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Old bottles, new wine

Interventions in a listed bank in the City and at the Maritime Museum, Greenwich, have given two Classical buildings a new lease of life

Eleanor K D Hughes, writing in The Architects’ Journal of 11 January 1928, described 147 Leadenhall Street as ‘entirely free from the suggestion of advertisement which from an artistic point of view, if not from a business point of view, mars so many of our modern commercial buildings’. This discretion befitted the building’s purpose - a private bank erected for Messrs Grace & Co of New York - but limited the range of possibilities for future use. In the 1970s Rolfe Judd submitted plans for a new building to be erected on the site of the demolished bank. The planners responded by listing the bank at Grade II, of both historic and architectural interest, and in the 1990s Rolfe Judd found itself refurbishing the building it had once argued should be pulled down. The conditions of the listing forbade any alterations to the facade (other than straightforward restoration), and insisted on the preservation of some interior rooms, sparking a hunt for a tenant who could work with the existing spaces, but would not be deterred by the self-effacing external appearance which Ms Hughes so admired.

Enter Harvey Nichols, a company with sufficient cachet to ensure that any development would be considered an asset to the area, and a symbol of an exclusive world where to boldly advertise one’s wares would be considered rather brash. Like the Conran Group, Harvey Nichols is establishing a track record of restoring quirky iconic buildings into destination restaurants. Since the opening of Oxo Tower in 1997, Harvey Nichols and architect Lifschutz Davidson had looked at various buildings with a view to opening its next restaurant, including part of County Hall, and the top floor of Stirling Wilford’s Number 1 Poultry, now occupied by Conran’s Coq d’Argent.

Leadenhall Street provided an opportunity to catch the beginning of the City’s transformation into a leisure and tourism destination as well as a place of work. An application for change of use had already been made, and Lifschutz Davidson embarked on a year of ‘very delicate’ negotiations with the planners over the detailed design. Alterations to the reinforced concrete structure were to be minimal, with just two major structural moves - the creation of an extension within a former lightwell, and the insertion of a brick drum to enclose a new spiral stair. In terms of planning the basic strategy was to convert the banking hall into the main dining area, put private dining areas into smaller listed rooms, and to fit all other accommodation into the remaining space.

The banking hall had been painted in what Paul Sandilands of Lifschutz Davidson describes as ‘Disney colours’, with friezes and details picked out in gold, red, pink, pale blue and cream. A series of drillings established the various historic colour schemes, and the room has now been restored to its original state - ivory walls with pilasters and columns picked out in white. The floor had effectively been destroyed, but Sandilands says, ‘We have got what we think is a perfect match. It’s a French limestone, almost a marble.’ The one change is that the inset dark liver-red boarder panel which was originally designed to follow the lines of the banking counters has been modified to suit the now uninterrupted space.

Having restored an authentic backdrop, Lifschutz Davidson set about injecting some contemporary ‘fizz’. The real challenge, says Sandilands, ‘was to bring some of the Harvey Nichols buzz to this without cheapening it. They want to conserve it, but they want a new energy in the place.’ The main showpiece is the long stainless-steel fronted bar, with an up-lit ‘floating’ glass top. Constructed of three layers of glass laminated together, the middle layer has been shattered, creating the surreal but dazzling effect of a crazy-paved ice-rink. Sandilands describes the furniture as ‘very grown-up’ - walnut tables with white tablecloths, and Mies-designed red leather Brno chairs. Dating from around 1929, the chair is virtually contemporary with the building, although completely different in style.

From the banking hall, diners can look upwards to a first-floor mezzanine for private dining, or through to the full-height conservatory-like extension. ‘It was quite ugly with utilitarian glazed white brick,’ says Sandilands; ‘we wanted to give a little bit more magic to it without resorting to murals and pot plants’. White bricks have been replaced with Portland stone, frosted windows have been replaced with clear glass, and reinforced concrete beams and columns have been used to create an extension. Metal extruded aluminium aerofoil fins hang vertically from the roof, letting light in, but preventing views out - ‘we wanted to enhance the illusion that you are not surrounded by buildings’. At night, the projected lighting is designed to give the impression of moonlight. The lighting, designed by Speirs & Major, is decidedly theatrical throughout.

Much of the lower floor is given over to the kitchens (under the reign of chef Simon Shaw imported from Harvey Nichols, Leeds), but it also contains the wcs, fitted out with glass tile floors (orange for the women’s, and blue for the men’s), and a bar. While this space retains ‘some of the elegance and restraint of upstairs’, it is altogether more snug. Compared to the ground-floor rooms, the space is low-ceilinged - especially since services have been crammed into the ceiling space so as not to impinge on the banking hall above - and potentially claustrophobic with no windows at all. Lifschutz Davidson has taken the intelligent decision to exaggerate the intimacy of the space - the colour scheme, the leather banquettes, and the reclaimed mahogany floor are deliberately reminiscent of a luxury car.

Sandilands claims that the refurbishment has brought to life the architect’s original vision. He envisaged a grand room, but it was never there because he had to insert ‘all of these things to do with the bank’. But in fact it has done much more than that. The recreation of the main hall is a great one-liner, but becomes part of an architectural odyssey when combined with the quiet dignity of the private dining rooms, the coolness of the conservatory, and the womb-like warmth of the underground bar. The success of this scheme lies in the fact that the building is not simply an object of nostalgia, but has been simultaneously protected and resuscitated to provide a variety of living spaces behind the still impassive facade. How satisfying that an inspired modernisation has meant that an interior designed to be seen by the privileged few can now be used and appreciated by the public - or at least, by those who can afford the price of a Harvey Nichols lunch.

CREDITS

CONTRACT JCT 81 with contractor’s design

CONTRACT SUM

£2.1 million

CONTRACT LENGTH

22 weeks (design and build)

CLIENT Harvey Nichols Restaurants

ARCHITECT

Lifschutz Davidson: Silvano Cranchi, Anna Currie, Vanessa Dickson, Ben Knight, Paul Altham-Lewis, Alex Lifschutz, Christine Otter, Ian Davidson, Gemma Robinson, Paul Sandilands, Suzanne Zenker

EMPLOYER’S AGENT

E C Harris

LIGHTING

Speirs & Major

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER

WSP

SERVICES ENGINEER WSP/Services Design Partnership

MAIN CONTRACTOR

Wates Interiors

M&E CONTRACTOR

Mitie Engineering (London)

SUSBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS

kitchens Hansens kitchens, specialist joinery and furniture Becher Joinery, carpentry/joinery Parkrose Builders, spiral stairs Spiral Construction, hardwood floors Victorian Woodworks, stonework The Stone Company, fire glazing Pollards Firespan, roof shading Louvre Blind Co

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