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Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

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The creation of these separate office and residential blocks on London’s Victoria Street restores some character to what had become a bland and alienating business district 

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA 

Driven through the slums that extended between Westminster and Victoria station in the 1850s, Victoria Street is one of central London’s more recently established thoroughfares. Yet, of the buildings originally constructed along its length, few – most notably JF Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral (1903) – still remain, most having been exchanged for bloated office blocks in the post-war era by the principal landowner, Land Securities. Over the course of a decade, a street that had maintained a rich diversity of character and function was transformed into a quintessentially bland and alienating business district.

Today, much that was built during that period is itself being replaced. Following Land Securities’ completion of the EPR-designed Cardinal Place in 2006, the developer has realised major projects at Victoria by John McAslan and Pelli Clarke Pelli and is in the process of completing buildings by Benson Forsyth and PLP. The results have proved something of a mixed bag. The introduction of housing and the expansion of the range of shops and restaurants in this formerly moribund district are certainly welcome, but a number of the new office blocks are even more over-scaled and under-imagined than their predecessors – a failure that no amount of quasi-crystalline modelling and Christmas wrapping paper cladding can disguise.

By some distance, the best project realised to date is a new office and residential development designed by Lynch Architects. It replaces one of three adjacent buildings on the north side of Victoria Street by Burnet Tait and Partners, of which only the central element – a tower housing the Westminster City Council’s offices at Westminster City Hall – now remains. The slab block that previously occupied Lynch Architects’ site adjoined the council offices and extended for more than 100m, contributing to the oppressively canyon-like character from which much of Victoria Street still suffers. Foremost among the new scheme’s advances on its predecessor is therefore its division into two standalone parts. The larger is an office block, christened the Zig Zag Building in recognition of its subtly cranking facade which gathers height along its length from nine to 13 storeys. This upward trajectory is then maintained first by the new 15-storey residential tower, Kings Gate House, and then by the 19-storey council offices beyond. ‘Utterly mute in civic expression,’ was Pevsner’s pithy assessment of Westminster City Hall. The problem remains but, in reframing the building, Lynch has endeavoured to treat it with the deference that its civic function demands.

The different facade treatments, advertise the fact that one building is commercial, the other residential

The impulse to draw City Hall into a considered composition also informs the provision of both new buildings with a plinth – accommodating shops and restaurants – of a height that accords with the older building’s entrance loggia. Again, this device develops in grandeur from west to east: where the street frontage of the Zig Zag Building is surmounted by a cantilever, the residential block presents a shallow loggia of slender, insistently distributed columns that is then restated in more emphatic terms by City Hall. These relationships register vividly in the tangential, painterly views of the development that we first encounter on approaching it down the length of Victoria Street. Less satisfactory is the rather generic handling of the glazed shop fronts. Divorced from the principal facade treatments that commence at second-storey level, they leave the passer-by with the impression that the architectural action is playing out at some considerable distance above their heads.

Unlike a project such as the Smithsons’ Economist complex, which lies a short walk across St James’s Park, Lynch’s buildings employ markedly different facade treatments, advertising the fact that one is commercial, the other residential. Yet these fields of slender, repeated components are clearly the product of a common imagination, in each case suggesting a preoccupation with a facade’s capacity to register transitory phenomenon. Walking around the site is to be made acutely aware of your own movement as the multiple, deep-framed apertures effectively dilate and contract in response to your shifting view. They also model the changing effects of daylight, which are pronounced on the south-facing street facades, and contribute to the buildings’ unusually high environmental performance.

In the case of the Zig Zag Building, the primary means of facade articulation is a projecting bronze anodised aluminium fin, sited at 1.5m centres on the lowest storey and bunched increasingly tightly on successive floors. As these rise, they also reduce in depth, ensuring that the level of overshadowing offered to the curtain glazing remains constant. One effect of the elements’ contraction is the introduction of a false perspective, tricking the eye into reading the facades as taller than they are.

On the residential block, the gesture is inverted. Here, the balconies by which the larger apartments address the street are screened by a field of diminutive pillars in Jura limestone. Closely spaced at the lower level, where privacy is a pressing consideration, they fan out as they rise, generating a startling optical effect rather in the manner of a Bridget Riley painting.

The building has been designed with a 60-year life expectancy in the confidence  it will outlive the age of the internal combustion engine

The provision of balconies on Victoria Street is in itself a significant innovation, giving the building a distinctly theatrical relationship to the street. The Zig-Zag Building has been equipped with them too, albeit narrow Juliet balconies, set in front of solid door-height vents. Noise and pollution levels may presently inhibit their use, but the building has been designed with a 60-year life expectancy in the confidence that it will outlive the age of the internal combustion engine.

The contributions of the landscape architect,Vogt, support this ambition to forge a permeable relationship between the interior and the city. The Zig Zag Building’s upper floors open on to generously planted roof terraces, while the public space between Kings Gate House and Westminster City Hall has been stocked with acers – a tree chosen for its vibrant seasonal foliage.

However, the one major frustration with the project as it stands today is the absence of a park intended for the rear of the site. That opportunity is presented by the site being bounded by London Underground’s District and Circle lines. The track was buried through a cut-and-fill method and it would be quite possible to establish a linear park – of around half the length of the proposed Garden Bridge – on top. All that is stopping it is a dispute about the insurance implications of an object falling on to the tracks via an air-vent. It is to be hoped that this conundrum can be resolved because the dividends of such a public space would be enormous. Victoria Street remains notably bereft both of trees and of easy pedestrian links into its hinterland. The park would not only offer some much needed green-space but significantly improve the area’s permeability.

Whether or not that potential is fulfilled, Lynch’s buildings already deserve to be judged a significant urban contribution. They have represented an enormous leap in scale for a young practice that had previously built little larger than a house, and a considerable leap in ambition for a developer whose recent record of commissioning leaves a great deal to be desired. Don’t be surprised to see a number of the recent buildings built at Victoria redeveloped in another 40 years. Lynch Architects’ buildings should see us all out.

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Brief

David Evans, director, Lynch Architects

Our brief evolved during a nine-month design process from February to December 2015, eventually concluding with the creation of two buildings linked by a shared basement and comprising 12 storeys of office accommodation (to BREEAM Excellent); 100 residential units over 13 floors (to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4); flexible A1 & A3 retail over three floors; a 132MVa substation; two public spaces with public seating and art work with possible connectivity to a future park at the rear; and basement parking for 156 cars.

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Architect’s view

Patrick Lynch, director, Lynch Architects

The brief for this project formed an initial competition process in early 2010 and derived in part from a Westminster City Council Unitary Development Policy (UDP) drafted in 2008. In particular, Westminster’s policies sought to undo the problems of 1960s zonal planning, changing the character of central business districts dominated by office use, and the attempt to create a more mixed city. As a consequence, the UDP brief called for an attendant amount of residential space to match any increase in commercial office area.

Victoria Street was developed in the 19th century as speculative housing, mainly mansion blocks. In the 1950s this typology was supplanted by a number of very large offices blocks mostly accommodating government ministries. These huge, monotonous slab blocks, including New Scotland Yard, still blight Victoria Street and obscure the rich background of this surprisingly diverse urban quarter. Land Securities invited a dozen architectural practices to make an expression of interest, which included the opportunity to submit a written appraisal of the brief and the site as well as some initial sketches. The landowner then chose four firms to complete a detailed design completion: OMA, Foreign Office Architects, Herzog & de Meuron and Lynch Architects.

We had previously gained planning consent for a very complex project for Land Securities on Victoria Street – now known as Nova Place – and so our perhaps surprising place on the shortlist was based on this success and on our established relationship with the planning department, local resident groups and the client.

The brief entailed investigating the feasibility of retaining the old Kingsgate House as well as proposals for a new building. The flat-fronted, south-facing glass slab block, designed by Burnett, Tait & Partners, formed a triumvirate of co-joined forms, two wall buildings and a tower, including Westminster City Hall. We immediately identified the need to break up the mass and bulk of this composition and saw the possibility of creating a more porous public realm and a more defined high street. The final buildings are remarkably similar to our original design sketches, which proposed a series of staggered blocks stepping up from Cardinal Place towards City Hall in accordance with the UDP. The final project is significantly taller than the planning brief suggested, as our concept for two buildings – rather than housing above offices – led the council to refine its planning brief in relation to our proposals.

It became apparent quite soon that refurbishment wasn’t an option. The original building had a low floor-to-floor height of just over 3m, as well as a load-bearing concrete facade of closely spaced columns, which severely curtailed its possible reuse and extension as BCO quality office accommodation. In proposing two new buildings rather than one compromised one (flats above offices tends to compromise both), the project became more expensive, as we would need to create 25 per cent more facade area.

Westminster City Council saw the advantages of creating two buildings and new public spaces and routes between the two buildings, but were initially anxious about their height. The height pays for the extra facades and loss of floor area associated with not building one large block. However, during the preapplication RIBA Stage C design process in 2010, the brief evolved to protect the buildings and the public spaces by ensuring their longevity, and thus the sustainability of the development as a whole.

In effect, we were tasked with future-proofing the buildings and thus protecting the urban morphology from the building’s possible obsolescence. In other words, we had to create buildings that were not dependent solely on fossil fuels to cool them. This explains the unusually high level of solar shading, the capillary cooling pipes in the exposed concrete soffit and its high quality finish, as well as the opening facades of both buildings which, when used, far out-perform current regulations. Arguably, therefore, the extra cost of the layered facades create a new business model for office buildings, extending the life span of the client’s asset.

The council concluded that the public benefits of the scheme outweighed its initial reservations about the visibility of the two buildings from the Royal Parks, where they rise above the trees. I remember Mike Gray, the design and conservation officer, declaring: ‘If we’re going to see it, it needs to be virtuous, long lasting and beautiful’, which enabled us to respond: ‘That’s our client’s brief to us and our ambition too.’

While the buildings achieve Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 and BREEAM Excellent and meet current industry standards, their environmental performance is designed to improve as BCO standards change and fossil-fuel energy use diminishes over the next century. The offices can be naturally ventilated and probably will be once cars become silent, non-polluting and electric.

This sort of long-term thinking and unity of technical, urban and aesthetic design represents a change in town planning policy and a new business model for commercial projects. It is an example of the new climate of collaboration between enlightened local authorities and the nation’s leading landowners. Its subsequent success in attracting Deutsche Bank to relocate from the City to a neighbourhood now filled with restaurants and bars (as well as a new Curzon Cinema, theatres and new homes) demonstrate that we are finally moving on from the mono-functional central business districts that typified the Modernist city.

I hope that we are also getting over heritage arguments based on stylistic conservatism in favour of a discussion about context that is grounded in spatiality and ecology. I hope that we are also progressing from a heritage approach toward the historic city based on contempt for Modernist architecture.

I am certain that it is possible to combine the best lessons of Postmodern urbanism with a revived language of modem architecture. Designing this project we were inspired by David Leatherbarrow’s recent book Architecture Oriented Otherwise; architecture whose centre is situated outside of itself and whose energy is palpably extrovert but neither hyperactive nor aloof. In The Ethical Function of Architecture and Infinity and Perspective, Yale philosopher Karsten Harries identifies the need for what he terms a Post-Postmodern architecture, and we have taken this demand, somewhat hubristicly, as our wider brief. The renewal of civic architecture and the recuperation of modern city quarters is the task facing my generation.

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Source: Hufton and Crow

Engineer’s view 

Mike Hitchens, divisional director,  Pell Frischmann

At Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building, our challenges included the following: achieving full structural acoustic isolation for both buildings; creating a slender sculpted in-situ white concrete column in the Zig Zag Building entrance lobby supporting 1,100 tonnes; the presence of an adjacent rail tunnel within 1m of a five-storey basement; the adjacency of Westminster City Hall and its shallow under-reamed piles; the need to incorporate cooling pipes embedded in the post-tensioned concrete office floor slabs; the construction of a major UK Power Networks substation within the basement between the two buildings; and the creation of a five-storey car park basement beneath a 14-storey residential tower using top-down construction.

Holding up the District and Circle lines immediately north of the site while excavating four and five storeys of basement was a major challenge, requiring extensive finite element ground modelling coupled with carefully specified pre-construction sequences for adjacent top-down and bottom-up construction. Similar design and site challenges arose from the existing city hall abutment and the need to prevent sideways movement and bending of city hall’s shallow under-ream piles while constructing a deeper five-storey basement adjacent to it.

At the same time as these main basement works were proceeding, a 132MVA UK Power Networks substation – also in the basement – had to be advanced and made operational long before the building was complete. This required the use of a sheet-piled wall to create a temporary box for an advanced dig ahead of the main secant piling. The sheet piling used a small Giken piler, which self-tracks over the sheets it has already laid, providing a very innovative and fast solution.

Within the Zig Zag Building’s superstructure, high-quality, in-situ exposed concrete slabs were designed, including cooling coils within the flat slabs. A challenge was convincing all parties that the cooling coils could be incorporated and not clash with the PT tendons/rebar while maintaining a flat slab. This required fully designing the rebar and using physical models to prove there was ample room for all elements.

We also engineered the Kings Gate south facade with slender 160mm-wide natural stone piers and shallow exposed precast concrete transoms, cantilevered from structurally isolated external balconies, with particular challenges at the penthouse duplex levels, where the double-height balconies necessitated the suspension of the top two levels of piers from the roof and the creation of moment connections between piers so as not to overload the balcony below, and to also avoid the need for unsightly intermediate level tiebacks. 

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Project data

Start on site September 2012
Completion November 2015
Gross internal floor area n/a
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost n/a
Architect Lynch Architects
Client Land Securities
Structural engineer Pell Frischmann
MEP consultant Grontmij
Quantity surveyor Arcadis
Planning consultant Gerald Eve
Lighting consultant Firefly Lighting Design
Landscape architect Vogt Landscape and BDP
Townscape adviser Francis Golding
Artists Rut Blees Luxemburg and Timorous Beasties
Project manager Arcadis
CDM co-ordinator 3CR
Building control Westminster City Council Building Control
Main contractor Lend Lease
CAD software used Microstation

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building by Lynch Architects

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Rogers

    “a failure that no amount of quasi-crystalline modelling and Christmas wrapping paper cladding can disguise.” Actually it’s exactly those two aspects that are the issue, not the scale as such. As for the Economist, worth pointing out that its blocks ARE in fact differentiated by function – each (commercial, offices, flats) has a different façade treatment, albeit in the same material. As for Zig Zag lasting until cars are electric….i doubt it. Not only will that not happen, but every building from each age will eventually grow out of fashion.

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