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Expressive engineering

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building study Sir Owen Williams’ 1930s Daily Express building on Fleet Street has regained its dramatic street elevation with Hurley, Robertson and Associates’ bold mixture of preservation and innovation

‘The mystique of the engineer as the noble savage of the machine’ (Reyner Banham’s words) is fundamental to the thinking of many progressive critics of the 1930s, for whom the work of Sir Owen Williams (1890-1969) exemplified the superiority of straightforward engineering over mere architectural styling. Looking at the facade of the new Daily Express Building on Fleet Street, Serge Chermayeff, for example, found it ‘frankly elegant in tight fitting dress of good cut which tells with frankness and without prudery of the wellmade figure wearing it’. Just yards away, in contrast, the heavy Classical dress of the Daily Telegraph Building left the onlooker ‘ignorant and indifferent to whatever charms and horrors are hid behind the upholstery’.

Sir Owen’s phenomenal career (which extended into the 1960s, when his practice designed the M1) was launched by his work on the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 at Wembley. He was brought into the Express project as a problemsolver. Architect Ellis & Clarke had proposed a steel-framed structure, clad in Portland stone (a re-run, in effect, of TFTait’s recently-completed Telegraph building) to house Lord Beaverbrook’s flagship publication. The new building was to front a run of existing press buildings off Shoe Lane and the site was tight - just 24m by 35m.The complications arose at basement level, where the steel grid made the installation of massive printing presses very difficult. Sir Owen suggested substituting a long-span reinforced concrete structure for steel. The subsequent redesign of the building flowed from this decisive move, though the dynamic and elegant ‘glass box’, completed in 1931 and admired by Chermayeff and others, is said to have had some input from Bertram Gallanaugh of Ellis & Clarke. Lord Beaverbrook himself probably relished the opportunity to outface his rivals by commissioning one of London’s first Modernist landmarks - ‘Britain’s most modern building for Britain’s most modern newspaper’. In any case, he subsequently commissioned Williams to design buildings for the Express in Manchester and Glasgow.

John Robertson of Hurley, Robertson and Associates, which was initially commissioned to prepare a scheme for the Express site in 1994, quickly decided that one priority was the reinstatement of the autonomy of Williams’ building.

In the 1970s, the Express had expanded eastward along Fleet Street, demolishing the modest Victorian properties which provided an effective backdrop to ‘the Black Lubianka’. The new Aitken House was, for its time, contextual - black vitriolite was used as a cladding material. But the form of the original building was subsumed and its dramatic presence as a vertical glazed pavilion lost.

Inside, floors were crudely extended through into the new extension.

The removal of the Express from Fleet Street in 1989 - virtually the last chapter in a general exodus of journalists and printers - left the listed Williams building empty. The City’s strategy was to hold the historic frontage of the street - located within a conservation area - and to trade off consent for large floorplate dealing floor buildings on backlands in return for the retention of the redundant palaces of the press. Kohn Pederson Fox’s redevelopment of the Telegraph site, with a bulky groundscraper replacing the old printing works and the Tait building retained and refurbished, was a response to the City’s policy. After the removal of the Express, the various adjuncts to the rear, along Shoe Lane, were quickly demolished, a crude operation which left Williams’ concrete frame cruelly exposed.A scheme for the site developed by Fitzroy Robinson fell victim to the early ’90s recession, leaving the Express building, now given the accolade of a Grade II* listing, as a forlorn relic.

Working for a Japanese corporation, Hurley Robertson began to explore the potential for a major commercial development on the roughly triangular cleared site between Shoe Lane and Poppins Court and St Bride’s Street, with the faithful restoration of the 1930s listed building as part of the equation. Partner in charge John Robertson recalls that the ‘highly supportive’ approach of English Heritage (in the person of inspector Chris Sumner) and the Royal Fine Art Commission assisted in the evolution of a scheme which boldly combines restoration with an element of reinvention.

The demolition of Aitken House, to allow the new building a frontage on Fleet Street, was not a matter for dispute. Robertson’s approach was to balance the restored Express block with a second, glazed pavilion, the two separated by an internal ‘street’ forming the main entrance to the development. City planners were broadly encouraging, but were resistant to the idea of an all-glass facade on the new building. As a result, the completed structure has a thin cladding of stone on its Fleet Street elevation - we must be grateful that such attitudes did not prevail in the ’30s.

The interiors of the Express building was generally in a poor state, with the impressive sweep of the floors subdivided throughout. In terms of restoration, the priority was the entrance lobby.

Modernist admirers of Sir Owen, including Nikolaus Pevsner, tended to regard the interior created by Robert Atkinson in 1931-32 as a lapse of taste - one critic compared it to ‘a provincial picture palace’. Evelyn Waugh, a sometime Express employee, famously recalled it as ‘the Byzantine vestibule and Sassian lounge’ of the Daily Beast in Scoop (1933). Today it stands as perhaps the best British example of the Art Deco style, with its dramatic reliefs (by Eric Aumonier) symbolising the British Empire to which Lord Beaverbrook was so devoted.

With the advent in 1997 of a major American investment bank as the tenant for the development, the scheme was rapidly progressed. The new, 160,000m 2block is a dignified, if massive, response to the needs of its users - as straightforward, in its way, as one of the now-departed printing plants. The strategy of creating a clear divide between old and new has worked well. The new entrance space can be read as a City alley, like that leading to St Bride’s church across the road - there is an interestingly oblique view of Wren’s spire from the glazed space.

Williams’ building now houses offices and conference space on five floors - the fifth floor, previously given over to plant, has been reclaimed as video-conferencing suites. It remains a separate entity. Since the floor heights in the new building are 4.5m and those in the Express building 3.5m, there was no question of simply running the floors through, though there is a connection at every level. The Express building now has its own lift and central service core - the original, very narrow lift shafts have been reused as air vents - though the impressive oval staircase has been retained and restored (with original light fittings replicated and its bold colours reinstated) and extended to the fifth floor.

For John Robertson, the restoration aspects of the project proved ‘hugely challenging, but equally rewarding’. The client was receptive to the proposal that Williams’ exposed profiled concrete office ceilings should be left uncovered, but it was clearly necessary to greatly improve the thermal and acoustic performance of the glazing - a single layer of glass in steel frames. What Williams created was not, in fact, strictly a curtain wall - clear glazing alternated black glass (vitriolite) panels which were a facing on the concrete frame.Many of these panels were in a poor state and some had been badly repaired after the superficial war damage. It was imperative that the external look of the facade remain unchanged.

Working with specialist contractor Scheldebouw, Hurley Robertson devised what amounts, says John Robertson, to ‘remaking the wall’. The entrance screen at street level was dismantled and restored before reinstatement. On the upper floors, a new structural glazing system has been installed, using clear double glazing, gently coated on its internal face, set in pre-tensioned aluminium. The window frames are painted the light blue used in the 1930s. The result is what looks like a careful restoration of the original, though it is actually a response to a twenty-first century technical and environmental brief. In architectural terms, the key move of the restoration is the decision to create new curved returns of the elevations ofthe Express building on its south-east and north-west (Shoe Lane) corners to match that on the south-west corner - on Shoe Lane.As a result, the separate identity of this key 1930s building has been elegantly reinforced - this is a triumph of design sense over pedantic preservation which owes much to the imaginative approach of English Her itage.

Few outsiders will be able to enjoy the dynamic spaces of Williams’ building, but the restored Atkinson entrance lobby is already attracting attention from passers-by. The majority of the work consisted of painstaking cleaning and upgrading - the fibrous plaster ceiling, for example, the condition of which was a concern, has been reinforced. The 1930s linoleum floor, with symbolic waves, was replaced long ago, but its pattern has been replicated in durable terrazzo. The two metal snakes which flank the staircase had been stolen during the years when the building stood empty, but have been recreated on the basis of drawings and photographs. So far, the lobby (likely to be used for corporate entertaining) remains unfurnished, though Robertson would like to replicate some of Betty Joel’s long-lost streamlined furnishings.

Essentially a spin-off from one of the largest City developments of recent years, the restoration of the Express building is a major event in its own right. Like Peter Jones, the Penguin Pool and the Hoover Factory, the Express is a defining monument of 1930s London. The fact that it now has an assured future is a matter for celebration.

STRUCTURE The Daily Express ‘Black Glass’ building engineered by Sir Owen Williams, was the first building to use portal frame design in reinforced concrete allied with a particular architectural concept. For this reason, the structure (with other elements) was Grade II*-listed.

The structure comprised ribbed floors spanning a series of large single span portal frames, stacked one above the other. The columns were set back from the building edge, and the top booms extended as cantilevers to the facade. This allowed for large column-free areas, both internally over the basement printing presses, and on the facade, and it was executed in a style consistent with the architectural treatment of the building as a whole.

Ove Arup and Partners’ brief was to bring the Black Glass building into line with modern standards while maintaining its integrity. The architect wanted the building to be expressed as a distinct element, but to work as a functional part of the new development. This required the extension and adaptation of the eastern edge (previously merged with other buildings), allowing a symmetrical appearance when viewed from Fleet Street. The cantilever extensions to the portals could not be justified to take the extra load and so additional columns supporting the new structure were introduced with ‘paper joints’ around the cantilevers to prevent attraction of load.

Some demolition was carried out at the rear of the building to enable it to marry more neatly with the new one, with a section to the rear of the featured oval stair being demolished and rebuilt to provide a new lift core. The original lift shafts were unsuitable for re-use and were converted into service risers. The new lift core walls also gave an opportunity to provide supplementary stability in the northsouth direction, stability in the other direction being provided by portal action in the main frames.The jumble of roof plant and service spaces was demolished and a new roof provided to give additional office space; the oval stair was extended for access.

Allowable imposed loads of about 4.5 kN/m 2could be determined from available original drawings and calculations, and this compared well with modern requirements for 5 kN/m 2, but an assessment of the fire resistance of the topping to the ribbed floors showed that extra screed was required in places to achieve modern minimum thickness requirements.

Due to the differences in structural form and behaviour, a movement joint between the new and old buildings was provided. The lower ground floor (replacing the original steel frame of double height printing machinery) was completely new, and extended under the old building. At basement level the new raft in the rest of the development was continued across the original basement floor and foundations of the Black Glass building. This was not to take vertical load (the original building foundations being considered adequate), but to stiffen the junction between the two buildings to minimise rotation.The Black Glass building was comparatively stiff, and it was considered that as the raft of the new building ‘dished’ under load, the Black Glass building would act as a stiff block and bodily rotate into the site by a small amount.The new braced steel frame of the adjacent building tended to resist the tendency of the raft to dish. Hence it rotated less and the two buildings would exhibit over time a tendency to draw together progressively towards the roof. Careful consideration of this effect and consequent detailing of the separation joint was therefore required.



November 1997


February 1998


25 months




£80 million


The Fleet Street Partnership


Gleeds Management Services




Ove Arup and Partners


Ove Arup and Partners


Kajima Taylor Woodrow


Gleeds Health & Safety

JCT 81 amended with contractors design, stage competitive

Hurley, Robertson and Associates: John Robertson, Andrzej Hewanicki, Gordon Hayes, John Morgan, Simon Elvidge, David Ellis, Max Skjoldebrand, Mike Platt, Kate O’Connor, Felicia TrauttmansdorfWeinsberg, Ric Gandolfi, Kie Fabiunke, Paulo Chiarotti, Nello Gregori, Bob Cox, Alan RafterPhillips, Lesley Boughton



demolition Keltbray; steelwork William Hare; concrete PC Harrington; services Sulzer UK; liftsMitsubishi Europe; external cladding Scheldebouw BV; access/ cleaning equipment Cento Engineering; brick & blockwork Ben Barrett; suspended ceilings Astec Projects; suspended ceilings Gillespie; core fitout and dry lining Ellmer Construction; roof finishes Prater Roofing; ironmongery Yannedis; architectural metalwork Udaplus; fire protection works R+S Fire; general metalwork Crown Services; feature metalwork , specialist finishes Trollop, Colls, Elliott; stonework Szerelemey; access gantries Atrium Gantries; disabled lifts Landmark Lifts; metal doors and shutters EDS; stone supplier Campolonghi, structural alterations Ascon; entrance hall restoration Plowden and Smith; drylining JOK; painting Collins; plaster & screed HA Boulton Flooring; terrazzo & entrance hall floor Cecconi; ceilings restorationRiverside Mouldings; external insulated renderTellings Costs Costs based on tender value


£85.52/m2 Reinforced concrete raft within confines of existing basement


£163.65/m2Structural steel frame, board fire-protected


£21.02/m2Metal decking with in-situ reinforced concrete slab

ROOF AND ROOFLIGHTS £4.51/m2Asphalt and concrete paving slabs on concrete slabSTAIRCASES £15.77/m2Concrete infilled metal pan staircases


£303.66/m 2Integrated curtain walling system including stonework, metal cladding and feature Art Deco type cladding to match existing. Integrated double glazed units within curtain walling installation


£2.87/m2Metal external doors


£113.87/m 2Blockwork and stud partitioning. Solid core hardwood, including ironmongery


£23.06/m 2Full height mosaic throughout WC areas, timber panelling to lift lobbies.Ceramic tiling to WC areas and stonework to lift lobbies


£22.73/m 2Suspended ceiling tiles to WC areas and suspended ceiling to toilet areas

FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGSFURNITURE £29.84/m 2Refurbishment of existing listed Art Deco feature entrance areas



£188.93/m 2Pans, WCs, urinals, vanity units and disabled fittings.

Services equipment: BMS installation throughout.

Substation provided CCTV and security installation.

Symphonic internal drainage installation. Hot and cold water distribution throughout.Mechanical ventilation to toilet and lift cores only. Small power and lighting installation to toilet and lift cores only


£68.90/m 2Car lift, goods lift, fire fighting lifts and 12 passenger lifts.Lightening protection.Conduit and provision for communications installation only


£154.74/m2 Contractors site accommodation, temporary office equipment hire, legal fees and insurances


£6.70/m 2External lighting, asphalt paving and minor road alterations cost summary Cost per m2Per cent(£) of total


Frame 163.65 13.52 Upper floors 21.02 1.74 Roof and rooflights 4.51 0.37 Staircases 18.77 1.30 External walls and windows 303.66 25.09 External doors 2.87 0.24 Internal walls, partitions, doors 113.87 9.41 Group element total 625.35 51.67


Wall and floor finishes 23.06 1.90 Ceiling finishes 22.73 1.88 Group element total 45.79 3.78


29.84 2.47 SERVICES Sanitary appliances, services equipment, disposal and water installations, space heating and air treatment, electrical services 188.43 15.61 Lift, conveyor, protective and communication installations 68.90 5.69 Builders’ work in connection 11.36 0.94 Group element total 269.19 22.24PRELIMINARIES 154.74 12.78TOTAL 1210.43 100.00 Costs supplied by Stephen Bradley of Gleeds 2WEBLINKSHurley Robertson and Associates www. hra. co. ukGleeds www. gleeds. co. ukOve Arup and Partners www. arup. comHann Tucker Associates www. hanntucker. co. uk

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