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Lucent’s intricate facades give Piccadilly Circus’ famous ‘lights’ corner new life

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Words:
Isabelle Priest

Lucent still looks like 13 buildings despite the single space they enclose, expanding and enriching the streetscape in the heart of London’s West End

As an almost triangular plot measuring 3,047m2, Lucent is not the largest city block, yet its position makes it one of the most loaded – perhaps in the world. Its name is a clue, but perhaps not quite enough of one. Because even if you don’t know the project you do know the site.  Everyone does. Lucent is the new name for the city block that accommodates the Piccadilly Circus Lights. What makes it loaded is that each of its elevations are so atmospherically different. You have the digital screen, which contrasts to the classical formality of Regent Street. Then there is Denman Street, a narrow lane of lower, humbler townhouses that is more Soho than Regency. The remaining side on Shaftesbury Avenue is part of theatreland, with its neon signs and aspect to the casinos and cinemas of Leicester Square and Chinatown.

The site’s owner, Landsec, has been acquiring the individual buildings that make up the island since the 1960s. It took over the last in October 2012. That’s how Lucent came about. Previously, the site comprised 13 buildings with a dank courtyard in the centre. The broad idea was to bring them into a single building. Fletcher Priest Architects was brought in via a closed invited competition, having worked with Landsec several times.

At that point the extent of the works wasn’t clear. However, phase 1, the replacement of the Piccadilly Lights with one huge digital screen from the previous five, required an overhaul of the structure. Planning was granted in 2016 and the new lights completed in 2017. The essential part of that was that construction had to take place around the three flagship retail units beneath –  then Boots, Barclays and GAP.

Site plan of Lucent outlined using red line.
Site plan of Lucent outlined using red line.

The remainder of the project has taken substantially longer because much of what’s visible is listed or considered of local architectural importance. A three-level basement has been inserted under the site too. Even though the general approach is simple – hollow out the site, retaining many of the facades – each building has undergone its own special and highly laboured treatment.

Along Glasshouse Street, to the left of the Lights, for example, number 4-6 is a listed Portland stone former banking hall for London County and Westminster Bank, designed by Edward Keynes Purchase and Reginald Blomfield in 1909 in an exuberant baroque style. Here, the facade was taken down and sent to Dorset for each stone to be reworked and refreshed by piece by piece. On its return, it was put back ‘stretched’ so that its parapet aligns with the top of the Lights, with an extra level inserted between floors five and six, and everything else slightly elongated too. The listed internal features have also been reinstated.

Each building has undergone its own special and highly laboured treatment

Tumbling roof, three-storey bay window and grey faience facade. Credit: Dirk Lindner
Dismantled and rebuilt brick by brick, Edwardian Soho townhouses along Denman Street, and the new brick continuation to the left. Credit: Dirk Lindner

To the left again is 8 Glasshouse Street, which turns a corner with 1 Sherwood Street, and is a similar story. This time the facade is Bath stone, the building wasn’t listed but it has also been stretched in height to line up with the internal levels of next door and had a mansard roof level added with a roof terrace above. At the ground floor, two huge shop windows open onto the lobby of the main entrance to the Lucent block – a lobby with artwork exhibited on the walls and a sculptural spiral staircase that project architect Joseph Sweeney says is designed to ‘hint at Mayfair galleries’. The entrance, however, is in the new infill building beyond. A narrow frontage, this is one of the few areas of the elevation where the geometry of the new city block-sized roof (deliberately faceted to preserve protected views) is visible, a plane of Welsh slate tiles streaming down the elevation. A three-storey dormer sits within it, and another roof terrace to the other side. Its asymmetrical design and focus on the roofscape rather than the facade shakes up the street scene, making it almost medieval in nature. It could belong in the streets of Rennes or Rouen and is completely endearing as a consequence. The facade is a deep grey-blue faience developed with Darwen Terracotta and, like the slate, references the 19th century buildings all around Piccadilly, as well as 2013 Eric Parry’s One Eagle Place.

The three-storey dormer looks like it belongs in the streets of Rennes or Rouen and is completely endearing

  • Sculptural staircase to the first floor lounge and bar in Lucent’s office entrance.
    Sculptural staircase to the first floor lounge and bar in Lucent’s office entrance. Credit: Dirk Lindner
  • View from Glasshouse Street showing the new infill entrance building to the left, two restored and ‘stretched’ stone buildings, and the Lights beyond.
    View from Glasshouse Street showing the new infill entrance building to the left, two restored and ‘stretched’ stone buildings, and the Lights beyond. Credit: Dirk Lindner
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Continuing to Denman Street, the three corner buildings are not part of the Lucent plot (hence not quite a triangle), but are undergoing their own independent renovation. From here the street is red brick and designed to a townhouse format that carries on from numbers 19 and 20 at the western end. These are Edwardian and were dismantled brick by brick like those before, but have been converted for residential use with seven apartments, separate entrances and a bike store. Next is another 52.1m-long newbuild section that reverts to retail on the ground floor and workspace above. The long elevation is broken into six townhouses, using alternating brickwork patterns and styles from English, Flemish and modern stack bonds inspired by Soho’s typical  Westminster Dutch style. The units are purposefully boutique-size for smaller brands to occupy.

Finally, a new retail unit wraps Denman Street onto Shaftsbury Avenue. This replaces a 1970s brown brick building with a memorably irritating colonnade at ground level that was awkward for the passing crowds to navigate. Fletcher Priest’s replacement again uses faience, here manufactured by NBK. It shines brilliant white on a sunny day and is designed as a complex facade of closed bays and recessed balconies to maintain the classical proportions of the last section in the island block, the 19th century, cream faience, 11-17 Shaftesbury Avenue, to the right of the Lights. The faceted roof again drops down on the corner of the new building. Inside is a 13,000m2 retail unit on the ground and basement floors, already let although not yet open. The last existing building also underwent the ‘stretch’ process, with new levels and an infilled mansard from the third floor upwards. The building was not listed, but a certain lightness has grown denser in its redeveloped guise.

From here the street is red brick and designed to a townhouse format

Roof terraces on top of the bay projections of the new building along Shaftesbury Avenue for taking calls or getting fresh air. Credit: Dirk Lindner
White faience elevation of the new Shaftesbury Avenue building which replaces a colonnaded 1970s brown brick building. Credit: Dirk Lindner

So what of the inside? Creating workspace with the largest floorplates was what it was all about. Six levels of offices accommodate around 1000 people, with a restaurant on the seventh floor. At their largest, the floorplates are 2500m², their span requiring two lightwell atria for daylight. One of these is in the middle; the structure of the other, behind the Lights, forms the framework for a vertical winter garden. The most successful office floors are five and six; the latter has surrounding curtain walling that sits in the folds of the roof and opens onto semi-sheltered terraces which ingeniously provide solar shading and shelter for all-weather use so workers can pop out there for a coffee, to have meeting or to take a call. Nevertheless, each level has almost 360º views, the best higher up the building over other rooftops. The public restaurant has a substantial terrace directed towards the sculpture of Eros on the Circus and to Westminster Palace. However, there are 20 roof terraces snuck into the building, designed long before the Covid pandemic hastened their implementation.

The lower office floors exhibit the facade retention approach more than those above. A phenomenal amount of work and attention has gone into those processes, which is fantastic, especially the focus on craft and traditional skills. The resulting array of window types internally, however, is less convincing – as are the spaces, which prompt the question of whether it is just the facade that matters in a historical building, or what sits behind it, including the memory of its footprint. There is an increasing number of these types of projects. Perhaps as more clients and designers push similar programmes in ever-densifying cities there will be improved ways of conveying external character to internal configurations, rather than the same internal treatment of white walls being used to draw together the 13 originally separate buildings here.

It hardly matters, though, as the site was dictated by the steels involved in holding up the new screen for the Lights. You can see the steel truss in the restaurant, and it is a formidable piece. A few years ago, this area behind Piccadilly didn’t offer much. Dixon Jones and Donald Insall Associates’ Quadrant 3 across Sherwood Street precipitated this improvement, but Landsec’s investment solidifies that, and makes visible an impressive confidence and swagger in London itself. The transformation of the island into Lucent makes a destination worth visiting for more than the famous Lights. Within three short, newly concentrated streets, Fletcher Priest Architects has captured the thrilling diversity of the West End so that you can almost experience it in a single city block. It’s an impressive feat to pull off – and a morale boost for the city.

  • The covered winter garden behind the Piccadilly Lights structure allows connection between upper office levels.
    The covered winter garden behind the Piccadilly Lights structure allows connection between upper office levels. Credit: Dirk Lindner
  • Shaftesbury Avenue elevation picks up the neon and brightness of theatreland.
    Shaftesbury Avenue elevation picks up the neon and brightness of theatreland. Credit: Dirk Lindner
  • View from the inside of the sixth floor office with its surrounding curtain walling, terraces and West End views.
    View from the inside of the sixth floor office with its surrounding curtain walling, terraces and West End views. Credit: Dirk Lindner
  • One of 20 roof terraces tucked into the faceted roof for workers on the sixth floor office.
    One of 20 roof terraces tucked into the faceted roof for workers on the sixth floor office. Credit: Dirk Lindner
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In numbers 

Total GIA 13,494m²
Grade A office space 11,138m²
Retail space 2,044m²
Residential 312m²
Wwhole building embodied carbon 1,132kgCO2e/m² 

Credits

Client Landsec
Architect Fletcher Priest Architects
Main contractor Wates
Structural engineer Waterman Structures
Services engineer Long and Partners
Facade engineer Infinity Facade Consultants
Cost consultant Rider Levett Bucknall
Conservation Donald Insall Associates
Project manager Third London Wall
Planning consultant JLL

 

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