Bright colours, external structure, exquisitely detailed… Neo Bankside is trademark Richard Rogers, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Ben Blossom
There is a wonderful black-and-white photograph of several of the huge gerberettes, the eight-metre-plus steel castings that hold the structure of the Pompidou Centre together, piled on top of each other in the foundry prior to testing. It looks almost Victorian. It would be even better if Richard Rogers, the architect who co-designed the gerberettes and the Pompidou with Renzo Piano, was standing in front of them, in the manner of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
We like these kinds of pictures. Maybe it’s a British thing, a cultural memory – of heavy engineering and structural design – pooled since the Industrial Revolution. It’s probably part of what makes Richard Rogers and his work, despite being about far more than pin joints and cross bracing, familiar to the public. I remember my first-year French teacher Mr Hogg going on about this amazing building in Paris ‘with the structure on the outside!’ By the end of the year he had persuaded himself to take us to see it.
The latest project by Rogers’ firm, Neo Bankside, four diamond-shaped residential pavilions (and a fifth roadside corner block) tucked behind Tate Modern on London’s South Bank, is now being marketed by developer Native Land to appeal to all the Mr Hoggs out there.
The structural bracing (see working detail), which modularises the massive scheme with a diagrid pattern, is external, meaning just like the Pompidou, the floorplates are flexible, and massive pieces of engineered steel are placed across apartment windows, which are seen as a selling point. ‘Many buyers have requested apartments with nodes,’ says Native Land’s Nicholas Gray. After 10 years of starchitecture icons and endless Grand Designs, this seems appropriate. Indeed Rogers was hired solely for front-of-house: John Robertson Architects is the executive on site. The first phase of the 199 luxury-flat scheme – the 12-storey Pavilion A – is now built, with a completion date set for 2012.
Neo Bankside is Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ (RSH+P) addition to the ongoing development of London’s South Bank at Southwark, a ‘string of pearls’ in Rogers’ words that connects all the cultural buildings along the Thames from the Design Museum to the Royal Festival Hall. Now Rogers finds himself centre stage, amid ‘a sequence of the most glorious city views anywhere in the world.’
Alongside the Neo Bankside site, there are 18th-century almshouses set around a formal landscaped garden, CZWG’s 16-storey loft development and Allies and Morrison’s Blue Fin office building. The southern edge of the site is bounded by Southwark Street; Sumner Street marks the eastern edge; and to the north, Holland Street provides the boundary to the Tate Modern extension.
RSH+P has established a diagrid across the site, integrating north-south routes and reinforcing the existing road geometries, as well as giving form to the footprint – and hence the extrusion – of the pavilion structures. By spreading accommodation across five buildings and moving the mass of the blocks to the eastern edge, rights of light are preserved and new views towards the Tate chimney are opened up from the south. A new strip of soft landscaping will also be developed, running north-south alongside the almshouses. Despite plans however to install herb gardens and beehives, it is hard to imagine children will play on these through-routes: it will be a surprise if on completion these spaces do not feel corporate, given the scale of the buildings around them.
There are so many landmarks and object buildings on the south bank of the Thames that you might almost grow blasé at the sight of so much ‘architecture’. Herzog & de Meuron’s emerging ziggurat of the Tate extension, the Globe Theatre, Leslie Martin’s Royal Festival Hall, the multi-authored Hayward Gallery, Renzo Piano’s soon-to-be-completed Shard; the list goes on. Each one has a silhouette and can be easily read – this is chess-piece architecture and if you build here, you are obliged to stand out. It is perhaps why RSH+P has designed what is quite clearly a Richard RogersTM building: bright colours, an expressive, engineered, external structure, lift-shafts borrowed from its own commercial developments, and lots of glass. Exquisitely detailed, it could almost be a Lego version of itself.
To say that this move ameliorates between the Blue Fin Building and the Tate, as the practice has, is to exaggerate, and given the high-quality brickwork and masonry used residentially nearby, maybe even a missed opportunity. The firm’s Thames Reach Housing (1988) beautifully integrates brick and glass facades for example. And the scale of Neo Bankside’s diagrid bracing suggests a far taller and commercial scheme. On this matter, RSH+P has form, in that housing projects in the past have used a similar language to commercial ones. Rogers’ 1980s Coin Street plan, an unbuilt residential and office complex for land alongside Neo Bankside, drew its form from the then just completed Lloyd’s Building.
In many ways, Neo Bankside is emblematic of the kind of London Rogers and others have been building since the 1980s. The residential cousin of Jean Nouvel’s One New Change (AJ 11.11.10) – even the names are much the same – this is X-Factor urbanism, a mix of branding, starchitecture and semi-public realm design.
London is a city that Rogers holds dear. Beginning with his London as it Could Be show at the Royal Academy in 1986 (wherein he presented ideas to reconnect central London with its riverside) and culminating in his role as one of Ken Livingstone’s closest advisors, Rogers has long been preoccupied with remaking the capital as a walking city, ‘for the meeting of friends and strangers in civilised public spaces surrounded by beautiful buildings’.
Neo Bankside ticks all the boxes: brownfield, dense, permeable, mixed use, near to the riverfront and transport nodes, and built to very high standards. Yet recognising these qualities can be difficult when so much of the project’s focus is on branding. At the very least, the Rogers treatment will mean a queue of Mr Hoggs ready to splash out on a very expensive apartment.
Start on site January 2009
Contract duration Completion due March 2012
Gross internal area 42,000m2
Form of contract Design and Build SCDB05
Total cost £140 million
Cost per m2£3,250
Client GC Bankside LLP
Architect Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Structural engineer Waterman Structures
Main contractor Carillion
Approved building inspector Warren Lapper, London Borough of Southwark
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied
CDM coordinator Capita Symonds
Executive architect John Robertson Architects