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Karen Cook: 'Any tall building is a big responsibility'

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Karen Cook of PLP Architecture, one of only a handful of women designing skyscrapers in the UK, explains how the designs for the Helter Skelter changed to something more ‘dignified and simple’

The latest proposals for 22 Bishopsgate is a much different design to the Pinnacle [aka the Helter Skelter]. Why is that?
My principles and approach to design haven’t changed – but the input data has.

When we [then at KPF] began designing the original Pinnacle in 2003 the city, as a place, didn’t have many towers. There was the Natwest Tower and [Foster + Partners’] Swiss Re was underway. The City planners were quite cautious about tall buildings but were starting to formulate an idea about the composition of a cluster of tall buildings together. This site was designated for the tallest because of its central position.

Yet given the difficulties of building so tall, especially the economics, there were considerations about whether each new skyscraper should be able to stand alone as London’s next Empire State building. We did not know which ones were going to be built.

At the time there was a general feeling from clients, agents and city planners that each new building should be an eye-catching shape.

The Pinnacle

The original Pinnacle designs [2004] - aka the Helter Skelter

But due to the economic crisis the original [Helter Skelter] design missed its opportunity. Then there was a long pause . When I was approached by [clients] Stuart Lipton and Peter Rogers in July 2012 to relook at the design it was a very different economic climate.

We began exploring the new ways people occupied buildings and not wasting space.

We didn’t want to appear extravagant in terms of cost and design

We did not want to appear extravagant in terms of cost and design. There were other buildings conceived at the time of the Pinnacle which were not meeting the new objectives of tenants.

This scheme has been shaped from the inside out, balanced with townscape views, and addresses the latest environmental standards.

So is it background architecture?
Given its prominence,  I don’t think you can call it that. But its articulation is more modest, especially in terms of fenestration and massing. 

I wanted to do something dignified and simple, allowing the other more articulated, one-off pieces [such as the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin] to remain special.

It isn’t trying to compete with the other statement buildings

It is not trying to compete with the other statement buildings. It pulls the group together both on the skyline and at the ground plane.

But I’d like to think this building will still be of its time in 10 years.

Is there anything to say this building is ‘of London’?
London is not a style it is a city where everybody can participate.

The main tower runs parallel to Bishopsgate but the top of the building is turned to face the key institutions like the Bank of England and Westminster.

It sends a message that the City of London is a strong place to do business.

PLP Architecture's latest proposal for 22 Bishopsgate - formerly the Pinnacle [aka the Helter Skelter]

And what does it offer new internally?
The ground floor and top floor are for the public. We have looked at schemes such as 20 Fenchurch Street (The Skygarden at the top of the Walkie talkie) and we have learned lessons.

There will be dedicated lifts to the viewing gallery which will be open, free of charge, seven days a week.  22 Bishopsgate will have London’s highest restaurant and bar which anyone can use.

There is space for 1,500 bikes included associated activities like cycle repair and cycle safety classes.

We are trying to look at the building, which could house up to 12,000 people, in a more humanist way. Employees now evaluate their workplace, asking what it can do for them. How can this building help me learn and advance me and my career?

There will be four of five double height common zones where tenants can meet other tenants. Shared health and wellbeing facilities for all which could include dentists, doctors, food sold by ‘street vendors’, a libary, event space.

We are at the skyscraper in a more humanist way

At ground level  there will be art and activites, there will be trainers available for personal learning: offering specialist advice on interests ranging from what’s appealing and nutritious and easy to cook for supper to sports coaches to music.

We want these activities and amenities to evolve and flourish, allowing smaller companies to be able to offer those things that usually only big companies can, helping to retain and attract staff. Ultimately, 22 Bishopsgate will be a platform for idea based work.

Deliveries will be consolidated, with a main depot in east London and a fleet of hybrid electric vehicles bringing goods in – hopefully reducing road trips by half and making streets safer for cyclists.

It is impossible to know how the nature of work will change but we want to make the office space as flexible as possible, with good daylight and ceiling heights of 3m on more than half the levels – which is higher than the BCO standards. 

Do you expect any significant changes to the scheme following the public consultation?
I’ve been impressed by the forensic level of scrutiny Stuart and Peter have given to the scheme so far.

The team includes theatre designers, art consultants and even food psychologists.

So we hope there will be no big spanners thrown into the works. We’ve been very careful to consider the scheme from all the angles. I can’t see there being any big surprises. 

How do you feel as one of the only women currently designing skyscrapers in this country?
I hope I am a role model – but for everyone [not just women].

And I hope young women in the profession don’t concentrate as themselves as young women architects and instead on being a good architect.
Around 10 years ago, when I was at KPF, I helped design the Tour First in Paris – also for AXA Real Estate. 

I’m pleased Stuart, Peter and [project funders] AXA have shown confidence in me again, and in our team.

Any tall building is a big responsibility. A skyscraper is enduring and built for everyone in the city who has to look at it.  22 Bishopsgate will be for all to use.

PLP's designs for 22 Bishopsgate

PLP’s designs for 22 Bishopsgate

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Rogers

    Very interesting chat last night to one of the directors of PLP last night at the 'op-up' consultation. The new design is pragmatic but still potentially exciting; read on http://www.chrismrogers.net/

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