Like a jazzed-up suit, Eric Parry’s Eagle Place redevelopment cuts a showy dash in London’s fashionable West End, writes Jay Merrick
In a period when facadism has given a great deal of British architecture bogus auras of quality and vivacity, it is daring for an architect to base the meaning of an important building in one of London’s most cosmopolitan streets on what are, essentially, uncompromisingly vivacious surface effects.
There is a good deal more than that to the architecture of Eric Parry’s redevelopment of five buildings on the Crown Estates site at the eastern end of London’s Piccadilly. Yet the decorated facade of the centrepiece building so dominates the ensemble that it has effectively created a new and highly extraverted commercial building type in London.
In pragmatic terms, the £45 million Eagle Place development, on the south side of Piccadilly in territory defined architecturally by Nash and Blomfield, has delivered a skilful 11,500m2 arrangement of ground floor retail frontages, optimised office floorplates, luxurious apartments, and an overall BREEAM Excellent rating.
This has involved the demolition and raising of the building at the corner of Piccadilly and Eagle Place; the demolition and redevelopment of 212-214 Piccadilly, 3-4 Eagle Place, and 18-21 Jermyn Street behind a retained facade; and the retention and internal remodelling of 27 Regent Street, which now contains luxury apartments designed by the practice. The first four elements are in the St James’s Conservation Area, the latter in the Regent Street Conservation Area.
This degree of functional worth has become a given in Parry’s commercial work over the past decade. It’s more challenging to judge Eagle Place in terms of his overarching interests in the city as an amalgam of history, architectural artefact and artifice, and art in general. Parry brings these conditions together with an outré combination of precision and ambiguity.
The defining centrepiece of the scheme is the main Piccadilly facade, equivalent to a Savile Row suit coat cut and sewn by Anderson & Sheppard, and then jazzed up by Ozwald Boateng. The well-known British architect who suggested to me that Parry’s ribbed and faienced extension of Bath’s Holburne Museum was ‘simply vulgar’ will regard the elevation of the 212-214 Piccadilly segment as paroxysmal proof of his opinion.
The Piccadilly facade is ordered like a commercial palazzo: a plinth of ground floor retail; a band of Nash-like mezzanine windows; a Blomfield-inspired layer of double-height windows with inserted, one storey-high oriels; deeply-punched windows suggesting a piano nobile under the cornice; and an attic level recessed behind a loggia. The horizontal ordering is based on a 3.75m grid that produces six bays.
This is the most startling major facade in London since the PoMo-Gothic blancmange off Fenchurch Street known as both Minster, and Munster, Court; and we might also compare its sheer visual voltage to James Stirling’s No.1 Poultry.
For an architect so fascinated by the poetic depths of Adolphe Appia’s 19th-century stage set designs, the Piccadilly facade comes as a surprise. The tidy surrealities of Parry’s faienced elevations at the Holburne, and in New Bond Street, have been upstaged by a stage-flat. It’s the apotheosis of Parry’s familiar combinations of refined decorousness, artistic decor and, most significantly, experimental instincts that have already produced inversions of classical and Corbusian orders in the elevations of his Bath and Finsbury Square buildings.
There is something temporally tense about the Holburne’s deliberately hyper-distinct juxtaposition of 18th-and 21st-century architecture. In Piccadilly, the tension is greater, despite a facade that very logically imposes a grander 19th-century classical-urban scale on what had been a huddled set of four compressed, unremarkable frontages with dropped cornices that broke the longer streetscape perspectives. Parry’s raised cornice reinstates the perspective, jutting out like a thick cicatrice from a flesh of the mug-white faience, producing a building as singular as Joseph Emberton’s 1936 Grade I-listed Simpsons building (now Waterstones) a bit further west along Piccadilly.
Emberton was a Modernist. Parry, who has introduced a Crayola sheen to Piccadilly, is harder to define, though we can be certain of his refined appreciation for architectural craft and his daring selection of collaborating artists. The chunky, asymmetrical modillion-cum-dentils of the Piccadilly cornice feature riotously blotched decal glazes by Richard Deacon; and a 6.5-tonne granite face by Stephen Cox gazes gnomically out across St James’s from the fourth floor of the new corner facade of Jermyn Street and Eagle Place.
The sculpture has the same Vedantic otherness as his Lingam of aThousand Lingams at the Cass Sculpture Foundation.Parry himself has contributed artwork - the rather bloody speckling of the double-height window casings. These are extremely adventurous admixtures of public art and they deserve better than the bland bread-and-circuses justification by James Cooksey of the Crown Estate, who talks of ‘creating an exciting retail and business destination based around a vibrant local community. Public art, like this piece by Richard Deacon, can inspire community connections.’
But, to return to tenser matters, what about temporal connections? Deacon’s and Parry’s decorative glazing decals could be seen as no more lavishly convivial than the ornate stone urns on the facade of Norman Shaw’s last work, the 1908 Piccadilly Hotel (now Le Meridien); or the carved Portland stone pendants of fruits, flowers and festoons on the rather squashed attic storey of Lutyens’ 1925 Midland Bank building at 196 Piccadilly, now inhabited by Hauser & Wirth.
But the classical and the colourist qualities of Parry’s Piccadilly facade are not incidental. The beautifully crafted oriel window bays, the gleaming softness of Shaw’s of Darwen’s faience, the fineness of the lime mortar joints and the inwardly radiused double-height window casings create the sense of a perfectly cast foreground object in a street of grand, but not overwhelming architectural backgrounds. The formal civility of Parry’s building remains beneath the decals, an architectural make-up baked on at 1,200°C.
This is not the case with the rebuilt building that wraps around the corner of Piccadilly and Eagle Place, whose raised brick structure is now linked to the steel frame of the pièce de résistance. The new facade in Jermyn Street and the asymmetrically modelled facade facing Eagle Place show Parry’s skill as an architectural collagist, and they add something very fresh and historically alert to what was an unremarkable alley and to the oddly muted eastern end of Jermyn Street. The Eagle Place elevation is particularly engrossing; if only more secondary spaces in our cities were graced with this degree of design originality.
Where does Eric Parry go from here? One must hope that the commercial success of the Eagle Place ensemble does not trigger a demand for copycat buildings from him - or, indeed, from lesser architects, which would be a truly hideous prospect. The tensions of Parry’s arrangements of craft, detail and subversions of type that give his work its teasing fusions of virtuosity and strangeness surely preclude obvious repetitions.
What would Lutyens have made of Parry’s Piccadilly palazzo? Perhaps Stephen Cox’s meditative Vedic sculpture might know the answer: it overlooks a point midway between Lutyens’ bank building and the mews studio in Apple Tree Yard, between Jermyn Street and St James’s Square, where he designed his New Delhi projects. There is nothing in the Vedanta about Mannerism, but it must charge the Floris-scented air here, playfully and provocatively.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent
AJ Buildings Library
A Mayfair dandy: Eagle Place by Eric Parry