WAF Newsletter - Something in the City - September 2021

Something in the City

Jeremy Melvin, 23 September 2021


A visit to see the 100 Liverpool Street building in the City of London, recently remodeled by Hopkins Architects, recalls the potency the word ‘Broadgate’ held for anyone studying at a London architecture school in the mid-1980s, writes Jeremy Melvin.

View of 100 Liverpool Street across the Broadgate arena - Make's No 5 Broadgate to the left.​ Photo: Charles Hosea

For 100 Liverpool Street was an integral part of the vast development of that name, on the site of the redundant Broad Street rail station, alongside (and in later phases partly covering) the even larger Liverpool Street Station, operational then and now. As such, it set a precedent for redeveloping land over rail stations and tracks, some redundant others still in use, that affected the termini at Cannon Street, Charing Cross and King’s Cross/St Pancras over the following couple of decades.

But Broadgate was much more than a story of urban regeneration. London at the time was changing socially, politically and economically. It began to shake off its long and justifiable reputation for being gastronomically challenged. Its social diversity, already a fact, began to be recognised, accepted, and built into policy formation. But above all, the government of Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council and instigated the so-called Big Bang, whereby restrictive practices that had characterised financial deal-making in the City of London were scrapped.

Enter, stage right, large American, European and Japanese investment banks, who took over the traditionally minded and managed stockbrokers and stock jobbers, made their partners multi-millionaires and paid them and their junior staff salaries commensurate with their new status as ‘masters of the universe’ (to borrow Tom Wolfe’s phrase). And that required a reconfiguration of the City’s urban fabric on a scale equal to that of the post-World War II reconstruction, if not quite as drastic as that in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666. In the mid-1990s, the Architecture Foundation commissioned a model of the City, showing that about one third of its buildings dated from before 1939, another third between c1950 and 1985, with the remainder built over the following decade.

Broadgate was both an example and a motor of this change. As soon as Big Bang was mooted in the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 landslide election win, smarter developers realised that it would drive a massive need, not just for new office space but for office space of a different kind. Among them were Geoffrey Wilson of Greycoat, his partner Stuart Lipton, and slightly later the financial wizard Godfrey Bradman The first two responsible for Finsbury Avenue, a precursor of and adjacent to Broadgate, with Lipton and Bradman teaming up as Rosehaugh Stanhope for Broadgate proper.

They understood that changing financial services required, as transactions moved from face-to-face confrontations in the bearpit-like trading floor of the Stock Exchange to being entirely electronic, was cavernous dealing spaces where serried ranks of traders could sit cheek by jowl, facing a pair of computer screens with little else to distract them. Once the dealing day ended, they needed places to consume conspicuously a small proportion of their inflated incomes.

This sort of space was rare in the City and even harder to construct afresh, given its street pattern and plot shapes. So the tabula rasa of rail lands was a godsend. On them, buildings could be configured to idea shapes for the new trading patterns. And while London had always had its congenial hostelries, many were tucked away in obscure locations and so unsuitable for 25-year-olds looking to signal their prowess by offering vintage champagne all round.

Starting with Finsbury Avenue, Wilson and Lipton believed that a new approach to architecture was required. Up to that point there was a divide between architects who did speculative commercial work and those who did prestigious, owner-occupied offices, and other high-profile buildings. They turned to Arup Associates, the architectural offshoot of the eponymous engineering consultancy, and in particular one of its most talented design partners, Peter Foggo. Not a few informed commentators considered Arup Associates to be the finest firm of architects in the UK. Known up to that time as designers of crafted, one-off buildings for clients in industrial, commercial and institutional sectors, they had recently been pipped to the post by Ahrends Burton & Koralek in the ultimately aborted first National Gallery extension competition, so they were looking for new outlets just as Wilson and Lipton were looking for a new approach to architecture. (Nevertheless, the idea of working with a speculative developer prompted a main board meeting to agree that in principle this was acceptable.)

Given the tight timescale to bring new buildings to market in time for Big Bang, Lipton sought to pioneer construction methods, imported from the US, which were unfamiliar in London. This played to Arup Associates’ foundational belief in ‘collaboration’ – architects, engineers and quantity surveyors all worked together – which itself stemmed from the credo running through the whole Arup organisation and stemming from its founder, that there is no meaningful distinction between disciplines in the construction industry.

The first flowering of this new settlement, No 1 Finsbury Avenue, was remarkable. It had a crisp, elegant steel and glass façade, a generous foyer and a rational plan that allowed an occupier to create the necessary large dealing floor. It established a formula followed in No’s 2 and 3 Finsbury Avenue.

Broadgate proper followed hard on its heels. Here, though, the architectural idiom changed. The City planners, then as now, favoured stone cladding. Arup Associates were obsessed by ‘tartan’ grids and three-dimensional facades. Broadgate tried to bring about a union of the two sets of principles, which resulted in the buildings being covered in a lattice of pink granite that was justified as sun screening but lost the elegance of Finsbury Avenue’s steel and glass composition. While some architectural commentators lauded the ‘enlightened patronage’ of using a firm like Arup Associates for speculative commercial buildings, at least one expressed a preference for the nearby Dracula’s Castle-like composition of Minster (often mistaken for Monster) Court by the old City architect warhorse GMW, on the grounds that it was more honest, more inventive and gave just as efficient floorplates as Broadgate.

All this preamble shows that Broadgate was successful in its own terms. It attracted high- grade tenants including swiss banking giant UBS, who eventually occupied several of its buildings. It showed that a certain degree of mixed use, at least small-scale retail and hospitality, was compatible with an office district. And its arena, a circular open space proved popular, not least when it contained a Christmas-period skating rink.

It also broke down the barrier between architects who did speculative commercial work and those who wouldn’t touch it. Foster, Rogers and Hopkins flowed into the breach and within a decade had left Arup Associates standing. So a couple of decades or so after it was completed, Broadgate began to look tired and dated. Around that point, British Land bought it and have since pursued an incremental strategy to upgrade it.

More or less their first task, remembers David Lockyer, British Land’s head of campuses (which include Regent’s Place on Euston Road), was to secure the continued presence of UBS as their leases were shortening. That resulted in a decision to redevelop a large chunk of the entire estate to provide a Leviathan-like building, designed by Make, delivered by British Land but with UBS agreeing to a pre-let. which contains just about everything to nurture their staffs’ working lives.

That freed up a series of original buildings occupied by UBS on the site, among them 100 Liverpool Street. In 2012 Hopkins were appointed to examine options for redevelopment and refurbishment. As their work progressed, the shadow of Brexit began to loom large over the future of the City as a financial centre, and the presence of foreign banks in particular. Many of the driving forces behind Broadgate’s conception had diverged or even reversed. But, as Lockyer remembers, the location has inherent strengths, notably sitting alongside one of London’s busiest commuter termini, and its proximity to commercial clients and partners on one side, and the emerging and diverse if edgier district of Spitalfields on the other.

Cross section (Hopkins Architects)

The scene was set for a profound reimagining of a large City office building – even before Covid and its aftermath crystallised the urgency of that task. On top of that, there is now far greater concern about energy and carbon consumption.

Diagram of structure, showing the original, the retained and the completed forms (Hopkins Architects)

So Hopkins had their work cut out, but what they have achieved seems to be a good as possible given the parameters involved. They have re-used much of the existing structure, including all the subterranean elements, and by exercising considerable ingenuity with transfer structures, have managed to add significantly to the building’s size – a 45 per cent uplift from 33,000 to 48,000 sqm, with three new floors more or less invisible from the ground due to set-backs. All this has helped, together with a new façade and sophisticated air handling, to achieve a BREEAM Outstanding rating. The transfer structures also allow the slightly clumsy, angular perimeter of the original to be smoothed out as well as extended.

The concourse from Liverpool Street has two levels of shops. Photo: Janie Airey

The original development had an awkward series of external levels, partly stemming from the complicated pattern of use, ownership and control, split between the national railways, London Underground and various utilities. That did not stop a new shopping mall being created from the station to the arena, but it did mean that some pedestrians shared a surface with a busy bus interchange. Hopkins managed to resolve this without stirring the hornets’ nest of infrastructure and its operators, subtly grading the levels, separating pedestrians and buses, sinking the magnificent inclined steel sheets of Richard Serra’s memorable sculpture – ‘several tonnes of raw steel’, winces Hopkins’ director Chris Bannister – which provides an orientation point from the station, the arena and Liverpool Street. It also achieves the commercial grail of good footfall for two levels of shops.

The view to the north from the upper roof terraces is remarkable. Photo: Janie Airey

The staircases are deliberately enticing, to encourage workers to use them. Photo: Janie Airey

The new façade, glass and dark, matt anodised aluminium, is gently curved, which together with a subtle colour palette helps to draw the eye across its considerable expanse. Hopkins, Bannister explains, monitored the supply chain to manage carbon consumption, so the aluminium was smelted from a hydro-electric power source in Norway. The facade also subtly incorporates air-handling. There is no attempt to disguise its size, but conversely it seems to be appropriate in and sensitive to the context of large buildings. Aluminium fins stand forward from the glass, appearing to close up or draw apart depending on the curvature. This is the sort of visual effect which Hopkins understand and have exploited on some of their greatest projects, for example the Mound Stand at Lords cricket ground and Glyndebourne opera house, so it is comforting to know they can also deliver it on a speculative office development.

Image showing layout of ground level entrances and first floor reception (Hopkins Architects)

Resolving the floorplate was another important task. Few want enormous dealing floors any more, with office occupiers more attuned to the benefits and attractions of daylight, so Hopkins cut an atrium into the heart of the plan. A complicated irregular helix in form, it is visually attractive with effects enhanced by imaginative; it also reduces the distance to an external window across much of the floorspace.

The facade adds interest to the building. No 5 Broadgate in the background. Photo: Janie Airey

What is impressive is how the urban context, façade and internal character reinforce each other. Reconfiguring the plan with that central atrium gives more flexibility at the perimeter, which Hopkins use to good effect, providing a variety of outdoor spaces, all attractively planted, and ranging in size from a restaurant terrace to small, intimate roof gardens. Taking advantage of how the new upper floors set back to varying degrees from the building line, much of the office space does not just have the benefit of windows but also of these green spaces.

Entrance on Liverpool Street. Photo: Janie Airey

All this indicates a welcome sensitivity to what it is to be an office worker. Almost certainly the occupants will be commuting by train into Liverpool Street from Essex or Suffolk, then walking from the platform along the busy concourses, possibly stopping for essentials, grabbing a coffee or lunch before entering the building. They will ascend to the first-floor reception and take a lift to their workspace – or use the stair if it’s on one of the lower levels. Their destination will have an attractive atmosphere, with the promise of a moment or two of relaxation outside during the day.

The foyer is symbolically and literally the building’s heart – and imaginatively conceived for the post-Covid era. Recognizing that new working patterns are likely to be more diverse and flexible, the office space is fully let to a multiplicity of tenants rather than one, as used to be the norm, with the retail units under offer. Whether this will lead to any commercial synergy between tenants has yet to be seen, but it helped to set the tone for the foyer, no longer a large piece of commercial conspicuous consumption as large, almost always empty mono- occupier foyers tend to be. It has an attractive coffee bar, surrounded by comfortable, sofa-style seating. This has something of the feel of a workplace ’club’ that WeWork or Second Home would die for, but without their garish and faux-cheap detailing. Indeed, Lockyer acknowledges a debt to the character of Spitalfields in suggesting that commercial development there ‘extended’ the area of high-grade offices, but this building brings something of Spitalfields where almost every doorway leads to an artisanal coffee-shop, populated by bearded tech-heads interacting with their PowerBooks or, more rarely, other people.

100 Liverpool Street is certainly able to offer facilities, attuned both to flip-flop wearers and business types in pinstripes. With the reset of amenities across and beyond Broadgate, it is a confident statement about the future of the office and wider urban life, achieved by the exercise of considerable architectural skill and imagination.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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