Risen from a slumber: Congress House, London

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Hugh Broughton Architects extends the original aesthetic in its latest phase of a near quarter-century refurbishment of the TUC HQ

The new Rookery entrance on the south side of Congress House.
The new Rookery entrance on the south side of Congress House. Credit: James Brittain

Over 23 years, what started off as a simple refurb of the toilets at David du Roi Aberdeen’s Congress House in London by architect Hugh Broughton’s rookie practice has become a longstanding, painstaking £12 million wholesale refurbishment of the 1946 grade II* modernist building. Broughton himself refers to his relationship to the building as a kind of ‘surveyor to the fabric’, but it feels more personal than that. For in the stripping back and renovation, it’s as if the architect has gained an intimate understanding of the mind behind one of the UK’s most unusual modern buildings. du Roi Aberdeen was a self-confessed Corb obsessive, whose cavalier interpretation of functionalist theory, applied to a tight sight and complex programme of an HQ/conference centre/memorial, resulted in a strange proto-deconstructivism – a kind of Berlin ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ 30 years before it was even a twinkle in OMA’s eye.

 

The distinctive curvaceous modernism of the original building feels decidedly contemporary.
The distinctive curvaceous modernism of the original building feels decidedly contemporary. Credit: James Brittain

Last month marked the completion of the latest phase in the upgrade with the launch of ‘The Rookery’ – new offices for commercial let on the south side of the building. Originally intended to house the offices of the Labour Party complementing those of the TUC to the north, the Bainbridge Street ‘working’ side of the building, with its protective walkways and ramps, had been treated as a refuge by the capital’s homeless. That use may not be antithetical to the altruistic ideas embodied by the TUC, but it did make leasing the offices on this side more problematic  – something Broughton had to put his mind to for the newly branded Rookery.

His response, after consent from Camden council’s conservation team, was to redefine the enclosure on this side of the building. The Rookery’s new reception area has been pulled out to du Roi Aberdeen’s original balustrade line, with a Schueco cladding system running all the way around to replace the W20 steel sections that overlooked the car park ramp. Broughton feels the nature of any intervention should be dictated by its scale – he believes overt contrast with the original generally only works in the macro – so he opted for ‘modernisation of the existing palette’. The vertical oak slats that lined the lift shafts continue into the new reception space, and Rhodesian teak parquet flooring and Sicilian marble are restored or replaced with similar to meet the new building line. Overall, the effect in the reception is a muted, considered one, but the high gloss of the rejuvenated marble is particularly enjoyable.

The effective enclosure of the external ramp was, like Jacob Epstein’s imposing 1958 Pietà in the Memorial courtyard, the subject of a competition, with the client team opting for a work by Berlin-based artist Eva Berendes. Her tactile, hand-sandblasted screen of brightly-coloured geometric form is  inspired by the enamel badge motifs of the TUC’s affiliated unions and, sitting within Broughton’s brass-effect steel frames, animates the Dyott Street facade to create an identity for this subsidiary entrance.

 

  • Hugh Broughton Architects has extended the existing palette of materials and augmented it with Eva Berendes’ new glass art installation.
    Hugh Broughton Architects has extended the existing palette of materials and augmented it with Eva Berendes’ new glass art installation. Credit: James Brittain
  • The memorial courtyard, with Jacob Epstein’s Pieta, against its screen of green mosiac and delicate Pyrex tubes.
    The memorial courtyard, with Jacob Epstein’s Pieta, against its screen of green mosiac and delicate Pyrex tubes. Credit: James Brittain
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Work is ongoing. Broughton has yet to remove the black mesh screens installed by Cedric Price at council chamber level to counter solar gain. ‘I don’t think he was cut out for mere refurbishment’ says Broughton, but he hopes his firm’s work – which, save for the installation of a slightly incongruous curved ETFE roof over the courtyard – keeps to the spirit of the original endeavour. ‘It represented the TUC’s post-war drive, in austere times, to promote construction, craftsmanship and the arts,’ he explains, ‘an exemplar that embodied the socialist ideal.’ 

It’s true, the TUC’s continued commitment to the legacy and longevity of the building is an admirable one; although the inner city homeless, forced to move on, may beg to differ.

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