Complex of crossovers at Centre Point PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID GEORGE
On 16 August 1959 the new Town and Country Planning Act came into force, with a major provision requiring that people who applied for planning permission had either to own the property or certify that the owner knew of the application.
Four days earlier, and therefore immune to the terms of the 1959 Act, Richard Seifert had submitted an application to the lcc for a 385ft-high building which exploited an unwritten 'Land for Planning Permission' deal designed by Harry Hyams, enabled by the Labour peer Lord Goodman and the chairman of the lcc planning committee Richard Edmonds, and paid for by the unlikely pairing of National Westminster Bank and the Co-operative Insurance Society. The road improvements on which the whole deal turned were scrapped by the then transport minister, Ernest Marples, leaving Hyams' partner George Wimpey to complete the tower to the plans of Seifert and his innovative engineer Willem Frischmann.
Due to a planning system rooted in tradition and conservation, London remains as a relatively low, even but undulating turf, that turns buildings like Centre Point into monuments that are far more significant than their architecture deserves and yet significant enough to be listed as a paradigm of all that was the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Although notoriously unoccupied for a long period, National Westminster Bank took the premises under the podium at the corner of Earnshaw Street and New Oxford Street. As the building filled up, NatWest moved on, leaving Stephen Donald Architects to dance again with the ghosts of another deserted banking hall, but within a husk that, thanks to the legacy of Modernism, provided a transparency that has been re-orchestrated in a way that pays due regard to the landmark that Centre Point is, both in the general and in the particular.
Stephen Donald's architecture always swims in an exotic sea of theory, usually moderated by one big idea, within which is woven a quilt of interlocking texts and subtexts. At the bar, music club and cafe-lounge called Point 101, Donald sought to provide an environment that could arbitrate between a tripartite urban phenomenon - an underground biology of transport systems, a spectacular street theatre, and a 34-storey stack of business bodies that casts a perforated shadow over Point 101 as the sun lowers itself into Oxford Street.
Here, Donald's enabling idea is of a venue becoming analogous to a transit lounge, characterised on the ground floor by landscaping over the original marble and terrazzo public banking hall with a forest of Eames tables and chairs as a deliberate semiotic subversion of Eames' sociological agenda, made even more apparent by a giant screen suspended above the original revolving entrance door, on to which are projected computer-manipulated digital images that mutate to the changing functions inside, and provide a new aesthetic of liquid architecture to the involuntary audience on the street.
The other entrance to Point 101 is in St Giles High Street, underneath the 61 x 6m armour-plate glass and post-tensioned Freyssinet reinforced in-situ concrete bridge that links the tower base, meeting rooms and housing.
In reply to the heroic monolith of Seifert's composition, Donald has built a huge door, multi-layered in construction and folded geometrically to respect the bridge columns as they would appear if seen in plan. Outside the door, the common ways are so brightly lit that there is the effect of shaping an outdoor room from underneath the covered open space. When rolled back, a deliberately ambiguous semi-private, semi-public place is given back to the public realm and serves to filter travellers into and out of the ground-floor bar and restaurant, or up a muscular white concrete staircase to the mezzanine level.
It begins to emerge that the whole complex is a series of crossovers. Point 101 is a bar and a music venue and a cafe and a workplace of sorts where business can be transacted from the low-level comfort of an Eames lounge chair. The drawing of the signage point 101 and accompanying arrow, complete with sda architectural title panel, becomes the sign itself. The bar areas, as theatres for seduction, anecdote and dance, are watched over by Luis Bunuel's Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoise.
Windows become screens, screens become experimental platforms for Donald's increasing interest in video and digital imaging, while the venue's own name plays games with the word 'point' (as in decimal) and with '101', which refers both to the address of the building in New Oxford Street and to the binary digits 0 and 1 that form the matrix of computer programming languages - the reason why the screen above the sign works.
The booths and banquette seats upstairs encourage privacy, quiet, intimacy, brief encounters and dangerous daydreams - a sort of architectural tutorial in social foreplay.
Add to all of this, good music, fine food and the options of breakfast at 7am after the end of your dancing four hours earlier, wrapped up in an envelope that lays the best of the 1990s over a landmark of the 1960s, at the finest crossroads in London, and you have another success for the Mean Fiddler Organisation, delivered by sda with style, wit and panache.