[BUILDING STUDY + IMAGES + PLANS + PROJECT DATA] Amanda Levete’s 10 Hills Place demonstrates the same experimental spirit shown by her former practice, Future Systems, writes Rob Gregory. Photography by Edmund Sumner
Reading the press release issued by Amanda Levete Architects before visiting the practice’s 10 Hills Place raised my suspicions.
The assertion that ‘many narrow streets and alleyways off London’s Oxford Street are misused and underdeveloped’ seemed a thinly veiled justification for what I assumed would be another commercially biased, anything-goes response to an ‘unconventional design opportunity’. While thousands of tourists struggle to negotiate the length of Oxford Street, locals tend to nip across it, navigating their way through the delightful and well-used minor streets that link Noho to the north of Oxford Street with Soho to the south.
However, arriving at the site of the building, it was clear that the practice’s claim was justified – Hills Place looks like an uninviting dead end. This condition very much drove practice director Amanda Levete’s response when asked by her client to adapt and extend an existing commercial building; a curious hybrid of an ornate and well-mannered corner piece fronting Oxford Street and a less distinguished three-storey 1970s addition to the rear, containing a retail unit on levels one and two and offices above.
‘The existing building was profoundly uninteresting,’ says Levete. While surrounded in her own office by evidence that profoundly uninteresting buildings can be transformed, Levete recalls that, at Hills Place, ‘it was hard to see at the outset how we could do anything because it was such a dog of a building – an unglamorous site that involved linking two buildings of differing periods and scales.’ The challenge, it seems, was more to do with addressing the relationship between the two structures and their relationship to a troublesome streetscape.
The retail unit has always performed well, but the upper-level offices needed a significant upgrade. Levete and her team therefore set about shifting the emphasis from Oxford Street to Hills Place, proposing an additional three storeys by placing a lightweight steel frame on the existing concrete structure, and applying a new skin to bring presence to a previously nondescript building.
Daylight, says Levete, was the second key consideration, leading to a unified concept, inspired by the work of Argentinean artist Lucio Fontana, to create a billowing, distorted surface that would capture the glances of passers-by from the north. Obtaining a licence to step out beyond the curtilage of the site was critical to the feasibility of this concept, maximising floor area while borrowing space and light from the already narrow street. ‘Treating the skin as a canvas,’ says Levete, ‘we looked at how Fontana would slash it to create a distorted, deformed surface from something that was initially flat.’ The new skin continues down to the ground, enveloping the existing building, in which retail storage remained operational throughout.
Addressing concerns regarding robustness and vandalism, the incentive to change expression at street level contributed to Levete’s entrance strategy, setting an understated entrance into an illuminated glass wall. Coming to life after dusk, this element mediates the junction between the billowing facade above and gritty street below, with a glass, mesh and dichroic sandwich that creates a colourful illusion of depth. If occupied by a single tenant, visitors to 10 Hills Place will be taken up to a dramatic top-floor reception, likely to be located within the building’s uppermost eye-shaped window, which reaches higher up and further out than those on lower levels.
Happy to discuss the legacy of Future Systems, the practice she ran with Czech architect Jan Kaplicky, who died earlier this year, Levete draws comparisons between the resolution of this building’s form with Future Systems’ Stirling Prize-winning Lord’s Media Centre. (AJ 29.04.99) ‘Here it was about doing something more pragmatic, unlike the Media Centre, which was all about how to make a completely smooth double-curved skin.’ At 10 Hills Place, the creative challenge was to make a continuous curve from aluminium sections, faceting them to give greater richness and complexity to surface reflections. ‘Rather than aiming for a sleek skin, we realised there are different ways to create sleekness, and, actually, by having something more fractured, you end up with a richer result,’ says Levete.
As Future Systems did at Lord’s, Levete borrowed techniques from the boat-building industry, in this case using a product by Austrian firm Pinnacle that was relatively easy to adapt. The practice took its 140mm tongue-and-groove aluminium planks and fixed them to a cylindrical rail system that gave necessary site tolerance. The system is suspended from galvanised steel outriggers, clamped to both the new and the existing structures. The end result is exquisite, with its factory-applied metallic silver finish creating myriad optical effects. Even on a grey day, the facade creates a spectacle that completely changes the ambiance of Hills Place.
Internally, however, the spaces are relatively bland, creating a neutral backdrop for the sort of media businesses the client is targeting. With exposed castellated beams, perforated acoustic ceilings and specially adapted, ‘more aerodynamic’ chilled beams – all in white – the focus is very much on the duality of the fenestration, addressing the relationship between new and old head on, with sash windows merging seamlessly into the beautifully curvaceous forms. With layers of flexiply, fibreglass matting, Jesmonite plaster and smooth Sto render simply fixed back to
a basic plywood eggcrate structure, the bones of this futuristic expression are little more than a stage set, with a team from London-based Windsor Workshop meticulously shaving polystyrene formwork to achieve the tightest curves possible.
Asked about the practice’s reliance on archaic means to achieve this futuristic outcome – such as pinning polystyrene with toothpicks and hand-planing them on site – Levete takes the opportunity to discuss the working practice of her studio. ‘This is key in a way to how we work, with both digital and manual techniques. Never mind how sophisticated the computer program is, you have to come back to the hand and you have to make the physical model. This stops you being seduced into a false sense of security that you have done something beautiful and elegant. It’s too easy to fool yourself with the computer, but when you make something by hand, all the problems are revealed in stark reality.’
Clearly optimistic about the future of her practice, which she set up after leaving Future Systems last year, Levete describes her interest in the politics behind building, and in the same breath goes on to do something few other ambitious architects would do: acknowledge the key contribution made to this project by Westminster City Council’s planners. Giving particular credit to council leader Rosemarie MacQueen, she recalls: ‘When we originally submitted the scheme for planning we proposed a black skin. And, while I was absolutely convinced at the time that this was the right solution, I now realise that I was wrong. MacQueen said, “I think you’re wrong. I think silver will work better”, and she was right. It just wouldn’t have picked up the same degree of reflection, and although it would have been more erotic in black, it wouldn’t have worked as well.’
This demonstrates the kind of pragmatism that seems to underpin Levete’s architectural approach. She concludes: ‘While from a conceptual standpoint our work is rooted in the same sort of experimental spirit that was embedded in what we did and completed as Future Systems, it’s now about taking that spirit and pushing it further, driven by research as well as by conceptual thinking. There is a genealogy that you can see, but each thing we do is an evolution. That’s how you move forward.’
Start on site February 2007
Completion date September 2009
Gross external floor area 1,321m2
Form of contract Undisclosed
Total cost Undisclosed
Client Clarendon Properties
Architect Amanda Levete Architects
Project manager MGPM
Structural engineer Akera Engineers
Service engineer Barn Partnership
Acoustic engineer Hodgson and Hodgson Acoustic Consultancy Division
Facade Frener & Reifer
Specialist interiors Windsor Workshop
Main contractor Powells Group
Annual CO2 emissions 45.77kg/m2