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Regent's Place Pavilion, London by Carmody Groarke

Carmody Groarke’s delightful pavilion at the Regent’s Place development in London is more than just a ‘developer’s bauble’, writes Edwin Heathcote. Photography by Luke Hayes

The urban object or pavilion has its genesis in a language of structures that embody either a function (a market cross, a news stand or a kiosk), the notion of memory (a memorial) or the expression of political or imperial power (a statue). The architectural pavilion, though, can arguably be traced back to the English romantic garden, to the grottoes and temples scattered through the landscape to create an effect of the picturesque and impose a theatricality on the landscape.

In recent years this particular typology has emerged as an explicit vehicle for urban architecture, guided, notably, by the extraordinary success of the annual Serpentine Pavilion. The idea of a powerful architectural statement achieved with relatively little capital outlay seems to be emerging as the new trend among developers who are nervous that the architecture which defines the pseudo-public space at the hearts of their schemes is proving deficient in the painfully simplistic notion of ‘placemaking’.

Carmody Groarke’s delightful intervention at British Land’s Regent’s Place development in central London, the result of an Architecture Foundation competition in 2007, serves as the perfect example for a study of an emergent form; probably a far broader one than we can manage here. Nevertheless, the issues it raises are worth examining.

The brief, part of a Terry Farrell masterplan, originally specified a café; a business to animate this newly created public space between two office buildings (both by Farrells) and facing John Soane’s 1825 Holy Trinity Church, which itself is near the odd circular traffic island of Great Portland Street tube station. But Carmody Groarke suggested that if the café was not a success, it could exert a detrimental rather than a positive effect on the development, and instead proposed a freestanding structure.

The pavilion the firm designed consists of a forest of slender stainless-steel columns, which support a canopy 8m above the ground and create the form of a pointed prow. Its architectural language is elemental and self-contained, in utter contrast to the rather leaden expression of the commercial architecture that surrounds it.

The canopy is pierced with a parallelogram opening and some simple stone seats are scattered in the midst of the mass of columns. There is very little more to it. The meticulous micro-mosaic of the ground, which neatly accommodates the column sections within its grid, is interspersed with LED uplights that cast a wonderfully warm glow over the pavilion at twilight. The structure is placed at a 45-degree angle to the buildings, which creates a kind of dynamic tension. And there is an intriguing visual interference or moiré, as the network of columns shift in relation to each other, creating a compelling, constantly changing scene.

But there is something else too; a ghost in the background. There is no escaping the pavilion’s similarity to Carmody Groarke’s 7/7 memorial at Hyde Park (AJ 11.12.08). Questions could be asked of an architectural language that can be applied to both a memorial to London’s most traumatic recent event and a developer’s bauble. Yet there is also the inevitability of a young practice developing a language of civic engagement, of relating the object to the city in such a way that it becomes not an isolated sculptural form, but a kind of minimal building from within which it is possible to feel part of the city yet also apart, despite the almost ghostly abstraction of its elements.

Both the 7/7 memorial and this pavilion are expressed as a forest of stainless steel; both mimic the verticality of the individual and allow the body to weave around in a seemingly infinite combination of routes and possibilities. But in other ways they are diametric opposites. The addition of a canopy (even if it is only a 3mm slice of wafer-thin steel) at Regent’s Place makes this a shelter, as opposed to the stelae that so obviously represent the idea (if not the physical memory) of the individuals killed in the 7/7 bomb blasts in 2005.

The memorial stelae are cast and massively solid, their surfaces exposing the exigencies and the raw, elemental qualities of the steel as it cools. At the pavilion, the columns are willowy, hollow and attenuated, as if they have been stretched towards the sky like reeds growing towards the sun. That there is no structural bracing other than an elegant lattice-work frame on the soffit of the canopy adds to the sylvan steel effect and, sitting on the blocky stone stools and looking up through the openings in the roof, it is hard not to be reminded of a ‘sky piece’ by artist James Turrell.

Carmody Groarke’s pavilion undoubtedly sows the seeds of a compelling place. It prompts a childish temptation to run a stick along the hollow columns and play them, like artist Francis Alÿs did with the nearby railings on the houses bordering Regent’s Park. It has an innately musical quality. What it resolutely is not is the kind of pavement café that still appears on renderings as the sine qua non of successful urban space. It leaves the civic space to be defined by human engagement and movement. Its construction is a surprisingly bold move for British Land, and an extremely welcome deviation from the banal platitudes of public art and the notion of the success of a public space as something defined solely through consumption.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture critic at the Financial Times

Project data

Start on site May 2009
Contract duration Six months
Gross internal floor area Not applicable
Form of contract Management
Total cost Confidential
Cost per m2Confidential
Client British Land
Architect Carmody Groarke
Project management M3 Consulting
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant WPP Group
Landscape design EDCO Design London
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Planning supervisor DP9
Lighting consultant MBLD
Specialist subcontractor Sheetfabs
Main contractor Bovis Lend Lease
Annual CO2 emissions Not applicable

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