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Rooms with a view

building study

Brook House in London's Park Lane accommodates banking facilities on the ground floor and apartments above. Designed by Michael Squire and Partners, it reconciles commercial imperatives with its distinct urban context

. PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER COOK/VIEW AND JAMES MORRIS

At the start of the century, the common assumptions which formed the basis of architectural language were questioned by a radical set of ideas and theories. The industrialisation of construction and a very different economic context forced a new architectural language, and many previously held conventions of architectural composition were abandoned.

Any language will absorb the changes in its culture, and it was inevitable that architecture would gradually assimilate new methods of planning and construction, and make cultural sense of the change. It is a logical development that as this century draws to a close, and the language of Modernism finds itself again nearer the centre of culture, its concerns include those earlier abandoned issues of convention, proportion and the craft of making buildings. The radical notions which began this century have become so much part of our normal architectural thinking that our conscious concerns can also include beauty, context and place.

Recent years have seen the emergence of a school of Modernist architects which seeks to develop a language for the many ordinary and straightforward buildings for which they are commissioned. An architectural language is developing which comfortably uses the vocabulary of our time, but which learns from the compositional conventions of a previous age while working with materials from both. It is an architecture which is rational and confident but also legible and reassuring. The work of Michael Squire and Partners falls into this category and it is in this context that the essentially commercial development of the new Brook House should be seen.

The site lies between Woods Mews and Upper Brook Street and faces Hyde Park across Park Lane, in London's Mayfair. The mention of Park Lane will give a frisson to all those whose childhood wet Sunday afternoons were spent trying to amass houses and hotels on that dark-blue pair of properties on the Monopoly board. Regrettably, the reality is very different. Far from being a boulevard of Parisian scale, Park Lane has very little distinguished architecture: the building (typical of this edge of Hyde Park) demolished to make way for the new Brook House was described by Pevsner as 'decidedly dull'. Designed in the 1930s, the Neo-Georgian mansion block by Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie would have gone completely unnoticed but for the fact that the Mountbatten family occupied its 40-room penthouse.

Over the last 150 years the urban pattern, of which old Brook House formed a part, has been adjusting to the changing significance of Hyde Park on this edge of Mayfair, and the importance of Park Lane as a major arterial connection. Park Lane is very different from the time when eighteenth- century townhouses were oriented with principal facades addressing Mayfair and only informal porches and bay windows facing Park Lane. This western edge of Mayfair now feels like a boulevard and its architecture will inevitably adjust to this changing order. Upper Brook Street to the south and Woods Mews remain typical of the urban grain of Mayfair itself.

Michael Squire and Partners' new building is a careful study in reconciling the commercial imperatives of a site's development potential with its distinct urban context. The project would normally be given to the group known as 'commercial architects', and would often result in a building compromised by developers' ambition and planners' restraint. It is unusual (though hearteningly less so than it used to be) for such a task to go to a firm of this calibre.

Planned on nine floors and three basement levels, Brook House accommodates 16 exceptionally generous apartments over a first floor of offices and ground floor of banking and entrance halls. The accommodation, though complex and luxurious, is unremarkable (for what would be expected of a building in this location) except for the seventh and eighth floors which each accommodate a single penthouse with an 'enfilade' of reception rooms running along the length of the park facade - which, I am told, refers to the earlier Mountbatten apartments, and is breathtaking in the generosity of planning and its naturally spectacular views. It is a pity, given so much attention to detail of the building as a whole, that the final 'interior decoration' should be passed to other designers whose aspirations have resulted in works of minor pomposity. Time, of course, may yet see to it that these spaces are 'refurbished' by the building's original architect. Nevertheless, it is an absolute rule of commercial residential development that interiors should easily incorporate changes by their occupants, and Brook House is clearly up to the task.

More lasting will be the facades reflecting the internal planning. The tripartite division is composed of a commercial base and entrance hall, apartments in the middle, and two sumptuous penthouses at the top. It was probably irresistible that these two floors should benefit from the attention of individual expression, but the result is a little too top- heavy. The architectural task might have been easier if the brief had allowed the two floors to be linked to form adjacent two-storey penthouses. The overhanging cornice thus fractured or diminished may have signalled the presence of the Park Lane entrance more effectively.

If the overall composition reflects the internal organisation, the materials are chosen primarily to effect continuity with the neighbouring buildings. While the Park Lane facade is constructed of bricks (specially made and only two inches high), the subordinate facades of Upper Brook Street and Woods Mews are constructed of stone. This change in material signals that the principal entrance is at the side and that, despite the change of urban pattern, Park Lane is either too alienating or not yet worthy of a proper front. If this is a correct reflection of the city structure, it is interesting to speculate on how a reduction in traffic might significantly influence the composition of facades on Park Lane itself and the plans of buildings behind them.

Although made of different materials, the two facades which address Park Lane and Upper Brook Street show a similar compositional base (masonry with an elaborate display of bay windows and balconies). Their detail, however, is very different. The stone facades are carefully scored by metal divisions which run from base to top and separate the wall into finely delineated panels. The first impression of an overall loadbearing appearance is then made pleasantly ambiguous when on closer inspection the metalwork suggests the presence of a frame. This gesture adds refinement to the surface and hints at a dominant controlling order within the composition of the facade. The potential of this ordering device is diminished, however, as the brickwork slides behind the stone panels. At this junction the pleasing continuity is replaced by taught juxtaposition. While the detailing flows easily into the stonework, it leaves a less than comfortable relationship between the loadbearing brick and its skeletal balcony assemblies. Here, the language enjoys a richness in its material and its expression, but is not yet completely fluent.

The value to architecture of a building such as Brook House is in the signals it sends to the developers and planners concerned with ordinary commercial buildings. It is beautifully made and tells us that our city is cared for. It modestly, yet openly, addresses the park and tells us of a standard and precedent we may expect from the gradual and incremental development of further sites in Park Lane. And in its detail it tells us that Modernism is capable of a language which, in the craft of its manufacture, is both legible and reassuring. If Brook House were the norm for modern commercial architecture, the conversation would be about composition, a subject not much discussed since those radical ideas at the start of the century.

Graham Morrision is a partner in Allies and Morrision architects

Structural strategy

ROGER HARMAN AND JIM WALTERS

Gibb

The basement has three full floors with parking on the lower two. Vehicle access controls the slab, wall and column arrangement. A ground-level transfer slab accommodates the offset between superstructure and substructure columns. Hard/hard secant piles were chosen to provide the perimeter ground retention with lateral support from the floor slabs rather than hard/soft secant piles to reduce long-term seepage flows. Internal load- bearing elements are supported on a raft foundation to reduce transmission of ground vibration from a proposed underground railway line and to resist hydrostatic uplift pressure. To limit groundwater ingress, low-permeability concrete was specified for the raft.

The superstructure comprises eight levels of reinforced-concrete flat slabs supported on a generally symmetrical arrangement of rectangular and oval columns, stability being achieved by the traditional method of reinforced-concrete lift and stairwell cores. Flat slabs provide essential sound insulation, and maximise available height given the high density of services required and restrictions on the overall building height. The ninth-level pavilions are of a stainless steelwork framing construction. To form the external step profile and to enable traffic flows to and from the basement, transition beams are incorporated at levels six and one respectively to redirect the column loads from above to the basement construction. Five storeys of 225mm brickwork are supported at level two and restrained laterally at each floor level. This removed the need for shelf angles and heavily reinforced beams at each floor, and reduced the loads on supporting columns at the higher levels. The architectural feature at level two requires a deep beam which supports the brickwork. This system allows for long-term vertical movement - expected to be around 27mm - of the brickwork over its full height. Lateral stability of the brickwork is obtained by ptfe-coated stainless-steel sliding anchors cast into the concrete frame.

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