Beneath its colourful eyecatching ‘make-up’, Eric Parry Architects’ One Eagle Place for the Crown Estate is more than just a pretty face. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful building whose classical lines nonetheless speak strongly of modern design values
Scored, sprayed and blooming with gross growths, One Eagle Place has the most beautiful facade. There are few architects with a track record like Eric Parry Architects for turning a standard, even banal, typology into something so special. His treatment of offices is not as exercises in net to gross but as individuals in an urban landscape.
That has been most successful where there was a strong form to respond to. At Finsbury Square Parry’s Scottish Widows contributed the calmest yet most surreptitiously powerful facade to an admittedly jumbled context. At One Eagle Place, Piccadilly, the historic boulevard has given Parry material he loves to work with – and against. The cornice is symbolic of so much in this new addition to the street: the reimposition of the street form, a very different interpretation of classicism, essential ornament. Interestingly, this is also some of the ‘art’ of the building – Richard Deacon’s contribution to the project. If you are not expecting it then it is a shock of colour. The true scale of the cornice is of course imperceptible from street level where the mass of colour has a sense of other, its weight no more than a tree’s crown.
As Eric Parry talks, his references are to Sir Reginald Blomfield, Alfred Waterhouse’s bank in the next block and the grand Swan and Edgar opposite. The urns, dentil friezes and twiddles of these buildings are dispensed with, in favour of a new generation of ornament. The red on the window reveals reads like spray paint. Parry calls it a ‘blush’. He likens it to a made up face, ‘artifice’ to beautify a (north) face like the lights of Piccadilly Circus do. His description of ‘polychromy’ connects the building and lights to high Victorian architecture. To Parry, the fact the cornice and spray were part of the original conception and are fired onto the ceramic makes them a fundamental part of the building (although Parry’s own make up metaphor does suggest that it is applied as much as embedded).
The modernist Simpsons of Piccadilly, now Waterstones, designed by Joseph Emberton, doesn’t fit the narrative of Piccadilly’s cornice compliance. But in a strange way the curve and the lips of its display windows find a resonance with Parry’s oriel windows and oversized first floor sills (which turn the three shop frontages into six bays). It is interesting that Parry decided to design the windows rather than just add glazing in choice positions, as he has also at 50 New Bond Street. They are generously expressive, modelled into what Parry calls a ‘smile’ that dips the sill. Front on they do smile and glimpsed from along Piccadilly the red smiles with them.
There is undoubtedly classicism at work here in proportion and parts. Ascending through the building, the elements of each layer – columns, oriel windows, attic and loggia – either draw together or gently pull apart the rhythm of those below. But, like many of Parry’s other buildings and very unlike its neighbour – 198-202 Piccadilly, completed by self proclaimed classicist Robert Adam in 2007 – the columns do not project from the facade but are cut into it.
This building is not just a facade. That is a small, though very public, part of it. The St James’s Gateway project, part of The Crown Estate’s St James’s masterplan, encompasses a whole block, abutting Blomfield’s bank on the corner of Piccadilly Circus and Piccadilly. Cleaning, clearing and rebuilding on the site mix with new build, after a more radical whole-block approach was dismissed early due to levels and leases.
Blomfield’s listed Clydesdale Bank is being given a deep clean so it can once again stand proud in its prime corner position on Piccadilly Circus. Along from this were four smaller buildings, built before the height of the cornice and the scale of the street were established. Parry resolved to take down three of them (yes, even in a conservation area) and rework the base of the fourth, a corner building, from the second floor down. Significantly each element of the building – formerly the 1960s Baron outfitters – was removed and then replaced 1700mm higher. ‘Lots of rules were broken,’ he admits. The shift brings the cornice into line with the street and creates a ground floor retail unit with a far more lettable ceiling height.
Round the corner, down the alleyway of Eagle Place and onto Jermyn Street, the ground level drops away by nearly 2m. All these buildings have been reworked with vitrines handsomely poised to display the tailoring goods that have traditionally been sold in Jermyn Street. These continue into Eagle Place, an attempt by Parry to stop it being used as a pissoir. Offices mainly line the western elevation with apartments, in two clusters, above to the east and south east. Blomfield’s listed Barclays’ banking hall, facing onto Haymarket, has been left roughly stripped, awaiting a retail fit out.
It all sounds complicated and the plan and section confirm that it is. But on entering the generous lobby and ascending to the L-shaped office floor it appears simple. Just the few touches allowed by the Cat A fit-out suggest that outside this is something special. The first are the lifts with their red enamel surrounds, and white glass inside. The loos continue the theme with red ceramic handbag shelves (for gents as well as ladies) next to the basins and red glass behind the toilets. Then there are the bay windows curving voluptuously back into the building, displaying the red of the window reveals. The windows do require something of a contortion in the suspended ceiling which swoops up to the facade to ensure it doesn’t cut off the windows in their prime.
‘One Eagle Place picks up the strong threads of classicism and expressive, materially rich city buildings’
The core feels a little squeezed but manages to serve both offices and the cluster of apartments for sale. They share an escape stair and the residential lift is twisted just 90°. And speaking off efficiency, the new work has seen significant uplift on the site as a tiny, uneconomic hotel as well as numerous offices and a few shops were replaced. Apartments for rent sit above the bank hall set around a light well of glazed bricks. Here Eric Parry Architects gets to show its attention to detail at a completely different scale, dressing the apartments from handles and bathrooms to fridges, furniture and crockery. Enviable good taste.
There is something rather Victorian about the Piccadilly side of One Eagle Place – certainly a sense that it predates the thin facades of modernism. The ceramic laid with lime mortar is part of it, not load bearing but at least a material with depth and presence in front of the steel frame. Here the facade actually manipulates the office space. It feels heretical. Parry tried a more typical office grid of 3m centres which gave him eight bays, but he didn’t feel the rhythm was right. Six (and six bays and six oriel windows) did. So 3.75m centres it is.
‘It is not based on the tyranny of the grid,’ says Parry. ‘It comes from an urban point of view.’ A more standard format asserts itself again away from the Piccadilly facade, the material echoes the change as the richly textured grove (Portland) stone takes over, although in uncomfortably harshly-incised joints.
One Eagle Place picks up the strong threads of classicism and expressive, materially rich city buildings that have been seen in iterations from Stirling, Wilford and Associates at Number 1 Poultry to the best Foggo Associates buildings – but with refinement. In less skillful hands this block could easily look clumsy. But classical lessons of scale and proportion, crafted materials and some bravura colour moves make One Eagle Place an unexpectedly human and deeply satisfying piece of city. Can Crown Estates maintain this original, high quality standard of design in the development of the rest of St James’s?