The first phase of the controversial changes to the 15-storey Grade II*-listed tower – including a resurfaced plaza and lobby – suggest a sensitive and well-researched approach, writes Rob Wilson
The first phase of the renovation by DSDHA for developer Tishmann Speyer of Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist Building and Plaza has been revealed, with the complex in St James’s, London, renamed Smithson Plaza in the original designers’ honour.
Tishmann Speyer UK managing director Dan Nicholson described the renaming as a: ‘A monument to the Smithsons’ genius as architects and a lasting legacy to their careers.’
The Grade II*-listed complex, previously known as the Economist Plaza, was originally built between 1960 and 1965 for the Economist magazine, which sold it to Tishmann Speyer in 2016. With Robin Hood Gardens housing estate currently being demolished, the complex now is the Smithsons’ last major remaining building in London.
This Phase 1 of the renovation sees the first floor Plaza entrance level resurfaced with a new lobby and adjacent café in the Smithson Tower.
In addition, six upper floors have been renovated to create approximately 2,000m² of Grade A office space, while at street level the scheme has created a new 430m² retail space – mooted for possible commercial gallery use – out of a number of units, one of which was the former home of the Architecture Foundation. Elsewhere extensive new cycling storage has also been incorporated.
A public art programme has been reintroduced to the Plaza level, in collaboration with CASS Sculpture Foundation and Metro Pictures in New York, with the first installation being by Swiss artist Olaf Breuning.
Even the Smithsons changed and adapted elements of the design including the size of the lobby
The major element of the work, however, was the renovation and complete environmental upgrade of the envelope and servicing of the building, which included new double-glazed windows and new lifts.
Deborah Saunt of DSDHA described the extensive research carried out by the practice prior to the renovation as ‘like being in conversation with the Smithsons’. In particular, the practice carried out extensive analysis of the historical and changing use patterns of the public plaza level in particular.
Given the regard with which the Smithsons are viewed, the planned renovation raised controversy among architects and others when it was first revealed in early 2017. While many of the proposed changes, including the stripping back of insensitive additions made by SOM in the early 1990s, were broadly supported – including by Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society – it was works to the plaza to increase footfall and use that caused dismay.
These included the insertion of a spiral staircase on Ryder Street up to plaza level and a series of circular skylights in the surface of the plaza to serve a new art gallery below. Writing in the AJ, Ellis Woodman described it as a ‘fundamental misreading’ of the Smithson’s original design for the plaza or ‘yard’ as a ‘quiet territory, which served as a threshold between the city and the towers’. Peter St John, partner at Caruso St John, called the changes ‘’badly conceived’.
Saunt, however, points out: ‘Even the Smithsons changed and adapted elements of the design including the size of the lobby’. There is also somewhat mixed evidence of how the Smithsons themselves saw the nature of the plaza space, describing it variously as both a ‘charged void’ and as becoming ’a rendezvous and tourist spot’.
While the proposed spiral staircase has been redesigned as a simpler less prominent slip stair, this and the conversion of the existing carpark under the plaza into a gallery space will only follow in later phases of the scheme. For now, the revealed changes are sensitive and well judged. The newly cleaned façade of the main tower has crisply brought out the pockmarked texture of Portland Stone Roach Bed stone. The whole plaza and lobby have been resurfaced in granite, remaking a visual continuity between outside and inside, increased by the siting of a new concrete bench in the lobby, equivalent to those outside on the plaza.
The lobby itself has been cleared of the extraneous security clutter that used to divide it, with security barriers removed in a mini-example of a frictionless border – visitors are now expected to log in electronically. New wall panels of Portland Stone Roach Bed, from the same quarry as the original, line the central service core as well as one wall of each lift – a move intended to inject the material spirit of the building back into the interiors, which were stripped of all elements of the Smithson’s original design in the 1990s by SOM.
With the lobby level café and ‘pocket park’ at the north side of the plaza not yet complete, it is difficult to judge as yet how the nature of the plaza level itself will be changed. Certainly the inclusion of café tables and planters will remain an anathema to Smithson purists, and does seem at odds with the hard surfaced nature of the austere plaza as well as the sensitive paring back of elements elsewhere.
In general however, this appears a softly, softly and sensitive approach to the renovation – and a tribute to the sheer volume of research and thought that DSDHA has clearly spent on developing the scheme.