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Black sheep

Sergison Bates’ retrofit in Noho has polished a seedy location and repaired the urban fabric, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Anthony Coleman

The side streets of central London are amazing. Take the roads which ventilate the eastern section of Oxford Street, many with a distinct continental character – shady Hanway Street with its Spanish bars and restaurants; Wells Street, which leads to William Butterfield’s intimate, polychromatic All Saints Margaret Street; and Soho Street, which filters through to the Italianate St Patrick’s Soho Square (AJ 20.10.11).

But things can go horribly wrong. Evelyn Yard was, until recently, a dark, seedy passageway off Rathbone Place, valued only by people needing a convenient place to shoot up or relieve themselves. Derwent London, a developer which relishes opportunities to regenerate neglected sites like this, acquired an interest in certain buildings in this part of Noho, as this district to the north of Soho is sometimes called.

They have transformed it by commissioning Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS) to design the Charlotte Building, a new office development completed in August 2010 and, Sergison Bates Architects to design 7-8, 9 and 10 Rathbone Place, a mixed development completed in July 2011.

The Charlotte Building is a self-assured, protean, heroic and uninhibited exercise in the machine aesthetic and hard-headed speculative development. Glass-clad with polka-dot fritting and mustard yellow highlights, it is LDS’ finest work. 7-8 Rathbone Place, on the other hand, is self-conscious, critical and, in a way, more cerebral, the product of craftsmanly devotion rather than passion.

LDS devised a masterplan which addressed Westminster City Council’s requirement that commercial development should be matched by residential, in this case 11 flats located, not in the Charlotte Building, but in 7-8 Rathbone Place, an office building constructed in the 1950s. It retains its art gallery at ground and basement levels, and Sergison Bates has designed light-touch refurbishments of the adjoining office buildings at 9 and 10 Rathbone Place.

‘It’s a piece of urban repair which manages to hold together a large chunk of buildings, and to stand up to the Charlotte Building,’ says Sergison Bates partner Mark Tuff. As part of this repair work, the back facades, along with those of the sleek Charlotte Building, enclose the staggered passage through Evelyn Yard, leading from Rathbone Place to Gresse Street. At its entrance from Rathbone Place, gates designed by Tom Dixon embellish this newly hardscaped thoroughfare, enabling it to be closed at night and framing a vista terminated by the Charlotte Building’s rear entrance.

Like the offices, the flats are rented out: they were not required to be affordable or to meet Lifetime Homes standards. Derwent’s vision was that the Rathbone Place flats and offices would be occupied by creatives, just as it targeted media and advertising professionals for the Charlotte Building.

There are generally two flats per floor, each with one to three bedrooms, providing good daylight levels but none of the advantages of dual-aspect layouts, and the plan was reconfigured to include a central core with a lift and a staircase. ‘We weren’t interested in loft living, but we were interested in flexibility,’ says Tuff.

The bathrooms have two doors and can adapt to alternative layouts, with or without walls that separate living and dining areas from bedrooms. There’s also residential storage in the basement, plus stores for bicycles and waste. One of the challenges was to plan around existing 900mm-diameter concrete columns set back from the party walls.

There’s a developer’s logic to the planning of the flats, but Derwent chose not to push this to the limit, and the buildings’ contribution to the public realm was a priority. ‘I like to think we’re never too greedy,’ says head of regeneration Simon Silver. Although Sergison Bates made few changes to the buildings’ massing, apart from filling in a set-back in the street facade, they have completely transformed the elevations to 7-8 Rathbone Place. ‘It was this horrible thin facade,’ says associate Séamus Lennon. It also failed to meet the required thermal and acoustic standards, so Sergison Bates cloaked its precast concrete cladding and brickwork with black-insulated render. They also replaced its single-glazed steel windows, making sure to set them back as far as possible and to conceal their

frames behind the external render, with jambs which are splayed to let in more light and views from the south. These jambs accommodate vents required by amendments to Part F of the Building Regulations. For complex acoustic reasons, these windows are not openable. Sergison Bates also reconfigured the window layout, introducing new areas of external walling within original structural openings, which help the facade to mediate so that residents feel less exposed and to create pleasing proportions on the street facade. As a further refinement, ground floor window sills have been lowered and are now at grade.

There is great subtlety in these facades. Little tweaks, such as the horizontal band at first floor level which, along with the almost flush windows below, distinguish the upper and ground floors, so the effect is simplicity rather than minimalism. These facades are also the outcome of extensive non-technical research and discussion. ‘We were interested in things like remaking shop fronts, paint colours and toning down, but not branding,’ says Tuff.

They were also interested in the 200-year-old process of sooting and its urban connotations, and this, along with the facade of the adjacent pub, influenced their decision to specify a black coating to the insulated render. With its textured finish, it contrasts with and frames the smooth, reflective facades of the Charlotte Building.

Internally, new balustrades, required because of the change of use, have a micaceous iron finish and their handrails form large basketball hoops where they change directions at landings. At flat entrances laser-cut MDF numbers spelt out in Roman letters add a personal touch to what could have been very impersonal shared spaces.

There is a new slate entrance ramp, and a precast L-shaped threshold to the main gallery entrance has somehow been installed without lifting holes. The level threshold is at the back because there is a ring beam projecting above ground level at the front that can’t be cut. The only blemish is the downstand stop plate at the head of the gallery entrance gates.

Seen in isolation, the black finishes are gloomy and dour, with a surly continental boutique hotel quality albeit without the tackiness. But it is essential to consider the context. Of course, it would be interesting to see what happened if Sergison Bates lightened up and let their hair down. This could be as embarrassing as watching police dancing at the Notting Hill Carnival.

Or, alternatively, like Herzog & de Meuron at their palazzo for Prada in Tokyo, they just might rise to the occasion. In any case, this was not what was asked or expected of Sergison Bates at Rathbone Place. Their brief was to complement the Charlotte Building and repair the urban fabric, and they have succeeded in doing this without resorting to pastiche, serving up a crisp, dry Frascati to wash down the Prosecco next door.

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