-up of them all was the gin in the martini. Ludic CGIs depicting a rooftop swimming pool, football pitch and climbing wall appeared everywhere from the broadsheets to the blogs.
Fittingly, Simon Allford likened AHMM’s building to a theatre, with auditorium and movable walls playing the role of stage sets and props. But then Google shelved the plans, and asked AHMM to redesign the whole thing.
If the practice had any inkling it was about to tread on a banana skin it made no mention of it. Rather predictably, the architects were not answering any follow-up questions, instead redirecting onoffice to Google’s press office. The internet giant is famously paranoid regarding its public image, keeping an asphyxiating grasp on the architects with which it works.
It proves that everyone gets knocked back at some point. In September, the firm’s Stratford Centre tower fell foul of Newham’s planning department, which was unconvinced by the amount of student housing included in the design.
“People wanted to be there because the mix of tenants created a great spirit in the building”
Still, AHMM is a potent enough force to overcome issues like this. After 25 years in the business, the directors, who formed the practice after meeting at university, have survived three recessions, emerging from the last one in better shape than most. “The first job that got us headlines was Walsall Bus Station, which we won in 1995. We haven’t done another transport building since,” says Hall.
The project separated an unhealthy mess of pedestrians and buses with an elliptical glass and concrete structure.
More importantly, it brought the practice to the attention of developers Derwent London, which drafted in AHMM to transform the Morelands Buildings in Clerkenwell (now the architect’s main office) from a confluence of brick blocks into a modern, easily navigated workplace. Completed in 1999, it established a 20-year relationship that has drawn the best work from both architect and developer. “We grew up with them,” says Monaghan. “They were doing work that seemed massive to us at the time. It is a relationship where being inventive and innovative is everything.”
Morelands laid the groundwork for the Tea Building, which kicked off a line of mould-breaking office buildings for Derwent, culminating in the White Collar Factory currently underway on Old Street.
Ostensibly a medium-rise office tower on the City fringe, behind its punched aluminium facade lies a pared-down, almost warehouse-like interior, with high ceilings and an exposed concrete frame, all aimed squarely at the slew of tech companies around the so-called silicon roundabout. “Its an extreme version but the logic of this building can be taken into projects – generosity of floor-to-ceiling height, public space, natural ventilation – they are all things London will increasingly have,” says Allford. A case in point is a brace of mixed-use buildings for the Crown Estate in the West End. The target audience is far removed from the nerdocracy dominating the city’s opposing end, but nevertheless Regent Street blocks W4 and W5 incorporate elements from the White Collar Factory. “The thing that ties them all together is the energy story, which used to be a kind of bolt on. These days, no tenant going into a modern building would not be interested in the energy performance.”
AHMM’s first building was an award-winning pool house for a private client before it moved into schools with Great Notley Primary School in 1999 – a dynamic, arrowhead-shaped concoction that scooped yet more awards.
More education work followed as the practice capitalised on the wave of investment that defined New Labour’s early years with the Building Schools for the Future programme. During this time, AHMM was branching out, scooping landmark office developments like 240 Blackfriars (due to be completed in 2014). As the practice grew, the four directors slipped into clearly defined roles, with each one taking the lead on a project with the rest remaining slightly removed. This approach mirrored the way AHMM wins jobs – much of its work is repeat business thanks to strong relationships between a director and client. It is also guards against too many creative ideas diluting a design.
The firm’s upward trajectory looked set to continue until the recession hit and, as the banks called in their loans, the construction industry ground to a halt. “I wouldn’t say we flatlined, but we went slower than we might have done,” says Monaghan. “We are just now getting back to where we were.” That the architects avoided the huge staff culls that befell similar-sized operations is thanks to its willingness to diversify rather than specialise. “We felt that by being architects we had already specialised enough,” says Allford.
AHMM avoids complex CGIs at the early design stages, preferring to work with its seven-strong model-making team to create an object that can be tweaked, adjusted and played around with. “The danger is that you do not know what the building is at the early stages,” says Allford. “You might have ideas about the building in the city and how it might be used, so you don’t want to be stuck with this bloody image too soon.” Process and a free exchange of ideas prevent architecture becoming formulaic. “I don’t think we have ever tried to create a formula for our architecture because we like to try to invent that with the clients we work with,” says Monaghan.
The practice’s conciliatory nature has allowed it to create great buildings within a system where architects are often periphery figures.
The directors remember when after years of publicly funded work, the new Design and Build contracts were viewed as a disaster for the profession. “We went from being kings of the world to being employed by contractors,” says Allford. Some architects saw it as a mess and did not want to get involved. But we realised that Design and Build was just another contract and providing you can draw enough information, and get paid enough money to protect the product, you can work very well with them.”
“These days no tenant in a modern building would not be interested in energy performance”
This tight-knit relationship with developers means AHMM can pinpoint exactly how and where to spend its money.
The Yellow Building in 2008, for example, is a seven-storey office block for Nottingdale Ltd/Monsoon Accessorize produced on a tight budget given the building’s scale.
The architects allowed the impressive concrete frame to take centre stage in an apposite marriage of function and the aesthetic. Monaghan sums up: “You know when your staircase detail is going to be a pain in the arse for a contractor. We work out how or where to adapt our design – because if it is a fire escape stair, then who gives a toss?” Naturally, this level of attention is only possible when an architect is committed to a given project until the keys are handed over. “We don’t just get planning and bugger off. The detail is everything.”
AHMM’s best-known office space, the Angel Building (2010), unites all of these themes.
On paper, the overhaul of a muddy brown lump at the top of Pentonville Road was a far from promising brief. The building’s transformation, however, was so emphatic that it appeared brand new.
Aside from the beautifully finished interior, the architects convinced Derwent to carry out significant concessions to the public realm. Security was shifted towards the rear of the atrium and the ground floor was given over to a cafe. Despite being a speculative office building, it was deemed good enough to make the 2011 Stirling Prize shortlist (eventually losing out to Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy), and has become a euphemism in developer speak for reinventing a tired building. Angel demonstrated AHMM’s belief as to the role an office should play in an urban context. “They are the core buildings of the city and they have a huge impact on the success of the businesses – the less fortress-like they feel the better it is.” Like the Tea Building, it has become iconic by virtue of the spirit it brings to the neighbourhood.
Though they employ close to 300 people, the directors are not bent on achieving a presence in every continent, preferring an organic growth built on trustworthy contacts.
The project architect on the Angel Building, for example, was associate Wade Scaramucci. An Oklahoman relocated to London, his presence has provided a foothold into the US market with AHMM opening an office in Oklahoma City; the firm completed 250 apartments there last year. The practice’s other overseas work is in the Netherlands, at the University of Amsterdam, and a housing project in Ghana, which again came about serendipitously through a former employee.
Though not averse to working abroad, Morris says the firm has no interest in chasing Middle Eastern petrochemical dollars. “While there are firms doing good buildings out there, a lot more are bad. We have friends who tell us [clients] want to see a CGI even before the first meeting because they are selling objects, where as we are selling ideas and space.” It is certainly hard to picture AHMM in a place like Dubai: the 90-metre-high 240 Blackfriars is a pygmy compared with the glittering glass edifices of the emirates, but even so, it folds back deferentially from the pavement and neighbouring Ludgate House. In an environment where context is nothing and shape or height is everything, compromises like this are unlikely and probably unwelcome.
There is an acute plausibility about all of AHMM’s work. Even the doll’s house it designed for a recent charity auction was utterly feasible where other practices had allowed their imagination to run amok. Perhaps it is just as well. The architecture world has enough dreamers. One gets the feeling that AHMM’s work, which for the most part helps hold our cities together, will be appreciated for many years to come.