Eric Parry Architects surprises and delights with its inventive, decorative St James’ Square building
Cut through the back streets of London’s Mayfair and you will find yourself brought up short. Not by the diamonds and designers of Bond Street, but by scattered quite unexpected, rather special buildings which make you stop and take a second look. There is something arresting about them, the depth of facade, the materiality, exuberant ceramics, something that is not just good architecture but is quite remarkable.
I have come to look at the latest in this line of Eric Parry Architects’ buildings in the area. As I stand outside, I am torn between the shady green of St James’s Square and examining the corner of Number 8 with the Duke of York Street – wanting to divine the pattern that makes the brickwork more interesting than it should be. In the age of £1113/m2 school buildings and Make’s panellised behemoth in Broadgate, how could such an interesting office building come into being?
It is not sculptor Stephen Cox’s chiselled and chipped figure emerging from the India granite that draws my attention, though that is part of the ensemble. Nor is it the projecting bay that I read as some Tudor tribute (Cox has described it as Islamic mashrabiya, Parry references Czech Cubism). The wonderfully warped bronzed frames in that bay couldn’t make it so special alone. Nor could the hefty rolling granite sills. It is all those and more. The north corner to Apple Tree Yard skips rationalisation, just as it skipped value engineering or rationality itself. The reasons are neither here nor there. Parry doesn’t even bother to dredge up some post rationalisation, they just are.
Though Parry obviously loves this corner, even more than I do, it is St James’s Square he starts with. The site, previously a 1939 office, is flanked by Chatham House’s dark brick on the other side of Duke of York Street and Edwin Lutyens’ Number 7, long time home of the Royal Fine Art Commission. These have been the muses for the new black white facade that fronts onto this square. The detail makes this intriguing and inviting close to, here there is the pattern in the setting out of the (loadbearing) brick and there the depth of the facade (which slips into nothingness as the storey height shrinks).
At a distance these details fade. Abstracted at scale the result is a rather stark facade. It is sharply cut by the bands of render and the flattened white-framed windows have a plasticky, less-than the tactile quality, unlike that which marks out the rest of the building. Replacing a taller building gave some freedoms so the storeys are not aligned with the others in the square. This starts at the ground floor which Parry was convinced needed a grand floor to ceiling height as the piano nobile – itself a tradition among its Georgian neighbours of course. Here step backs minimise the bulk of the building but that still projects a little uncomfortably above the datum of its neighbours. And while the facade is broken up on Duke of York Street, facing the square its great breadth seems disproportionate.
The reception too has an unexpected scale. Behind a counter echoing a roll-top writing desk and alongside a tall vitrine is a solid square boardroom table. It’s the establishment: you’ve arrived. And it certainly does seem a little too establishment after the imagination of outside. So let’s inspect the office floors, it can’t get any more ordinary than a Cat A ready for fit-out, surely. And suddenly, your breath is snatched away. You step out to a sheer cliff: light, marble, bright swirls – a quarry face. And we are going up it.
The lightwell-liftshaft is a delicious surprise. It might only do that once but will be a delight at any time, and is visible through the glass lifts on the upper floors. One might argue it is born out of necessity. Alongside it the Lutyens’ house, once part of the site, has been sectioned off, the courtyard behind to be the super discreet space of a new private house. This means the inner walls of the L plan are land locked, so we have the two light wells – the upper floors of the lift shaft borrowing light through the glass lifts themselves.
If you could peer into the interiors of this 18th and 19th century square you would see many such surprises. The grand staircase of the Lutyens’ house, the curves and columns of Chatham House and the myriad of delights of the London Library’s reading rooms and metal grilled book stacks. Hidden away at the back of the site in Apple Tree Yard Lutyens drew up New Delhi, thus the aptness of the India dolorite used by Cox on his sculpture. Here the facade gives far more to the streetscape than most dare imagine – and this is as well as offering 6085m2 of virgin office space, with windows tilted to reflect the sky in its beautiful and complex wrap.
And how did such a thing came into being in these times? You could say the answer lies in the value of offices in St James Square. But it is also in the genius and unerring hand of Parry and his team, a remarkable inventiveness in artistic collaboration and in the unexpected detail.
Total contract cost Undisclosed
GIA per m2 Less than £3200
Form of contract JCT standard design and build
Architect: Eric Parry Architects
Development manager: Green Property
Project manager: GVA Second London Wall
Structural engineer: Price and Myers
Building services engineer: Mecserve
Historic building consultant and townscape Consultant: Citydesigner
Quantity surveyor: Gleeds
Planning consultant: DP9
Acoustic consultant: Alan Saunders Associates
Archaeological consultant: MOLA
Transport/ highways consultant: TTP
Lighting consultant: DPA Lighting Design
Stone facade subcontractor Szerelmey
Glazing and curtain walling subcontractor English Architectural Glazing
Brick subcontractor Grangewood Brickwork
Specialist rolled art glass subcontractor Sculpture Factory
Interior fit out and WC subcontractor JJ Sweeney
M&E subcontractor Briggs & Forrester
Lift subcontractor Otis
Impala Granite Grupimar
Porfido Viola Pordfido Pedrettis SPA
Cabeca Veada Limestone LSi Stone
Flint Limestone Gareth Davies
Render St Astier Natural Hydraulic Lime Render
Curtain walling and windows Schuco International
Laminated rolled Goethe glass Pearsons Glass
Brickwork Coleford Brick and Tile, Petersen and Ibstock
Inverted roofing Radmat
Metalwork and balustrades Premier Engineering
Office lighting Concord, Selux
Specialist lighting Mike Stoane Lighting , Madsen Black
Raised access floors Kingspan
Suspended ceiling SAS International
Plasterboard wall and ceiling British Gypsum
Doors and joinery Shadbolt International
Ironmongery D Line
Bespoke furniture Benchmark, Brown and Carroll