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Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

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BUILDING STUDY: Is Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ scheme an example of generous urbanism? asks Jay Merrick

PROJECT DATA • PLANS • SECTION • VIDEO 

It’s obviously risky to connect one of Rem Koolhaas’s most famous declarations to a commercial development in London’s Fitzrovia, but the blue touch-paper of his polemic is irresistible. ’Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue,’ he wrote in his 1995 book S,M,L,XL. ‘It exists; at most, it coexists. Its subtext is fuck context … If urbanism generates potential and architecture exploits it, Bigness enlists the generosity of urbanism against the meanness of architecture. Bigness = urbanism vs architecture.’ 

The Fitzroy Place mixed-use scheme by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS) covers 1.3ha of an entire city block in the East Marylebone Conservation Area, on the site of the Middlesex Hospital, demolished in 2008 after being bought for £175 million in 2006 by the Candy Brothers and Iceland’s Kaupthing Bank. The hospital, and the new development, are broadly of the same height, but the new Mortimer Street elevations are higher, at seven storeys. 

The scheme is not Koolhaas-Big, but it is massive in terms of a context that Publica examined in detail for the architects, confirming the local typological diversity and the significant lack of generous public space. 

The heft and commercial force of Fitzroy Place can be summarised by a few numbers: 235 market-price residential units and a residents’ club; 54 affordable resi units; two buildings delivering 20,400m² of office space; 1,860m² of retail and restaurant space; an education space for All Souls Primary School, which faces the northern facade of the scheme; and a healthcare unit for University College Hospital; a publicly accessible central square; and a construction cost of £200 million borne by the developer Exemplar Properties which, with considerable bravery, bought the site in the annus horribilis of 2008. 

The two practices have produced quite different treatments of their main Mortimer Street office block elevations

Sheppard Robson masterplanned and massed the development. It also designed the office block and its linked resi segment at the corner of Mortimer Street and Cleveland Street, and set out most of the lower-ground-floor and basement elements. LDS designed the office block at the scheme’s south-west corner as well as the resi buildings facing Riding House Street and Cleveland Street, and it worked with Caroe & Partners to refurbish JL Pearson’s astonishingly lurid Gothic Revival Edwardian ex-hospital chapel which sits in the new L-shaped public square at the centre of the site. 

Has the scheme fucked its context positively, or negatively? Is the composition a challenging three-dimensional montage, or a safe sampler of architectural mannerisms? 

The centrepiece of the context is the ghost of the hospital. This originated in Palladian buildings completed in 1755, which Pevsner thought were handsome. Its rebuilding, to designs by AW Hall between 1925-37, featured red-brick blocks ‘of no architectural importance’. 

To the north of the site, towards Fitzroy Square, we can for the most part apply Pevsner’s description of ‘an appealing small-scale mixture of domestic and commercial Georgiana with a Bohemian aura’. That continues, with syncopations of generally low-rise Victoriana and plain mid-20th-century Modernist buildings, in the streets around the other three sides of the Fitzroy Place. Residents in the north-facing block of Fitzroy Place gaze across Riding House Street at the Art Nouveau-cum-Arts and Crafts facade of the 1903 Boulting’s Range & Stove Manufactory, and the giant arched window settings of Beresford Pite’s 1908 All Souls school. 

‘This area never had a single owner,’ explains Alex Lifschutz. ‘Development has always been incremental. The variety comes from the original small-scale pockets of land. You have streaky bacon brick and white stone mixed up with what used to be rag-trade sweatshops and car showrooms. There are lots of alleyways and small courtyards. We liked the informality of it, and also that the buildings generally have a base, a middle, and a top.’ No single activity dominates; substantial mansion blocks and Victorian brick warehouses mingle with humbler terraces. 

The architects established basic design rules and a materials palette – notably Portland concrete and a range of brick colours and textures found in existing buildings in the area. ‘The aim,’ explains Sheppard Robson director Dan Burr, ‘was to create buildings that were clearly contemporary in character, but definitely of Fitzrovia.’

The office blocks with shops and a restaurant at ground level, present essentially white facades to Mortimer Street, and the resi buildings are in various types of bricks and pointings, with deliberately quirky facade articulations. The 42m x 52m central courtyard is publicly permeable from Mortimer Street, Riding House Street and Cleveland Street. The original Candy-Kaupthing Bank’s office and resi proposal featured large plans suitable for major companies or extremely wealthy apartment buyers. Exemplar wanted a much greater mix of plans, and reduced monumental mass. 

This has been achieved in a scheme delivered ‘heroically’ by Sir Robert McAlpine, according to Burr, in one continuous phase. There is a certain visual slickness to Fitzroy Place, but it is not generic or egregiously flashy; the finessing of key features and materials is admirable, and the fact that two practices were involved was significant to this: they have produced quite different treatments of their main Mortimer Street office block elevations, while sharing key moves, such as the double-height arcaded corners which widen and activate the pedestrian entry to the internal public square. 

Sheppard Robson’s main facade has floor-to-ceiling windows of varying widths set into Roach Stone concrete with bevelled right-hand verticals which generate a changing perspective. The flank facade in Cleveland Street is faced with blue bricks. 

LDS’s main office facade has a filligreed, faintly theatrical quality. Its features were designed, says Lifschutz, as ‘a bold, clear, and original riff’ on the polyglot architectural character of Fitzrovia: precast pillasters with red brick insets refer to the listed brick and stone building that forms the south-west cornerpiece of the office block; the bays have wide windows set above spandrels which conceal office gubbins; bands of vertically rodded brise-soleils mediate light through the glazing, which covers more than 40 per cent of the facade; and the facade is crowned with rather elegant round-headed vaulting, a nod to the chapel. 

Fitzroy Place touches on Koolhaas’s idea of a ‘generous urbanism’

In residential terms, says Burr, ‘we worked very hard to get some ingenious layouts that would create decent outlooks and natural light, and a sense of bespoke’. There are more than 100 different layouts, and this was partly a product of setbacks in the elevations and the fact that the site is not quite orthogonal. 

The residential blocks make a contextually sophisticated townscape contribution to the east and north sides of the scheme. It’s impossible to read the difference between market and affordable apartments on either the street or courtyard facing sides of the blocks; and there is no sense of brusque disconnection between the ground and lower ground floor duplexes and the public courtyard. Lifschutz’s design of the western resi block’s courtyard elevations is intriguing – it’s almost Bauhaus, with a light-reflecting whiteness and finely articulated details designed to contrast strongly with the retained historic facades along Nassau Street which form the western side of the block. 

At a pinch then, Fitzroy Place touches on Koolhaas’s idea of a ‘generous urbanism’ whose autonomy of parts remains committed to the whole. The Dutchman would produce much crunchier autonomies, of course, and less ‘architecture’; perhaps, come to think of it, something like landscape architect Gross Max’s line of tall and very substantial steel columns in the courtyard, connected by a rather skimpy, planted lianas. The look-at-me contraption is meant to be a gazebo that accentuates the perspective of the double-height arcading along the Mortimer Street entry to the courtyard. It is not a gazebo, it clutters the perspective, and it should not be looked at. Apart from that, Gross Max’s treatment of the courtyard is admirable.

Landscape plan

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Ground floor plan

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Typical floor plan

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Plan showing work split between architects

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Section

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Project data 

Location London
Type of project mixed-use
Client Exemplar and Aviva Investors
Architects Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands
Landscape architect Gross Max
Planning consultant DP9
Structural engineer Ramboll
M&E consultant Aecom
Quantity surveyor Arcadis
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
Heritage consultant and conservation architect Caroe & Partners
Public space consultant Publica
Interior designer Johnson Naylor
Project manager GVA Second London Wall
Transport consultant Arup
Acoustic consultant Clarke Saunders/Sharps Redmore
Lighting designer EQ2
Planning granted 2011
Start on site date 2012
Completion date 2016
Site area 1.3ha
Total cost £200 million

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Fitzroy Place by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • What the F*** does this mean?
    "Has the scheme fucked its context positively, or negatively? Is the composition a challenging three-dimensional montage, or a safe sampler of architectural mannerisms?"

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