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Old Street, New York vibe: Curtain Road by Duggan Morris

Out of an irksome planning directive, Duggan Morris’s Curtain Road scheme adds dynamism to the Old Street district, says Christine Murray. Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Most projects developed under the UK planning system are born of constraints; where architecture is not so much a pure act of creative will, but the art of casting a form from the limits of what is permissible.

Duggan Morris Architects’ retail and office development at 141-145 Curtain Road in Shoreditch, London, began with a tabula rasa planning application: the demolition of a four-storey building - basement plus three - on Curtain Road and its replacement with a seven-storey office and retail space.
The proposed elevation initially submitted to planning for the 15,197 square feet new-build was elegant, if unremarkable. The application shows a tasteful black brick building with a set back mansard level and evenly spaced windows that riff on the jagged-toothed rhythm of this patchwork street of former Georgian and Victorian warehouses.

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The hard design work is at the back of the building, to reconcile the added height with multiple right-to-light and privacy issues related to neighbouring residences. The solution is terraced, with the floorplate stepping back at every level. Balconies on the upper floors cleverly obscure views - half the space is given over to a green roof, ensuring occupants behind the railing are far enough from the edge to prevent them seeing into the windows below.

The scheme won planning - no mean feat when you consider the addition of three storeys - but permission was granted with surprise conditions: the existing facade and ‘historic’ sash windows were to be retained to preserve the character of the street. Not because the building is historically significant in any way - it is not. But as Curtain Road is located in the Shoreditch Conservation Area, the building was highlighted as being ‘of townscape merit’, and is located within 100m of listed buildings.

The planning conditions are a frustrating nonsense to read. There was nothing remarkable about the miserable-looking existing building or its windows - but don’t take my word for it - read the surveyor’s report in the planning file by James Brennan Associates. The building dates from the late 18th or early 19th century, but was altered significantly between 1930 and 1950, when the three buildings were knocked into one unit, and modern materials were swapped in for the original, including concrete sills, copings and banding, a flat roof and gypsum plaster. As for the ‘historic’ sash windows, they also date from between 1930 and 1950, as their lack of decoration suggests.

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‘At the time it was a frustrating directive,’ admits Joe Morris, who co-founded Duggan Morris in 2004 with co-director Mary Duggan. But there was little appetite to submit another application to dispute the retention of the facade. ‘There was no way of appealing it because there was no formal rejection,’ Morris continues.

‘We would have had to submit an application for [the facade’s] removal and have it rejected in order to appeal it. We did not take that route because having a rejection on your project history places things at risk. So we agreed to work with the planners.’

So it was back to the drawing board to put a new face on the approved plans.

It is a credit to the architects and the planners that this fiasco actually resulted in a more ambitious facade, with a more interesting composition and material palette. The final project resembles a series of stacked boxes arranged in a grid, based on the three bays of the original building. The boxes are alternately glazed or clad in an undulating mesh aluminium curtain, which is 40 per cent transparent and conceals smaller windows to unify the facade.

The result looks undeniably hip. The undulating curtain is iridescent (‘A curtain on Curtain Road,’ says Morris) and the matching soft curtain for the glazed boxes on the interior is a nice touch. This is a photogenic, eye-catching building and it improves the look and feel of this Shoreditch neighbourhood - home to creative industries by day and a vibrant nightlife. The illuminated building adds a New York vibe to both.

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But while the planning conditions may have improved the street view, the interiors have, as a result, been compromised in places. The diminishing floorplate squeezes the office plans as you rise through the building, while the retained facade means the larger first and second floors suffer from the domestic scale of the original sash windows.

There is no doubt that Duggan Morris has maximised the available floor space and daylight, but there are nevertheless some awkward moments. On the fourth floor, the passage between the two parts of the L-shaped office plan feels cramped. On the smallest floor - the fifth - irregularly spaced columns feel mean in this tight space, and the air conditioning units make the not-generous ceiling heights appear even less so. The temporary all-white interior doesn’t help. To match the creativity of the facade, an arty fit-out is needed to transform the plan’s tight corners into quirky features.

However, at a cost of £3.3 million, there is no disguising this project represents great value for the client. Duggan Morris has nearly doubled the amount of usable space on the site, and winning planning for three more storeys in a conservation area is not to be sniffed at.

Ironically, the biggest success of the building is the bit that would not have happened at all without the vagaries of the UK planning system - its welcome addition to the townscape and character of the street. It is here that Duggan Morris has taken planning lemons, and made lemonade.

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