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Speirs Major lights up 80 Strand with reverential Art Deco update

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Speirs Major aimed for authenticity without pastiche in bringing the 21st century to Art Deco lighting at Studio PDP’s reinvigorated former Shell-Mex House

An array of 16 glowing pyramids forms the roof centrepiece of the new Strand-side entrance pavilion.
An array of 16 glowing pyramids forms the roof centrepiece of the new Strand-side entrance pavilion. Credit: James Newton

With its huge riverside clock face, there’s really no missing 80 Strand, an imposing Art Deco presence on the north of the Thames opposite London’s South Bank Centre. Completed as Shell-Mex House in 1931 by architect Messrs Joseph, the grade II-listed building was occupied by Shell-Mex and British Petroleum, and other tenants, until 2020.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Speirs Major chose to channel this Art Deco spirit in its new lighting design as part of Studio PDP’s reinvigoration project, which revamps communal circulation areas that had become tired and institutional along with four of the office floors. Interventions include a new entrance pavilion on the Strand-side that now serves as the main arrival point, along with lift lobbies, a courtyard garden pavilion at the heart of the plan and an improved Embankment entrance lobby. As a result, the interlinked communal areas form a new thread stretching between the hustle and bustle of the Covent Garden-facing entrance and the more peaceful riverside orientation.

According to Speirs Major senior partner Keith Bradshaw, it was important that, as well as serving to welcome and draw people through the building, the new lighting in these communal spaces was an appropriate celebration of the Art Deco heritage.

At night, the glow of the pavilion is complemented by lighting to the courtyard facades.
At night, the glow of the pavilion is complemented by lighting to the courtyard facades. Credit: James Newton

‘It was about making sure the stylisation of the new pieces weren’t exact replicas or pastiches of what was done before, but had some authenticity,’ he says, adding that the firm aimed to be reverential of classic Art Deco geometric shapes and grids, but with a twist.

Commissioned at pre-planning stage, Speirs Major collaborated on the lighting with manufacturer DAL and the rest of the design team, including Studio PDP and concept architect Duncan Mitchell.

Speirs Major analysed light levels in the deep plan building to understand how they varied over the course of the day and throughout the year. This showed that natural light levels were poor even in the new entrance pavilion during the day. As well as looking at how the building was originally lit, the practice researched other Art Deco buildings in the capital, including Senate House, the nearby Savoy hotel and Hackney Town Hall, and looked at contemporary interpretations of Art Deco lighting.

It swiftly became clear that the light levels required couldn’t be comfortably achieved through statement Art Deco-style light boxes alone. Instead, Speirs Major created a family of ‘decoratives’ to catch the eye, supplemented with subtle additional lighting that balance the composition by boosting light levels throughout the spaces as required. The aim was for a warmth level of 3000 kelvins, akin to that favoured in hospitality settings.

  • In the entrance pavilion, the grid of pyramids is set in a shimmery glass border, surrounded by perimeter spotlights.
    In the entrance pavilion, the grid of pyramids is set in a shimmery glass border, surrounded by perimeter spotlights. Credit: James Newton
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Tenants and visitors – up to 6000 a day – now enter through a welcoming new glass and steel pavilion, situated in a former service yard on the Strand side of the building. In this extension is the largest of Speirs Major’s decoratives, a eye-catching centrepiece formed by an array of glowing pyramids. Rather than a separate light fitting, this LED-lit feature is fully integrated in the architecture of the roof.

‘It seemed a great opportunity at the node point of the pavilion to do something significant with light,’ says Bradshaw.

The design consists of 16 pyramids in Perspex, their asymmetrical form a departure from the usual flatness of light boxes. They are surrounded by a border of glass prisms that give a shimmery effect. A rounded perimeter frame of bronzed aluminium incorporates 40 round LED spotlights to beef up the levels. The bronzed metal tones with the rest of the pavilion metalwork, and is carried through to the other decoratives within. The pyramids are sealed units to avoid the build-up of insects.

‘It would have been boring to have them as regular pyramids, so we skewed the geometry, and took advice from DAL who made it technically possible,’ explains Mitchell, adding that an additional benefit was that the pyramids helped soften the acoustic in the space.

‘DAL was great in terms of manufacture and finesse,’ says Bradshaw, adding that the result needed to feel far more crafted than a more straightforward luminous, stretch ceiling style approach. In the evening, facade-washing lights illuminate surrounding courtyard walls to compliment the glow of the pavilion.

Linear lights with fluted glass covers adorn the reception wall.
Linear lights with fluted glass covers adorn the reception wall. Credit: James Newton

The new entrance leads to a double height reception area. Here Speirs Major and DAL created linear wall lights using an opal diffuser inside a fluted glass cover, with a bronzed aluminium frame. Glass end caps give a vertical spread of light. Shorter versions are used in the lift lobby.

A series of ceiling-mounted light boxes adorn the thoroughfare to the lift lobby supplemented by recessed downlighters. The latter have been customised to match the bronzed metal of the decoratives. Here, Speirs Major went through many evolutions of the Art Deco-inspired design, ‘pushing and pulling’ says Bradshaw, to achieve the right balance between the dark of the lighting grid frame and the light of the box, creating full-scale mock-ups and testing them in the space to get the best size and illumination. The feature lights are positioned to reinforce the rhythm of the architecture.

Beyond the lift lobby, Studio PDP has inserted a two-storey pavilion in a dark lightwell, a forgotten area that was previously used as a service space and was inaccessible to tenants. This deep space has been ingeniously reclaimed as a ‘hidden garden’ to create a sanctuary of break-out spaces set among live planting. Given the scarcity of natural light, Speirs Major needed to work hard to create the right ambience. This involved highlighting the planting and uplighting the elevations to create a surrounding glow. Spherical pendants provide further lighting features in an area used for meetings and socialising.

  • Planting is illuminated in the ‘hidden garden’, a newly created breakout area in a forgotten service space.
    Planting is illuminated in the ‘hidden garden’, a newly created breakout area in a forgotten service space. Credit: James Newton
  • Art Decoinspired light boxes enliven the circulation areas.
    Art Decoinspired light boxes enliven the circulation areas. Credit: James Newton
  • Lift lobby wall light.
    Lift lobby wall light. Credit: James Newton
  • New lozenge-shaped lighting units pep up the formerly drab Embankment-side reception.
    New lozenge-shaped lighting units pep up the formerly drab Embankment-side reception. Credit: James Newton
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Another tricky challenge was the lighting for the subsidiary entrance lobby on the Embankment side of the building, a gloomy space not helped by prominent columns of grey granite with a reflective surface. Existing lighting – a mix of down- and up-lights – gave a harsh yet flat appearance.

‘We knew we had to do a lot to make it very welcoming,’ says Bradshaw. Here, Speirs Major introduced bespoke, lozenge-shaped lighting boxes to lift the space with a host of luminous surfaces providing a softer and more pleasant light.

Alongside aesthetics and performance, another important consideration when creating custom designs was ensuring that replacing LED components wouldn’t be an issue in the future. Speirs Major resolved this by creating a standardised LED module for all the custom decoratives.

Concept architect Duncan Mitchell is pleased with how the interventions ‘seamlessly complement’ the Art Deco host building. Rather like the best haircut, he says, it doesn’t look like you’ve just had it done.

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Credits

Client Strandbrook
Architect Studio PDP
Concept architect Duncan Mitchell
Structural engineer Simon Bennett
Lighting design Speirs Major
Interior design Carter Owers
Landscape architect Andy Sturgeon
Selected suppliers DAL (custom luminaires)

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