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RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 finalist: NEO Bankside by RSHP with John Robertson Architects

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The influence of NEO Bankside will trickle down to more prosaic schemes, says Owen Pritchard

Photography by Ben Blossom and Edmund Sumner

Sustainability appraisal

Project data

Architect’s view

Detail

Materials board

‘How do you take a cliff face and break it down to the scale of the beach?’ This was the question Graham Stirk asked when designing NEO Bankside on a site wedged between Tate Modern (the cliff) and the two-storey Hopton Gardens Almshouses (the beach). This part of London has, thanks in part to the wildly successful art gallery and the Millennium Bridge link to the north bank, become one of the capital’s busiest riverside locations. The area is a mix of late Victorian buildings and significant new builds. When designing the towers, RHSP realised that NEO Bankside would have to bridge the relationship between the area’s 14-storey modern offices and the domesticly scaled historic buildings.

Stirk and his team had the task of anticipating this landscape’s evolution. NEO Bankside is the vanguard in an area that will see a significant extension to Tate Modern completed next summer, as well as taller towers and further densification. The architect decided to create four towers and one ‘link’ building, which contains office space at the site’s southernmost point, directly addressing the street. The towers step up from 12 to 24 storeys and surround a lush central public garden. NEO Bankside is the only private housing on this year’s Stirling shortlist – the four hexagonal blocks contain 217 individual apartments.

The building is impeccably detailed

As you might expect from RHSP, the building is impeccably detailed and has a legibility that belies its complex construction. It represents, for Stirk, ‘a joy and celebration of manufactured pieces’. Its vocabulary, while unabashedly modern, makes a nod to the industrial qualities of its historic context, most notably in the structural steel diagrid that supports the building and asserts the unmistakable RSHP brand. This element serves three purposes: structurally it supports the building externally so the floor plates are freed up of any load-bearing walls; it helps reduce the impact of the buildings’ scale, with each diagonal spanning three storeys; and, most importantly maybe, it develops an architectural language that sets a benchmark for the area’s future development.

Inside, the freedom afforded by the structure-free floor plates allows each storey to contain between one and six flats. Access to the residences is via a lift shaft attached to the outside of the building; the glass elevators shift up and down the facades animating the carefully composed facades. Inside the generous apartments, activity migrates towards the cantilevered winter gardens, which project from the north and south points of the hexagonal plan. These single-glazed rooms thrust out from the towers and draw in the views of the London skyline. Each floor-to-ceiling window and opening draws the city in. From every aspect there is a clear landmark visible, reiterating that you are at the heart of the capital.

John Robertson Architects delivered the project through a Design and Build contract, with RSHP retained client-side. Practice director John Robertson has since moved into one of the apartments. ‘The thing I like most is the idea, the strength of the vision,’ he says. ‘Composed as a kit of parts, it has a very logical approach that works on the micro and macro scale.’

NEO Bankside is couture architecture

The development’s four towers are an exercise in precision. The composition is refined and poised – the bands of horizontal red steel glow beneath the exoskeleton, and the warm wood screens set behind the glazing play a game with opacity and material juxtaposition. The interiors embrace the views from this prime location, and the layouts make the most of the freedom allowed by the structure. NEO Bankside is couture architecture; its influence will trickle down to more prosaic schemes. It might not be to everyone’s taste but it is a lesson in what can be achieved on an awkwardly shaped, high-profile site with the right architect and the right resources.

Sustainability appraisal

Yearly CO² emissions 33.32kg/m²

Conceived in a decade of plenty, it is no surprise that High‑Tech Neo Bankside employs a technology-led approach to sustainability. On a constrained urban site, the residential towers are positioned to maximise daylight and views, while winter gardens at the ends of the hexagonal blocks act as thermal buffers.

An extensive closed loop ground source heat pump of 130 52m-deep energy piles provides low-carbon heating and cooling, reducing overall carbon emissions by almost 25 per cent. Despite full-height glazing on all floors, only the penthouses incorporate external shading.

The most sustainable aspect of NEO Bankside is its inviting public realm – sadly only open to the public during daylight hours. Gillespies’ elegant hard landscaping and biodiverse planting – stands of aspen and birch trees along with native species – combines with RSHP’s High-Tech structural expression to create a pedestrian route of human scale at the ground level of the four residential blocks.

Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor

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Project data

Construction cost £132 million
Total gross internal floor area 42,000m²
Construction cost per m2 (new build) £3,250
Start on site January 2009
Completion June 2013
Form of contract Design and Build
Client GC Bankside (joint venture between Native Land and Grosvenor)
Structural engineer Waterman Structures
Services engineer/fire consultant Hoare Lee
Project manager EC Harris
Cost consultant WT Partnership
Landscape architect Gillespies
Planning consultant DP9

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Architect’s view

NEO Bankside lies in the heart of Southwark, occupying a complex, irregular site. The project aims to unify and repair the relatively incoherent and fractured grain of the surrounding areas and to provide a transition in scale from the large volumes of the adjacent Tate Modern and Blue Fin Building to the two-storey almshouses that lie within a conservation area immediately to the west. The establishment of a diagrid across the site reinforces the geometry and edges of Sumner and Holland Streets, which historically formed part of the north-south grain of the area that led to the river. The street edge is defined by the scheme yet is not continuous. The diverse nature of the spaces between the buildings creates unexpected visual dynamism. The accommodation is separated across five buildings in order to maximise visual and pedestrian permeability. This has also allowed great variations of height between individual buildings to disrupt the overall impact and scale of the development and relate more directly to its neighbours.

The diverse nature of the spaces between the buildings creates unexpected visual dynamism

The completed project remains very close to the concept design, which created a robust framework that could clearly organise the input from the various technical and construction teams.

All NEO Bankside’s buildings take their cues from the immediate context and it is the quality of the entire ensemble, rather than the individual parts, that creates drama. The sheer variety of the surrounding buildings and shapes is huge – from large-plan office buildings to the almshouses within their conservation area. Trying to find a way of transitioning between these led to our creating a complementary group of buildings that act like the breakdown of a headland, whereby the cliff-like mass of the Blue Fin building is broken down to the shore, as defined by the almshouses. The overall design hints at the area’s 19th and 20th century industrial heritage, responding in a contemporary language, which reinterprets the coloration and materials of the local architectural character. This ranges from the warm brick hues of the Victorian buildings on Southwark Street and Tate Modern to the Blue Fin’s precise steel and glass. NEO Bankside’s buildings are conceived as sleek and crystalline – reflected in the use of a full-glazed skin – but this aesthetic is softened through the use of a timber veil behind the glazing, responding to its purpose as a residential building.

The client was incredibly supportive throughout the project. One of the biggest single gestures was to maintain the permeability through the site and not bind the buildings through a single security point. In addition, Native Land’s removal of the Hopton Street Tower was not only beneficial for the site, but for the local residents. Its ultimate gifting of that site to the Tate was generous, and adds enormously to the quality of the public realm.

The project’s biggest challenge was to compose a high-density residential building and yet create a project with an appropriate scale and humanity; to ultimately create clarity from the complexity of what constitutes building in London. Maintaining the concept’s simplicity was a perpetual challenge with respect to parameters such as the scheme’s viability and technological and physical constraints.

The support of the client team is essential for architectural success

The most important lesson I’ve taken from this project is that the support and involvement of the client team as well as of the best design consultant and construction teams is essential for the architectural success of any building.

We started this project in 2006, and it was one of the first high-density residential buildings we undertook. Finding an appropriate vocabulary consistent with the practice’s core ideologies was a significant challenge. The project demonstrates the importance of what the private realm can offer the public realm. It is not only about space-making, but about what buildings can contribute. The diagram of NEO Bankside in terms of its simplicity in plan and complexity in three-dimensional realisation is consistent with the rest of the practice’s work. The clearly articulated served and servant spaces are echoed in buildings such as Lloyd’s of London and the Leadenhall Building. The legibility of composition, fabric and structure in NEO Bankside are part of a clear architectural vocabulary and show how it can be tailored to residential architecture. In terms of the evolution of our work through this project, we are here involving ourselves with contextual modernity where context informs the built form and material choices.

Graham Stirk, senior partner, RSHP

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Detail

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Each lift group is an independent structure, taking its lateral stability via the articulated link bridges that connect back to the main building.

Within the primary steel core structure there are two columns per lift which support the lobby decks. The structure to the extremities of the shafts is a tapering outrigger form, framing the outer edges of the lift shaft and providing lateral stability. Flush unitised glazing surrounds the lift shafts. To minimise extrusion sizes, the glazing is suspended and restrained at every level, with the accumulated dead load transferred back into the primary column structure through raking steel props. This vertical modulation allows the lift array to work consistently across the varying height of the buildings.

The lift array has frameless elevator doors to both lobby and car with a head track visible within the shaft itself. The guides to the elevator sit directly on the slab at basement level, taking the dead load. These guides run the full height of the building and are restrained on bracketry, which allows vertical movement.

Graham Stirk, senior partner, RSHP

Materials board

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  1. Polished plaster for internal and external reception walls, Armourcoat
  2. White Corian reception desks, Becherer
  3. BCM 248 S-tp glass fibre reinforced concrete soffits, BCM GRC
  4. Western red cedar in lobby/reception area slatted ceilings, BCL Timber Projects
  5. European oak apartment door, Shadbolt
  6. Powder-coated paint RAL 9007 grey aluminium 30 per cent gloss for bracing steelwork
  7. Powder-coated paint RAL 3016 coral red 30 per cent gloss for winter garden steelwork
  8. Powder-coated paint RAL 7016 anthracite 30 per cent gloss for facade steelwork
  9. American white oak, Schneider Facades
  10. Natural granite microgranodiorite GRA903 flamed on reception floor, Marshalls
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