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Crossing the Rubicon

PRP says designing social housing is about choosing the right battles to fight. Rory Olcayto goes ringside. Photography by Tim Crocker

Is a residential tower not clad with cheap metal rainscreen panels a cause for celebration? If so, put your hands together for PRP’s Rubicon House in King’s Cross. And stamp your feet too, because this one’s in … wait for it: brick!

It can feel like that sometimes. When I first saw Rubicon House, or R5, as it’s called on developer Argent’s masterplan, the first of 10 residential projects planned for the 27ha site, it was from a bus window and that’s what I thought, along with ‘I wonder who did it?’

It looked bold. Purposeful. Honest. Look - the concrete floorplates are expressed in the elevation, just like that broody Sergison Bates number in Finsbury Park. And the inset balconies look spacious; they’re not mardy little gob-ons. How about that? Better still, a quick phone Google says it’s social housing, not a Scroogey speculative buy-to-let rip-off. And were those commercial units I saw on the ground floor? (Yes, they were).

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Rubicon House by PRP

From the top deck of a passing bus, PRP’s 15-storey Post-CABEist tower seemed a worthy neighbour to John McAslan’s King’s Cross Station extension and Stanton Williams’ Granary retrofit for Central Saint Martins, the other main buildings anchoring Argent’s slow-burn megaproject. If first impressions count, Rubicon House counted.

PRP’s design - 117 apartments arranged around three circulation cores - stacks up pretty well: 70 per cent of the flats, which come with one, two three or four bedrooms, have two or more aspects. There is mixed tenure, with 78 general needs social-rent apartments, 24 shared ownership apartments and 15 supported housing apartments. There are seven wheelchair-adapted properties. Bravo.

They’re not exactly capacious, however. One-bed flats are 45m² and two bed flats are 65m², so both are shy of London Housing Design guidelines. Yet three-bedroom flats stretch to 90m², which exceeds them. Strange decision? ‘You’ve got to pick your battles,’ says project director Ziba Adrangi. Here’s one of the victories: all the family units, more than a third of the stock, have fair-sized balconies, accessible from more than one room. And a number of two-bedroom flats have balconies as well.

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Rubicon House by PRP

The sudden appearance of Rubicon House on the north London skyline is evidence that Argent’s vision for King’s Cross is beginning to pick up speed. The developer commissioned PRP in May 2008, four months after the housing specialist won an invited competition to design plot R5. Planning approval was given in April 2010. Seven months later, Carillion was on site, piling. In January 2011, the concrete frame was started and, by July this year, Carillion was done. A week after completion, One Housing Group’s first tenants moved in. At one point - ‘for three or four months’ - there were five architects working on Rubicon House, but mostly it was ‘me, Jordan and one other’ says Adrangi. ‘We worked very well together,’ she says of project architect Jordan Perlman. ‘We’ve designed it in a consistent way; there is a lot of repetition; there is economy of detailing, of space planning.’

PRP is also executive architect of the even bigger block next door, designed by MaccreanorLavington, which is slightly more attractive in terms of its massing and its brickwork details. It also treats the ground floor with a little more aplomb, framing the commercial unit windows with stone portals.

So why brick? Because PRP Architects wanted a building that felt solid and unpretentious.

‘It means the elevation has relief; there are shadows, deep reveals, windows that sit behind brickwork,’ says Perlman.

PRP wanted a building that felt solid and unpretentious

He throws in a reference to tenements in Chicago and says the context, Central Saint Martins’ Granary, the warehouse conversions and bulky new builds on nearby Ice Wharf, also played a part in shaping its look. As did its neighbour to the south, an as-yet unbuilt commercial HQ which has influenced the tower form at the east end and its sliced-off corner.

‘When the surrounding buildings emerge, you’ll see the reasons for it,’ Perlman assures. (An Allies and Morrison design for Sainsbury’s HQ seems to have fallen by the wayside, despite eating into R5’s original footprint and causing PRP to shrink its originally bigger scheme).

There is another influence at play, Perlman adds. Hans Kollhoff’s New York-style tower in Berlin’s Postdamer Platz for DaimlerChrysler.

Delving deeper, Perlman points out that the facade expresses the structural grid behind. ‘The concrete frame lies behind every second brick infill bay,’ he says. Ah yes, honesty. The expressed floorplate - what’s that all about? Is it still a big deal to the typical British architect?

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Rubicon House by PRP

‘It’s bolted-on precast - but it’s not just an aesthetic thing. It helped take the brickwork off the critical path. We sealed each floor off with the inner lining once the frame went up and then laid the brickwork on the precast transoms from mobile platforms. No scaffold.’

So there you have it. A new brownfield, high-density block of social housing, with mixed tenure and part-ownership homes, slap bang in the middle of London, with masonry walls in place of rainscreen cladding, that actually looks alright. And it was built really quickly. Result?

That’s down to the residents. Put it this way: Would you live there? Would you want to raise your family there? Are the floor-to-ceiling windows your cup of tea? Despite the precedent set by a large, open-air lobby with enclosed, fairly spacious lift chambers off them, there’s not much communal room elsewhere. There is a roof garden, but it’s reserved for the part-ownership home dwellers. You’ve got to give them something to set them apart, right? (The architects should have gone to war over this.) Play areas are minimal. The landscape in the back court is small. In general, the kitchens are too big and the dining rooms are too small (the architect pointed this out). In time, as Argent’s ambitious plan takes shape, this may well change - at least there should be more space for children to play.

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Rubicon House by PRP

Meanwhile, nearby, Art Deco Cecil Rhodes House on Goldington Street, a soaring brick tower with glass-brick light stairwells and swish stucco lighting details, has two-bedroom flats that, at 70m², have bigger footprints than the equivalent in Rubicon House. They have sturdy balconies, too.

And then there’s Somers Town, which mixes five-storey blocks ranged across a grid of tree-lined streets that offers more opportunities for children to play - because it’s a well-planned, street-level neighbourhood. We used to build high-quality ‘affordable’ homes without batting an eyelid. There’s so much catching-up to do. PRP - Adrandgi and Perlman especially - Carillion and the Argent team as well, deserve praise for making a start. But let’s not get too excited just because it’s brick.

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