Keep up appearances
Quinlan Terry's latest Classical facades to otherwise modern offices once more raise the question of architectural integrity, writes Kenneth Powell
Quinlan Terry may be best known as the architect of hand-crafted town and country houses - he has recently completed the last of six extraordinary villas on the edge of Regent's Park, a project that extends back into the 1980s - but he is no stranger to the world of office development.
Twenty years ago, he was responsible for a six-storey commercial block at Dufour's Place in London's Soho. The far larger mixed-use development (apartments, offices, shops and restaurants) at Richmond Riverside followed in 1984-87. Coinciding as it did with the high point of the Prince of Wales' architectural campaigning, the scheme was controversial, being variously represented as a restatement of civilised architectural and urban values or part of a conspiracy to destroy modern architecture.
Terry saw commercial work as 'an opportunity and a challenge today to approach each new problem from old principles rather than from a childish desire to produce an elevation hitherto unknown'. He has no time for the Modernist tradition, of course, but he is essentially a pragmatic architect who is less concerned with remaking society than responding to a client's brief. For Haslemere Estates, the client at Richmond, his work turned out to be a sound investment (though the development is now so popular than any future attempt to redevelop the site would surely be doomed to failure).
Some critics claimed Terry's Richmond scheme was a 'fake' in that the carefully composed facades, in which all five Classical orders featured, concealed readily marketable open-plan office floors - at night, lines of strip lights could be seen behind the ordered casements. Though opening windows were provided, letting agents demanded air conditioning. Reconstituted stone was substituted for the real thing on cost grounds. Terry's view was that these compromises, however regrettable, were justified by the contribution the development made to the riverside and the public realm. His facades, moreover, could be enjoyed in their own right and, being traditional loadbearing structures, had an integrity of their own.
Quinlan Terry's recently completed development at 20-32 Baker Street is likely to rekindle the controversy over architectural integrity. The site has a long and painful planning history extending back to the 1970s. Bounded by Baker Street, George Street, Blandford Street and the backland mews of Kendall Place, it had withstood a number of redevelopment proposals, including schemes by Fitzroy Robinson and Allies and Morrison. The majority of the Georgian houses there were unlisted (though in a conservation area) and most had been drastically altered. But the group represented one of the last vestiges of the old Baker Street, largely rebuilt (to extremely depressing effect) since the Second World War. For Westminster planners, total redevelopment threatened to erode the edge of the conservation area, though it was clear that a broadly facadist scheme would be acceptable. The Georgian Group was adamantly opposed to demolition.
Terry's scheme, which secured planning consent despite the Georgian Group's opposition, retained the two listed houses on Baker Street in their entirety - these have since been refurbished by HTA Architects.
The other buildings on the site were demolished and have been replaced by a new 4,748m 2office building, 22 Baker Street, with exterior by Quinlan Terry and interior by Norman & Dawbarn. The interior, fairly described as 'uncompromisingly modern an efficient, flexible, prestigious and vital environment', demands little comment but offers well-equipped, excellently located modern office space. Only the presence of sash windows (non-opening) suggests you are in a 'period' building.
Terry's prerequisite for participation in the project was that all external walls should be load-bearing and at least 0.46m thick, and he was supported in this by Westminster's demand for 'authentic' street frontages. At Richmond Riverside, Terry concedes, building traditional facades, with the buildings going up floor by floor, had extended the construction period for the scheme. The answer here was to devise a way of building the steel-framed office floors and the brick and stone facades independently of each other and then connecting the two so that the facade became a genuinely structural element, offering lateral stability to the whole building, not just a veneer. In this way the office floors could be quickly completed, a roof put on and work could start on fitting-out while the facades, with their strong craft element, were finished.
Engineer Whitby & Bird was also concerned that setting the floor beams (spanning 13m from central core to facade) directly into the masonry facades could produce deflections and cracking of the brickwork. By using pivoted connections within concrete 'doughnuts' set into the masonry, this problem was avoided. Contractor Skanska and Whitby & Bird developed a strategy for construction whereby the floor beams, fitted with the doughnuts, were supported on temporary stub columns.
As the facades rose, the beams were slotted into place and the stub columns removed, allowing the floors to rest on the facades.
The cost of additional steelwork, agreed the client, was more than justified by a 10-week reduction in the construction period.
For Terry, the project is '95 per cent about the street - it is the public face of the scheme that matters to me'. As he points out, Georgian architects were capable of facadism:
Nash made terraces of middle-class houses look like royal palaces. He argues that 22 Baker Street is an example of genuine Classical architecture and the scheme is a way of reconciling the public's (and planners') attachment to the 'cherished local scene' with the demands of developers and potential tenants who want open-plan, highly serviced space.
The scheme is unashamedly picturesque in composition. The northern half of the Baker Street elevation is designed as a group of four- and five-storey stock-brick houses in tune with their listed neighbours. The building on the corner of Baker Street and George Street is altogether grander: Adam-esque and taking its inspiration from nearby Portman Square. Constructed of tuck-pointed Ridgwick brick, it features a projecting iron balcony supported on stone brackets, stone cornice and ornamental swags and medallions - only the brackets are of cast stone, the other elements being hand-carved from Portland blocks. These two elements are joined by a building that is, by any standards, an exotic, its giant Ionic Order speaking the grand language of Palladio rather than that of London house builders, and constructed entirely of Portland stone.
In contrast, the facade to Kendall Place, a mews, has an industrial look: with its use of engineering brick and big iron gates, it harks back to some of Raymond Erith's unrealised office and industrial projects. Even here, Terry cannot resist another picturesque touch by slipping in 'an early 18th-century house' with typical thick glazing bars and sash boxes.
Some will say, as they said of Richmond Riverside, that it is a 'stage set'. Terry's response is 'why not a stage set, if it looks right?' What the scheme cannot be accused of is copying the past: this is an example of new Classical architecture that draws on the past in the same way that many Modernist buildings draw on the examples of Corbusier or Mies. Submitting his scheme for a 2003 Georgian Group Award - perhaps not surprisingly, he did not receive one - he argued: 'It is of major relevance to all who wish to see the continuation of the Classical tradition that genuine Classical buildings continue to be erected in important public spaces in our cities and not to be confined to private houses, hidden away in rural oblivion. To do this, some compromises have to be made. A living tradition always responds to the needs of the time.'