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Turnmill Clerkenwell by Piercy & Company

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The craftsmanship of Piercy & Company’s rework of the former Turnmills nightclub site puts the laboured brickwork of its historic neighbours to shame, says Owen Pritchard

By the 1980s, the warehouses built by Victorian entrepreneurs in Clerkenwell were bereft of purpose and, thanks to their good building stock and proximity to the City, the district was gentrified in an all-too-familiar way. The warehouses were turned into offices and loft apartments. Exmouth Market became a foody destination of quirky bars and trendy restaurants. Italian Furniture manufacturers opened showrooms. The area boasts the highest concentration of architects in London.

Clerkenwell was also home to one of  the most infamous superclubs in London. Turnmills, on the corner of Turnmill Street, was the first club in London to be granted a 24-hour licence. It was the epicentre of the dance scene that spawned a generation of gurning revellers throwing shapes throughout the 90s. Turnmills attracted a troublesome crowd. In 1991 notorious gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser was shot in the head when leaving (he survived); in 2003 a man was shot dead on the dancefloor. The club closed for the last time in 2004.

When developer Derwent London acquired the site it appointed Piercy & Co to design a new office and retail building that would reinvigorate the shabby old warehouse that stood on the site. ‘It wasn’t fit for purpose, not for a modern office,’ says architect Stuart Piercy. After discussions with Derwent and Islington, it was decided to replace the existing building.

It’s about techniques; every building we do now is about techniques

So began a tumultuous journey. The project was conceived just before the economic crash of 2008. At the time Piercy & Company, in its infancy after Piercy Conner had dissolved, was just eight-strong and enduring a lean period. When the initial planning application was refused, Piercy feared the worst: that Derwent would go off and appoint another architect to develop something Islington would approve.

‘It was our first commercial building,’ he says. ‘Although it is a category A building, we wanted it to feel a little more finished. But then you can’t do too much, as the tenant will want to make it its own.’

The exterior of the building is clad in a mix of handmade Roman format brick supplied by Danish manufacturer Petersen Tegl. ‘We went back and forth to Denmark three times to get the right three colours,’ says Piercy. ‘We mocked it up four times there and once here. We didn’t like the colour here.  The Danish light is so different, it really changes the appearance. So we went back and mocked it up again.’

The facade is solid without being overbearing, and its craftsmanship puts the laboured brickwork of  Turnmill’s historic neighbours to shame. It is made from three differently coloured bricks with the vertical pointing packed flush and the horizontal pointing recessed. The effect is to make the small shadows on the brickwork more pronounced, a subtle touch that typifies the careful hand of the architect.

It’s also on the facade that the architect has played some subtle games with the brick columns, that will most likely be lost on the commuters as they trudge past. The window reveals are chamfered, each at a different angle, radiating from a notional point within the building. It results in a radial sweep along the Turnmill Street facade that makes the building appear solid from an oblique angle, but emphasises its height when viewed straight on. ‘As you walk past, the facade is always changing,’ says Piercy. ‘I don’t like buildings in elevation, but this has a lot of depth.’

Turnmill appears as two buildings, but is, in fact, just one. The facade folds in on itself at the Turnmill Street entrance, where an atrium nestles between what appears to be two wings.  The architect initially considered simply extruding the footprint, but to a greater height. Piercy felt this scale would be too large for Clerkenwell and found inspiration in the shape of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture, Curved Form Delphi. Inside, this comes as a bit of a surprise on the office floors as the building spreads out over the entire footprint.

The attention to detail is carried through to the minutiae of the building – black polished concrete floors have brass movement joints, the curve of the handrails as they return on each storey match the curves of the facade, the lifts have curved white glass on the walls with brass fittings. There is something of a 1950 or 60s feel to the building – a healthy measure of Mad Men styling that provides character to the interior. You could imagine a tenant installing George Nelson’s 1964 Action Office system, scattered with empty whiskey bottles. Piercy and Derwent must have known that this building would prove intoxicating to potential tenants. Unsurprisingly, Saatchi & Saatchi will be the first to move in.

Internally, the chamfered reveals allow less obstructed views from the office floors to the city beyond. ‘From here it feels like there is a big percentage of glazing, but actually it is less than 50 per cent,’ says Piercy. The generous office floors have a sprayed plaster ceiling with lighting tracks sat flush within them, not the familiar suspended ceiling.  The set-back uppermost floor is smaller at 7,500m², allowing the architect space for a balcony that wraps around the edge of the building. This residual space provides fantastic views to St Paul’s and over Farringdon.

For Piercy, this project has been an education in techniques, craftsmanship and a typology. ‘We had no preconceptions,’ he says. ‘We came at it with a softer, more residential approach.’  

The practice has since been appointed by Derwent London to work on a new project on Berners Street in Westminster, this time using travertine. ‘It’s about techniques; every building we do now is about techniques,’ says Piercy. With the patience of an enlightened developer, this important corner of Clerkenwell has ditched its riotous past for something less subversive.  Turnmill is a dapper office building with charisma.

The brief

In 2007 we secured planning consent to refurbish and extend the existing building at 63 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, which housed Turnmills nightclub. As the scheme evolved, the rising cost of conversion, combined with compromised space in the original building, raised questions about the viability of a refurb. Piercy & Company and the client, Derwent London, both felt that a beautiful new building would significantly enhance the site and streets beyond.

The planning process was challenging, with three planning applications and a public inquiry. The design process was scrutinised in great detail by the London Borough of Islington and we produced hundreds of supporting models, sketches and sample boards to win consent in 2011.

It was always our intention to create a timeless ‘Clerkenwell building’, which would respond to the distinctive character of the area. Our design draws on the historic fabric of Clerkenwell and its present-day incarnation as a centre for London’s creative media. The robust but refi ned warehouse buildings of the area provided a guiding template, while the concept is inspired by Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Curved Form Delphi, which has a textured external skin and a pure white void carved from its centre.

Derwent London asked us to experiment with a special handmade Danish brick by Petersen Tegl. We visited Petersen many times to create the right palette of three colours to complement the Old Sessions House opposite. This is our first completed major commercial building and it has reinforced our belief that this typology plays an important civic role in the townscape.

  • Stuart Piercy, director, Piercy & Company

Engineer’s brief

What Derwent London achieves in its buildings leans heavily on engineering, both structural and building services, as each building presents unique challenges. The Turnmill was no different. On a constrained city-centre site the proposed new building fully occupied the footprint. The existing building on the site was originally constructed as a stable block to house haulage ponies during the construction of the Metropolitan line.

One key move was the reuse of the perimeter masonry basement walls to support the vertical loads from the superstructure.  This allowed us to keep and work with the original fabric of the building and take months from the programme, which followed the more traditional approach to demolish and infill the basement and construct new basement retaining walls. A combination of new reinforced concrete walls and drained cavities was installed in front of the existing masonry walls in order to meet the basement water resistance requirements. The wall ties into the new raft foundation via a stiff concrete capping beam that controls any risk of differential settlements.

A feature of many Derwent buildings is the high-quality concrete works. Core walls and columns were carefully specified to ensure an excellent product and recessed lights were integrated into the structural design with fittings and conduit cast into the soffits of the slabs. At the fifth floor level the building sets back and here the drainage of the terrace was also cast in.

The facade is, of course, a very special element of this building. The brick selected by the architect in many ways determined the geometry and location of the supporting vertical structure.  The column locations were required to work with the facades while leaving clean floor plates internally and were therefore located in the facade zone, with the floor slab at each level being attached only at the inside face of the column.  The bespoke column sections were prescribed by the facade detailing and a high tolerance was necessary for the construction to be able to interface cleanly. Many options were investigated from an early stage as to how the thermal line and structural support for the cladding would manifest itself. This was a critical detail in achieving the beautifully detailed masonry facade.

Following a detailed analysis, from these options it was decided to utilise an in-situ concrete corbel element to support the masonry.  The corbel was connected back to the primary structure though a thermal break. Once again, a high degree of workmanship was necessary to cast the corbels accurately and the structure was carefully designed to control deflections.

 The Turnmill in its completed form exemplifies what can be achieved through attention to detail in every fibre of the design, procurement and construction of an office building.

  • Gerry O’Brien, director, AKT II

Working detail

Designed to appear as a heavy load-bearing masonry structure with punched window openings, the facade is in fact a single skin of brick cladding, almost entirely handset using a bespoke blend of three handmade long-format Petersen Tegl Kolumba bricks. Precast brickwork is limited to brick-faced reinforced concrete lintels spanning window openings and hung from each floor slab via a thermally separated in situ reinforced concrete beam to prevent cold bridging. The hand-set brick piers are also supported at each storey via shelf angles, meaning both the horizontal and vertical brickwork elements on each floor move as one.

The curved building corners, introduced to soften the form of Turnmill and to respond to huge pedestrian flows at street level, plus the complex chamfer arrangement to the window reveals, required the use of an array of special brick shapes. These specials were also individually handmade using timber moulds to create the required curved and dogleg forms.

Deeply recessed within each brick opening is an assembly of bespoke extruded aluminium toggle-fixed and flush sealant-pointed glazing, with full-height, silicone-bonded, outward-opening window vents.

The masonry facade terminates at Level 4, with sloping, brick-faced window reveal soffits, a continuous ribbon of perforated brick parapet and cast stone coping.

  • Henry Humphreys, director, Piercy & Company

Atrium, with bespoke reception desk

Client’s view

Derwent has always been passionate and proactive in regard to projects. Ever since we appointed our first architects in 1987, we appreciated the advantage of working collaboratively with our professional team. Our choice of architects and preferred building materials are quintessential. 

At  Turnmill our attention was caught by Danish brick company Petersen Tegl when they sent us their quarterly magazine.  We were so taken by some of their imagery that we decided to visit their factory with Piercy & Company and immediately fell in love with their handmade brick and the amazing array of subtle colours they could produce.

We embarked on a learning course together with Stuart Piercy and Henry Humphreys before deciding upon a particular elegant, elongated brick called Kolumba, which was attributed to Peter Zumthor and used on his Kolumba Museum project in Cologne. Following several visits to Petersen Tegl and many mock-ups, we agreed upon three different fair faced bricks, a recessed mortar and bespoke curved bricks for the corners of our building. The cost of our choice compares favourably with a good quality cladding system, although we feel our choice will be more enduring.

Our labour of love has been rewarded with what we regard as a very special and sculptured building with generous reveals that articulate the depth of the facade and highlight the quality and beauty of our chosen material. While this involved the sacrifice of some floor area, it has resulted in a building to be proud of.

Volume and light have always been a priority at Derwent so a floor-to-ceiling height of 2.75m and full-height openable windows to three elevations give the occupier (the building has been pre-let to Publicis, owner of Saatchi & Saatchi) an added feel-good factor. The tracery brickwork at the top of the building, which surrounds a generous and continuous roof terrace with views of St Paul’s Cathedral, is the ultimate finishing touch.

Our ambition when constructing any new building is that passers-by in 20 years’ time and beyond will remark ‘now, that’s a good building!’

  • Simon Silver, director, Derwent London


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Self effacing, laboured and rather dull - like its immediate neighbours. Better than its diametric opposite. However, this is such an unloved and ghastly corner that few would want to linger for long so perhaps it is apt. I recall looking through photographic memories of Clerkenwell on the web and this corner only qualified because of a car accident snapped by a young man living opposite in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Sums it up really.

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