Patina of success Foggo Associates' striking city office block reconciles the planning authority's preference for solidity and conservatism with the developer's demand for economy . By Jeremy Melvin P
Foggo Associates' No 60 Queen Victoria Street is as nicely turned a speculative office as you might find. It is considered of appearance, efficient of floorplate and attractive of location. Its lobby feels spacious without being wasteful, the vanity units in its lavatories are among the finest this side of Philippe Starck's Royalton, and the unusual facade treatment makes for dappled internal daylight which space planners might - and occupants will - appreciate. Placing the entrance in the corner echoes the Victorian neighbours and justifies its special treatment, but also makes sense of the floor plans. Overall, it has that slightly smug but satisfying consistency where everything is in the right place, cost the right amount and performs the right function which marks Peter Foggo's work, whether in his own practice or during his three decades at Arup Associates. Queen Victoria Street's first design predates his untimely death, and the revisions are not a culture shock. The firm's other City office building at 111 Old Broad Street, which was designed later but finished slightly earlier, confirms that structural facadist expressionism is a genre which will grace high-quality office developments for some time.
It's easy to see why. Queen Victoria Street is a building which seems to offer solutions to long-running problems. It engages with a context, but is not imitative. It is striking without resort to vulgarity, and it recognisably belongs to an architectural tradition while achieving commercial standards. And if that were all, we could proceed teleologically to an 'end of history' on the basis that the principles are so well understood that criticism is just a matter of ticking boxes. But Queen Victoria Street begs more questions than it answers - it has a secret life.
For such is the only explanation for a firm of architects whose reputation depends on rational abstractions compiling such a checklist of modern British architectural icons. Hopkins gets a nod in the finely wrought bronze facade; Stirling's history faculty takes a bow at the rear - which may be a subconscious tribute to the adjacent No 1 Poultry but probably has more to do with the higher rents if daylight can be brought into the basement. And might there be a trace of Max Fry's African oeuvre about the brises-soleil? It is as if, when a building fulfils its commercial criteria, the unrequited ghosts of architectural thought lurk in the vent shafts and gutters, aching to escape. On the one hand we have a consummate essay in commercial design, on another a jumbled mix of architectural reference. Architecture is not, after all, adequate to the task in hand. We have not yet reached the end of criticism.
The bronze facade is a fine example of the Foggo/Arup approach. Caught between the Scylla of the planning system and the Charybdis of commercial need, Foggo Associates reconciled the demands of both. The planners wanted solidity and conservatism, preferably in the same carved-stone-and-rounded- turret idiom of neighbours like the demolished Mappin and Webb corner, or the extant Sweeting's building across Queen Victoria Street. The developers didn't want to spend the money on stone carvers. To Foggo Associates, bronze suggested the longevity, gravitas and solidity of stone, with the susceptibility to cost-saving mechanical processes like sheet fabrication and extrusion which would make it economically viable. This is fine as far as it goes, and Foggo Associates has a legendary ability to make everything contingent. Even the arcade conceals a ventilation grille from the basement plant. But are we not entitled to ask whether an arcade, which suggests shelter from the elements and the delight of shop windows yet here offers neither, is a suitable motif?
The brises-soleil raise an ambiguity of a different kind. Tim Hinton of Foggo Associates explains, they exercised the redoubtable Gerald Ronson, whose Heron Property Corporation developed the site after purchasing it with planning permission for Foggo Associates, design from Lloyds Properties in 1997. Foggo Associates had already upgraded the original 1990 consent in 1995. Squashing the floor sandwiches plus a few re- alignments squeezed in an extra storey, and stretching the colonnade so that it rises two storeys avoided increasing the area covered with expensive facade materials. So when Heron bought the site it already had optimal development potential, and Foggo Associates doesn't make mistakes with floor-plate flexibility and nett-to-gross ratios. In any case, Ronson hires agents to make sure. What interested him, on this prime site with a high-quality building, was not objective and measurable efficiency but those subjective little top-ups which might persuade someone to pay a few pounds per square foot more, and the brises-soleil are vital to the building's perception. Here commercial property development has finally joined the Affluent Society, where no meaningful distinction can be made between necessity and luxury - except, pace J K Galbraith, in the amount of senior-management input it requires. Here again the delicate cat's cradle of contingencies turns out to be more than a monoglot synthesis of function and cost.
The floor-plates are another clever manipulation of the contingent. The diagonal axis from the corner entrance leads to an enhanced service core, with a fire fighting lift, which makes it slightly more generous (because there is no dedicated fire lift core) which is a more than adequate trade off for the extra fire barriers. It also makes a natural break between the two wings, and suggests a number of ways in which individual floors could be divided for double occupancy. The resulting letting flexibility was extremely attractive, given that the building was conceived during a recession. Within the magical standard grid sizes there is plenty of scope for layouts, while corner windows and views from the top floor should please even the most status-conscious executives. And whatever the accidental similarity to the Cambridge History Faculty building, the cascading glass atrium is a neat way of getting light into part of the basement - while leaving some dark space for those essential back-office storage facilities for which no-one wants to pay £60 per square foot.
All these woven contingencies are powerful talismans against the glib precedent spotting which the facade and cascading glazing might invite. They lend the design a certain consistency, even a degree of satisfaction, but they do not completely satisfy. No doubt all the commercial criteria are nicely covered and explicit enough for letting agents and space planners to enter their ineluctable negotiations. But the architecture has only an implicit existence. Not all can be laid at the architect's door. Berating them for applying the language of a colonnade but making it effectively unusable is otiose. What we should be asking is whether a planning system which can declare bronze to be the new stone, while allowing such applique without demanding the shops which would make sense of the colonnade, is a planning system which really works to the public benefit. We might also regret the missed opportunities arising from the more or less simultaneous redevelopment of the whole block. And we could wonder whether funding principles which run a mile from mixed use buildings, are really maximising investors' returns in today's driven, fluid network of relationships between living, working and leisure. If the answer to these questions confirms the status quo, we could come back and have a real go at the design. We might, for example, start with a contention that reference is not only healthy but inevitable. But more likely - and optimistically - our answers would engineer a paradigm shift in commercial architecture.
To bring about such a paradigm shift we probably need planning diktats, such as a demand that all buildings should have either retail space or arcade on the ground floor, or all blocks must have some mixed activities. That would force different landowners to work together more effectively than under the present regime which allows for aligning window dressings and heights. It might make explicit the sort of connections between Foggo and Stirling which are, at Queen Victoria Street, relegated to a subconscious nether world.
Just as we might urge developers and planners to draw their geographical definitions more generously than they are wont to do, so Queen Victoria Street indicates how architects need to cast their intellectual nets widely. Each building may be a specific solution to a specific set of contingent problems, but it is also part of a genre, with the obligations and advantages that entails. It gives access to the body of architectural thought which in Queen Victoria Street is plaintive, subconscious and unresolved: how much stronger would the design be if the architectural idiom of such a consummate commercial building were firm, explicit and consistent.