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50 New Bond Street, London by Eric Parry Architects

Eric Parry Architects’ latest office scheme on New Bond Street reflects the charm and elegance of its Mayfair location, says Patrick Lynch. Photography by Timothy Soar

Eric Parry graduated from the Architectural Association exactly 30 years ago. His diploma project was undertaken in Unit 1, then taught by Dalibor Vesely, Mohsen Mostafavi and Peter Carl. AA Projects Review 1978-9 presents an axonometric drawing of Parry’s Forum Project, in which the facade oscillates between figuration and fragmentation. Classicised tectonic frames and sculptural figures coalesce around broken arches. It evokes a clear sense of orchestrated movement from street towards a shaded background, a threshold between the theatricality of the city and the background beyond.

Vesely declared that ‘It is not always easy, but it is always revealing to discover that behind the directly visible order of the city and its conventional representations (morphology, typology, figure-ground plans, etc), there is not a chaos but an order of a different kind, more profound and more permanent than the visible order itself.’ The unit drew on the writings of Jean Genet on theatre, demanding that ‘architecture (city) if necessary should look for support and enrichments of meaning in different territories of culture which happen to be in better shape or more meaningful’. Note the elision of architecture with city.

New Bond Street is a particularly rich vertical city. Viewing rooms of major international art galleries sit above couture shops in courtyards overlooked by Edwardian office buildings, Georgian houses (now mostly flats) and quite chi-chi, often rather bald modernist blocks. The tension between the elaborate and gentlemanly facades of Mayfair and its curiously libertine interior worlds is the perfect territory for what Vesely called the ‘deeper order of the city’. The question is then, can a speculative office and retail development – even if for a venerable institution such as Scottish Widows – contribute to ‘the transformation of the urban space and restoration of its meaning’?

This architect has so far realised three of the best office buildings in London sincethe 1980s, two of which, like New Bond Street, have been for client Scottish Widows. 30 Finsbury Square and 5 Aldermanbury Square were both shortlisted for the Stirling Prize  and it is easy to imagine, looking at Timothy Soar’s sumptuous photographs, that this will be, too. Commercial projects, unless they are by Foster or Rogers, don’t win big awards in this country, yet the majority of buildings in London and indeed most cities of the world are funded by, and home to, business activities.

The Medicis started off as pharmacists and commissioned both Filippo Brunelleschi and Michelangelo; Johnson Wax kept Frank Lloyd Wright engaged for 20 years. Architects have always negotiated the difficult task of representing both the needs and appetites of powerful institutions, attempting to ground these in either appropriate modesty (in Catholic countries) or appropriate generosity (in Protestant ones). For me, the key moment in an architect’s commission is the point at which you ask yourself: what is my task here and what is important in what I am being asked to do, and is it appropriate here?

In his Historical Study Report of October 2003, historical planning expert Richard Coleman noted that the various buildings on the site had been adapted to the changing needs of retailing throughout the 20th century and had even added several new shop fronts quite recently. A case was also made for the demolition of Michael Rosenauer’s building at 49-50 New Bond Street, since only part of his original design had been built and its facade drastically altered. Rosenauer was Bauhaus-trained and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His celebrated Time & Life Building (1953), also on New Bond Street, famously accommodates a sculpted screen by Henry Moore. Despite the elegance of Time & Life’s travertine facades, Rosenauer adopted sculpture as if it were a logo, trapping it in a billboard.

Parry’s project replaces the weaker Rosenauer scheme on New Bond Street with a much deeper office building. He has also refurbished the Georgian houses on Maddox Street, creating bijou apartments. In order to make the scheme work financially, Parry had to persuade Westminster Council of the necessity of adding another storey along St George Street. Overall, he has created three times as much office accommodation as before. The removal of a naff facade by Tribich Design Associates (1971) on Maddox Street enabled the architect to propose a new way to mend the broken Georgian street. A cantilevered black steel and glass block screen does this in an abstracted and inverted manner, suggesting the vertical character of the missing bit whilst opening up the pavement below.

It is like being in a Max Ernst collage or a section drawing through a city

Both new office buildings are mixed-mode and have opening windows that are linked to a sophisticated building management system. You look out onto the neighbouring buildings through elegant larch fins that shroud escape stairs and walkways. It is like being in a Max Ernst collage or a section drawing through a city. This incredibly complex topography is countered by a staggeringly clear parti. Parry’s architecture appears simple, allowing the city to appear complex.

The west-facing New Bond Street green facade looks solid when viewed askance but is almost all glass. When you step out into the projecting bay windows you feel privileged to be part of London. Parry’s architecture recalls the sumptuous waistcoats of gentleman publishers and the cravats of patrician gallerists: silk linings glimpsed through tweed and grey flannel. I can’t help thinking of clothes made in Mayfair and of the novels of Muriel Spark. Parry’s imagination encompasses the glamour of shoe shops and the fecundity of trade and art galleries, placing each into a physical, actual, implied and potential dialogue.

Gaudí, Victor Horta and Giuseppe Terragni seem to meet on a London street and master English and recover its eclectic roots. I would argue that it has taken 30 years for us to recover what the previous 50 years of destruction and bad faith obscured with its specious rhetoric of transparency. Parry’s recent projects redeem tradition and modernity without betraying either. Whilst St Martin-in-the-Fields is so obviously richer in programmatic and topographic depth and fulfilled theatricality, Parry’s ‘business’ projects seem to set up urban drama. Sometimes you have to stand out from the crowd, but the trick is to avoid looking like a clown. Vesely declared in 1979 that the ‘city needs to point out itself, needs to make its presence felt’. Parry points us to what is not lost, and in doing this he recreates the context in which my generation and the next will work.

 

Project data

Start on site January 2008
Contract duration 21 months
Gross floor area 5,438m2 (50 New Bond Street)
Form of contract JCT design and build (with ammendments)
Total cost Not supplied
Client Scottish Widows
Architect Eric Parry Architects
Development manager Hanover Cube
Main contractor Bovis Lend Lease
Structural engineer Ramboll UK
Services engineer Hilson Moran
Mechanical engineer MJ Lonsdale
Electrical engineer Hills Building Services
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Townscape consultant Richard Coleman City designer
BREEAM rating Excellent
Annual CO2 emissions 22.58kg/m2

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