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Addressing the urban environment and working closely with an artist were key to Terry Farrell's development for the Home Office

More than a decade ago, Terry Farrell transformed what could have been a mundane commercial office building - the site had been that of the notorious 'Green Giant' of the 1980s - into one of London's most prominent (and controversial) PostModernist landmarks: the MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross.

The project was commercially driven.

Developer Regalian pre-sold the building to HM Government and it was extensively (and expensively) customised to meet the requirements of the spooks. Farrell's involvement with the site went back a number of years - in 1987 he was the winner of a competition for a major residential development there.

The saga of the Home Office site across the river in Marsham Street has a number of obvious parallels with that of Vauxhall Cross. The 75,000m 2 office development, Farrell's largest completed project to date in London, has its roots in a Farrell masterplan commissioned by British Land in 1991 when the government of the day was considering selling off the site of the purpose-built 1960s Department of the Environment (DoE) headquarters for mixed-use commercial development. Many of the ingredients of the 1991 plan remain fundamental to what has recently been completed at Marsham Street. The new Home Office was built by a developer and is seen as a flagship of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) procurement route favoured by New Labour.

The hinterland between the royal and governmental heart of Westminster and the Thames has a less than glamorous history.

For most of the 19th century the riverside was dominated by the vast and grim Millbank Penitentiary (Tate Britain and the LCC's Millbank Estate occupy the site), while Marsham Street remained a slum area into the interwar period, with a gasworks belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company on the present Home Office site.

In the mid-1930s plans for a new company headquarters there, a monumental Classical composition by Robert Atkinson, were published but subsequently abandoned. After the war, Atkinson revised the scheme with a view to its construction as government offices, but work proceeded no further than the foundations. Though Atkinson died in 1952, his practice acted as consultant for the massive complex built between 1963 and 1971 to designs by Eric Bedford of the Ministry of Works, which saw three 20-storey slabs (the 'three ugly sisters') extending from Horseferry Road to Great Peter Street and forming a banal backdrop to the towers of Westminster in views from the river ?'The very image of faceless bureaucracy, ' declared The Buildings of England. Designed to accommodate three separate ministries, the buildings never worked well for one super-ministry.

Plans for demolishing the generally reviled Bedford slabs emerged in the early 1990s, with environment secretary Michael Heseltine resolving to vacate the site. Successive environment secretaries came to see the removal of the 'eyesore' scheme as a mission to be accomplished. 'This is a building that deeply depresses the spirit, ' said Chris Patten.

An Arup study of 1991 had concluded that a replacement scheme only eight storeys high could accommodate up to 50 per cent more people on the site. In developing the scheme for the DoE, Farrell stated that his objectives were 'to conserve the city fabric, provide a sustainable community and to conserve energy'. Developed to a height in line with that of adjacent streets and with a mix of uses, the scheme would break down the impermeable mass of the '60s development into a series of individual units, with public routes created across the site. It was during this period that the Home Office emerged as a potential tenant of new offices there - the DoE moved out to Eland House, Victoria, during 1995, leaving its former headquarters empty. For a time, the Home Office considered a major refurbishment of its Queen Anne's Gate building.

By 1996, the future of the Marsham Street site was still unclear. Then environment secretary John Gummer, who had retained as his adviser the young Classical architect Liam O'Connor, launched an ideas competition for the site. Extraordinarily, the winner was Bologna-based Gabriele Tagliaventi, with two other Classical schemes sharing second place (an offbeat entry by Fat, including a golf course and artificial mountain, was unplaced), but when Blair's government came to power, the Tagliaventi masterplan was quietly binned.

During 1998-99 the idea of refurbishing the existing Home Office building was abandoned and three PFI consortia were invited to bid for a new-build development on the Marsham Street site. In the run-off in 2001, Farrell, working for a consortium led by Godfrey Bradman but with the French Bouygues Group as lead partner, saw off MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. The '60s slabs came down in 2002-03 and construction of the new Home Office, housing approximately 3,000 staff, took just 20 months - a remarkable achievement in itself on the part of Bouygues. The total investment in the 25year PFI project is stated to be £311 million.

As Farrell has made clear, the driving force behind the Home Office scheme has always been as much urbanistic as strictly architectural. 'The site should be treated as an urban quarter, with all the diversity of uses, mixture of architectural treatment and range of building sizes that characterise the best parts of central London, ' he declared.

The mixture of uses envisaged by Farrell in 1991 has been realised in the completed development, with new residential blocks (not to Farrell's design) along the western edge of the site on Monck Street. But a mix of uses and free public access do not fit easily with the concern for security and control over accessibility and openness, and while Westminster planners were keen to include shop units at street level, the Home Office ruled this out.

The east/west pedestrian routes between the buildings are enclosed by intimidating gates and do not look inviting - another aspect beyond the control of the architects.

It is equally pointless to complain that the Home Office looks like any prestige commercial headquarters - in many respects, this was part of the brief. In the six buildings it previously occupied, an extended warren of corridors and small rooms meant the organisation felt out of touch with contemporary workplace practice, and it craved the sense of community and connectivity that has driven recent commercial developments.

The solution is three blocks linked by bridges at four levels, allowing 200m-long 'streets', which run the length of the site and are popular with staff. Strong colour and the provision of meeting-room pods and break-out spaces offer a vision of work far removed from the enclosed grey office world of the 1960s.

Each block focuses on a full-height central atrium incorporating free-standing lift towers. The atrium in the centre block, which houses the main reception area, is an impressive space, defined by unfussy architecture.

Office areas are generously day-lit, with 95 per cent of users, it is claimed, within 6m of a window. Towards the top of the building, the views are spectacular.

The buildings are entirely air-conditioned;

both the procurement method and the stress on security ruled out any experimentation with low-energy ventilation strategies, though fixed metal louvres are used to control solar gain. The 'sustainable' claims of the scheme seem quite limited.

As Farrell's project director Darren Cartlidge concedes, however, much of what gives the development a distinctive quality was injected into the project quite late in the day. Critical comments from the media and from CABE were taken on board by the government, so that around £1 million was allotted for a public art project, on which artist Liam Gillick worked with the architects.

It is the generous use of colour, indeed, that gives the complex much of its external interest. Most prominently, the lightweight canopy, filled with panels of coloured glass, along the Marsham Street elevation of the central building, provides new visual interest in a dull street. In the absence of street-level shops and cafés, the use of coloured glass fins, set in framed vitrines, does relieve the inevitable monotony of an office space and offers a degree of privacy for those inside. A number of artworks are placed within the buildings or in the public spaces around them and more are soon to be installed.

The large letters set in the glazing of the upper floors, using ceramic frits, form an enigmatic feature of the project. An 'art screen' marks the point of entry, while highquality paving extends the public domain on Marsham Street.

All of this adds interest to the scheme and underlines the fact that, in contrast to so many of the other premises in SW1 occupied by government departments, this is not simply another office building. The Department for Transport, for example, is saddled with an ungainly Post-Modernist block by T P Bennett, just across Horseferry Road.

Farrell's heartfelt campaign to make London a better place has been reflected in crusading projects extending over many years, from the Comyn Ching Triangle in Covent Garden to his highly credible proposals for the Euston Road. He is also a pragmatic practitioner heading up a large practice dependent on commercial commissions. Combining the two roles is not always easy: Farrell is likely to be judged more severely than, say, Rab Bennetts, Allies and Morrison or Sheppard Robson, all big and respected players on the London office scene. Mention of these firms raises the issue of distinctiveness. Whether the eventual tenant is a government department or a big bank, a new London office building is likely to be recognisably part of a family.

In the days of Vauxhall Cross and Embankment Place, Farrell was something of a maverick. He has insisted that he sees no virtue in consistency and has, in effect, imposed a new, and less distinctive, stylistic stamp on his practice's work. Vauxhall Cross is sensational, whether you like it or loathe it.

The Home Office is unlikely to arouse strong feelings in either direction. It is a thoroughly decent scheme, the essence of which has survived the compromises imposed on it to improve the environment of a rather uninspiring quarter of London and certainly to create greatly enhanced working conditions for 3,000 civil servants.

And there are elements of delight - the afternoon sun dappling the frontages on Marsham Street with bright colour, for instance.

Beyond this, in the era of PFI, value-engineering and the quest for the cost-effective, who could ask for more?

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