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The Angel Building by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

A building that contrasts between sharp and cool, an understated exterior and invitingly complex interior, says Joseph Rykwert

Though it looks fresh, almost new-minted, sleekly Miesian-American, the Angel Building is in fact a re-fitted late 70s office block, the Angel Centre. Entered diagonally on three corners (most conspicuously on the recessed crossing of Pentonville and St John Road), the Angel Centre was a lopped rectangle around an underused open court.

It had not aged well, nor had it originally been particularly responsive to the site. Moreover, it was designed at a time when energy issues only interested a few architects.

I cannot say that I ever had any affection for that older building; still, as I often happen to pass along Pentonville Road, I found myself piqued by the coolly refined presence that I observed when the scaffolding came down.

My prior apprehension can be put down to quite irrational stylistic prejudice.The architects of this renewed building, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, and the developers, Derwent, wanted to increase the floor area, make the building more environmentally responsive and welcoming, affording users of the building a relaxed entry from the hubbub of the street.

The primary decision was to retain - not replace - the existing, sound concrete structure, which allowed for a considerable energy saving. It also meant that while the original frame remained intact, structural interventions were needed to extend the floor area and to add another storey. A new envelope was therefore designed to enclose and link to the retained skeleton. The exterior finish is a cool and sleek dark-grey, an almost black curtain wall, which is a deliberate homage to Mies’ iit Crown Hall.

The coupled double-glazed panels of three square metres articulate the surface into six-metre bays. Though certainly deliberate, the stylistic reference is a little misleading, since a number of liberties have been taken with it. The top range of windows is inclined inwards to allow a play of reflections, while above eye-level the glass is fritted in close bands to reduce glare.

Because of the innovative heating-cooling system, alternate windows can include individually hand-operated panels. The floor surface has been extended to the building line on all sides, and on St John Street it has taken up the curve of the existing road while the forecourt created by the curve has been repaved and replanted to accommodate the configuration of the building. Not surprisingly, the two ground floor commercial spaces have already been acquired by alluring-looking restaurants.

The new interior was created by enclosing that central court to create a public room and required a different approach. A top-lit entry takes the visitor through a two bay-wide portal into the heart of the building. The security checks, which so often act as a barrier between the public space of the street and the gated, private space of the interior, are given an in-between function, the nature of which is shaped by the siting of a café on one side, a relaxed sitting area on the other, creating - for all the concrete, glass and terrazzo of the dominant surfaces - a surprisingly congenial space in contrast with the matter-of-fact exterior.

The in-between character of the atrium is emphasised by setting the reception desk on the far wall opposite the entrance, so that visitors walk through the roofed court before making contact. The floors here are grey terrazzo, inlaid with a reticulation of small, white marble blocks, while the exposed internal structure is in fair-faced, self-compacting concrete with an almost velvety finish that is, in this case, very well cast.

The adornments are also very well integrated into the space. The large panel at the entrance by New York artist Teresita Fernandez being almost monochrome, subtly interacts with the tonality of the interior. The much more intrusive black sculpture-seat by Ian McChesney seems to contribute less to the quality of the area. On the other hand, a casual visitor could easily overlook David Hillman’s discreet graphics, but they make an absolutely essential contribution and play into the character of the building.

The contrast between sharp and cool, an understated exterior and the invitingly complex interior, overrides any stylistic allusion. The Angel Building provides a lesson to all who work in our constraining urban setting: by giving new currency to an awkward survival from another age, the architects have managed to give new life to a sensitive and crucial element of the city fabric. It is a great achievement.

Joseph Rykwert is author of a number of books on architecture, including The Judicious Eye (2008)

Q+A - Simon Allford, Director, AHMM

Describe your design concept for The Angel Building?
As the Angel is a speculative office, our aim was to maximise area at an appropriate cost.
Our very first thought was to keep the frame and extend it inside, where a vast, underused courtyard was concealed, and outside, where the building sat back from its boundary unrelated to its context.

We were inspired by the Italian palazzo (the prototype corporate HQ!) for the command of a site; by Gordon Bunshaft’s Hanover Trust for a generous frame and infill; and by Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art as a public space.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
Technically, to achieve the quality of an in situ contract; culturally, to resist the normative idea that the office is a private secured building; architecturally, to reset the building in the city.

Is it possible to make retrofit projects ‘glamorous’?
I use the term reinvention rather than retrofit because the Angel reinvents the speculative office
as a public building, with a feel more of an art gallery or a hotel. If it is deemed ‘glamorous’, it is for that reason, and not because it happens to reuse the frame.

How significant is the client’s role in a successful retrofit project?
As with any good project the client’s role was crucial. Not because they were interested in retrofits, but because they have a long-term interest in architecture and a belief in its importance to regeneration. We have worked with Derwent London for 15 years on many successful projects. They are obsessed with getting it right, as are we.

Were you surprised to see the scheme on the Stirling Prize shortlist?
When we started four years ago, I would have been shocked at the idea that the Angel would be shortlisted. But the intensely iterative design process changed all our perceptions and once Angel was occupied, I was merely surprised and of course delighted!

Where does this building sit in the evolution of the practice?
The practice needs to evolve and get ever-more sophisticated in how it constructs ideas on paper and then on site, be they in London, Europe, America, Africa or wherever else. In terms of evolution, I would suggest we are, after our recent 21st birthday, at the end of the beginning.

What would winning the prize mean to you and the practice?
We didn’t submit any buildings last year, so in effect we have been shortlisted three years in a row, in 2008, 2009 and this year, which suggests we must be doing some things right. If we win, it would mean we have been doing even more things right… or that we just got lucky on the day!

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