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BUILDING REVIEW

Bracken House refurbished by John Robertson Architects for Financial Times

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Rework of post-war classic sees the Financial Times move back into the building originally designed as its HQ 

Bracken House is a curious hybrid of bricky post-war Neoclassical and metal-and-glass 80s High-Tech-cum-Pomo, reflecting its complicated history.

Originally designed by Sir Albert Richardson, Houfe & Partners in 1959 as the Financial Times’ headquarters and printworks, the 18,500m² building was constructed on a cleared bomb site to the south-east of St Paul’s Cathedral, its brickwork dressed in ‘Hollington Staffordshire’ pink sandstone to reflect the colour of the newspaper. For its plan – the office floors sandwiching the central printworks – Richardson took his inspiration from an unexpected quarter: Guarino Guarini’s Palazzo Carignano in Turin.

Bracken house, viewed from distaff lane © peter cook

Bracken house, viewed from distaff lane © peter cook

Source: Peter Cook

With newspaper production and technology requirements changing in the 1980s, the Financial Times moved out and its owner, Pearson, sold the building to the Obayashi Corporation. A proposal to replace it with a new Michael Hopkins & Partners-designed building saw it spot-listed in 1987, to prevent demolition. A compromise was later arrived at, with the central printworks alone being demolished and replaced by a Hopkins-designed linking block. Externally, its elliptical shape has load-bearing gunmetal-faced structural bays from which the frameless windows hang. Sitting on a sandstone base and with a recessed attic storey, its tripartite form was intended to blend with the original and reference a Classical palazzo in design.

Internally, the Hopkins block has a steel and glass-block atrium and lift core, an almost stereotypical piece of late 1980s design which, in an extraordinary marrying with the original, somehow works. This was subsequently recognised in 2013, when it was listed Grade II* a second time, now including the Hopkins work.

Bracken house, friday street entrance © peter cook

Bracken house, friday street entrance © peter cook

Source: Peter Cook

Bracken House has now reopened after a major refurbishment delivered by John Robertson Architects (JRA) for Obayashi Corporation with a Category B fit-out undertaken by Perkins + Will for the Financial Times Group. And after almost 30 years, the latter organisation has moved back into the building, which is once again fit for purpose for a 21st-century news organisation.

JRA’s design approach has been to draw rigorously on the building’s multilayered history, revealing and restoring many of its idiosyncrasies, accenting some of the original work while making better sense of space and improving internal accessibility.

One clear move has been decluttering the main entrance hall on Friday Street, which has been enlarged by relocating the original glazed partitions and timber louvres, allowing for new sitting areas and a visual connection through to the atrium.

Bracken house, atrium link bridges © peter cook

Bracken house, atrium link bridges © peter cook

Source: Peter Cook

In another key move, new internal courtyards have been created to resolve the level changes between the main office floorplates and the historic wings, improving the ease of movement for occupants and helping unify the different parts of the building.

The office floors have been fully upgraded and rearranged with large open-plan areas and workspaces, with M&E completely overhauled to improve energy efficiency, including new air conditioning and LED lighting. Increased daylight has also been introduced via the atrium roof, where the Glasscrete has been partially replaced by clear glazing after consultation with Historic England – resulting in increased daylight levels in the central atrium and to surrounding offices of 150 per cent.

The ‘Hollington Staffordshire’ pink sandstone cladding has been repaired and cleaned as part of the refurbishment work while at roof level, Hopkins’ original idea of a ‘fifth elevation’ roof garden has been revived. 2,000m² of open space features planting, seating and a rooftop pathway against the backdrop of St Paul’s Cathedral, its layout referencing Richardson’s original inspiration of the Palazzo Carignano.

Overall, this is a subtle and successful restitching and repurposing of the building; a sensitive rework that exemplifies how historic buildings can successfully be retrod to serve their original purpose.

Bracken house, aerial view © jason hawkes (5)

Bracken house, aerial view © jason hawkes (5)

Source: Jason Hawkes

Architect’s view

The historic wings to the north and south were previously isolated from the main office floorplate, with access compromised by changes in level. These problems were addressed by relocating the WCs from the core to the ends, which enabled us to occupy transitional spaces – internal courtyards – between the different elements of Bracken House, to enhance the physical and visual connections, as well as allowing natural daylight into the deepest part of the building.

The tension between the two opposing structures of the 1990s office floorplate and the 1950s wings has been neutralised by a careful formation of architectural composition in three-dimensional grids. The modular designs of the cast concrete and oak timber wall panels to the core, glazed partitions and anodised aluminium cladding to the office façade, and the white terrazzo floor and slatted timber ceilings all seamlessly connect the varying floor levels between offices.

Developed in close collaboration with Arup, the existing 950mm-deep office floor section has been slimmed down to 250mm metal fascia and stair stringers by gradually reducing the sizes of the steel structures forming the new gallery. Stainless-steel handrail plates are bonded to the glass balustrades between 15mm gaps to limit its visual impact and increase its transparency.

Zemien Lee, John Robertson Architects

Bracken house ground floor plan key

Bracken house ground floor plan key

Source: John Robertson Architects

Ground floor plan

Project data

Start on site November 2016
Completion January 2019
Gross internal floor area 18,500m²
Gross (internal + external) floor area 26,000m²
Form of contract or procurement route Traditional
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect John Robertson Architects
Client Obayashi Corporation
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Arup
Quantity surveyor Turner & Townsend
Heritage consultant Purcell
Landscape architect Townshend Landscape Architects
Project manager Turner & Townsend
CDM co-ordinator Bureau Veritas
Building control Bureau Veritas
Main contractor McLaren
CAD software used ArchiCAD (BIM)

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