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Steel frame in a velvet glove

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COMMERCIAL BUILDING: Deborah Singmaster welcomes a new arrival to London's West End

You can walk from Wigmore Street to Oxford Street in a couple of minutes, but architecturally Wigmore Street, bordering the Marylebone conservation area, is light years away from its brash, commercial neighbour. Designed by the Kalyvides Partnership, 110-116 Wigmore Street is one of the first new buildings on the street in 20 years. It occupies a corner on the junction with Duke Street, facing south towards Oxford Street, and wrapping round the corner that leads north to Manchester Square. The upper floors are office space, let to an advertising company;

the ground level contains a retail outlet and a new restaurant, Zizzi, which also occupies most of the basement. The building is but one of several signs that the character of Wigmore Street is changing. Already, the bustle of Oxford Street is seeping up through trendy James Street and St Christopher's Place, and a Wagamama Japanese noodle bar is directly opposite.

Discreet presence

Number 110-116 is a model of discretion. While its mixed-use nature adds to the flow of new enterprises penetrating Wigmore Street, its design ensures that these do not have a loud street presence but are contained behind a carefully ordered facade. Even at street level, the row of black granite columns set forward from the glazing exercises some control over the appearance of the ground-floor tenants. To negotiate the shift in scale between the lofty Wigmore Street elevations and the Georgian residential terracing in Duke Street, a steel and glass roof pavilion steps down two floors towards the street junction, and the window size and ratio of opening to solid wall is reduced when the building turns the corner.

Building on tradition

Tryfon Kalyvides chose brick as the facing material which would most obviously reflect the Georgian architecture of neighbouring Manchester Square and Duke Street, while avoiding the monumentality evident in many of the Victorian emporia on Wigmore Street, many of them faced in Portland stone, faience and terracotta, as well as brick.

Kalyvides says he likes using traditional 'earthy' materials, 'but in a contemporary way'. He therefore chose a 52mm brick which had to be made specially for the project, rather than a standard spacing, 65 mm brick. He took the clients to see a residential scheme by Ian Ritchie on City Road, and various Rick Mather buildings, to sell them this variation on a stock London theme.

The smaller brick emphasises the horizontal features of the main elevation on Wigmore Street, counteracting the verticality set up by the stacked windows in the upper storeys, and again mitigating any suggestion of monumentality. Its nonloadbearing function is underlined by metal channels, inset as a continuous band above the window heads, which separate the vertical and spandrel brickwork panels, and disconnect them visually from the structural columns at street level.

Intricacy without fussiness

The specially made multi bricks are a light buff colour and glow like honey in direct sunlight. Arrises are sharp but the surface is sand textured, with the occasional slim crease and a hint of colour flecks you would expect from a multi. They produce the quality of 'intricacy without fussiness' which Kalyvides wished to capture. For him the brick has a 'velvety' feel to it - simple but sensual.

Quarter bonding again emphasises the horizontal elements of the facades and non-traditional brickwork, as well as blurring the interaction between verticals and horizontals which stretcher bonding would have produced. 'It gives an almost ziggurat appearance, ' says Kalyvides. However, the surface areas of unbroken brickwork are not quite large enough to produce the optical effects possible with large planes of this bonding method.

The joints, in a neutral mortar, are 6mm wide, 'less crude than the traditional 10 mm joint', and are finished with a neat weatherstruck profile to modulate shadowing when viewed from the street and add further richness and variety to the elevations.

In fact, this narrow joint is not a true departure from tradition. The jointing on the Georgian terraces in Duke Street is also 6mm and the brick module smaller than standard.

Deceptive simplicity

Kalyvides' aim to produce 'an element of quality without appearing to try too hard' has not been achieved without effort. Initially he considered sourcing the bricks in northern Europe, where they are standard, but a British manufacturer with a strong architectural in-house support team expressed enthusiasm for the scheme and deservedly won the contract. It produced more than 40 sample panels before the final choice was made.

Similar rigour went into the appointment of the contractor.

Kalyvides said: 'We were very fussy about bricklaying skills and made it clear from the outset that we would not accept any compromise.'

The novel use of Continental-style brick and bonding may inspire other architects to experiment with less conventional brickwork. Already the Kalyvides Partnership is working on a residential scheme for the Home Office in Marsham Street and plans to build on its success at Wigmore Street by using a similar brick cladding system.

PROJECT PROFILE

Client Morgan Sindall Architect The Kalyvides Partnership Contractor Charter Construction Photography Brian Fowler

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