Despite its dramatic size, RSH+P’s scheme plays some surprising tricks of scale, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Paul Raftery
The blade-like pavilions of One Hyde Park fan out along Knightsbridge like the glass and concrete cards of a vast tectonic Rolodex. But it is not the ensemble’s deliberately dramatic and beautifully tailored mass that dominates its terms of engagement with us.
Of more compelling interest is its ambiguity. There is an implicit tension about this decisively articulated form, which has been designed to create precedent-setting conditions for inviolable privacy in 21st-century London. How does one broach the idea of a big building that is overtly covert?
Since its completion earlier this year One Hyde Park has generated two kinds of critical response. There have been slam-dunk condemnations of the size and grand luxe pretensions of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ 65,000m2 scheme. Countering that, the Architectural Review’s (March 2011) historicist appreciation embeds the design in the social and architectural fabrics of this part of London in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet the scheme’s architecture and its effects should not be too precisely linked with assumptions concerning brute size or traduced history.
For example, is One Hyde Park significantly more secure than Make’s huge UBS cylinder-block building will be if City of London planning chief Peter Rees approves it? Is it as typologically and contextually iconoclastic as Jean Nouvel’s One New Change? Furthermore, the scheme is certainly not a new manifestation of social affront: the historic and often imperious mansions in Knightsbridge and Sloane Street would have been perceived in a similar way when people – that is to say, persons – knew their place. We obviously do not: the aura of an undertaker hovers around the chunky, bowler-hatted cove guarding the steel gates to the triangular thresholds of One Hyde Park’s ground-floor commercial entrances.
The salient fact about the building’s design is that its architectural physique is revisionist and contextually provocative in the same self-defining way that the practice’s other major buildings have been. Yet one must wonder about the master-servant relationships in this project. How does an architect serve both a paradigm shift in spatial and security requirements, and an implacable instinct to create masterfully extrovert architecture? And do so in a context that is, in effect, a servant space to the inhabitants of the building: the park to the north, like a family-owned Paul Sandby landscape, and the equally comforting brandscapes to the south.
The design of One Hyde Park, led by Graham Stirk, recalls the mixed metaphors of Richard Rogers’ remark in the book From the House to the City (2010): ‘Our buildings are more like carefully designed, indeterminate robots than frozen temples.’ The Knightsbridge building also demonstrates how difficult it is to mix differently expressive formats of material and detail, and how perspective and distance completely change the perceived character of this building. I’ll return to the latter idea in a moment.
The practice’s fusions of large scales with revisionist building types began, in collaboration with Renzo Piano, with the 100,000m2 Centre Pompidou in 1977, which is most certainly an indeterminate robot. Nine years later came Lloyd’s of London, a cathedral of profitable speculation that created wonderfully atmospheric internal volumes. But One Hyde Park’s grandiloquent articulations, sectional shifts, height changes from six to 12 storeys and its deliriously graphic-cum-haptic overloads, is more frozen industrial temple than indeterminate robot. The flagrantly convivial 15,000m2 Channel 4 Headquarters, built in 1994, has something of this same middle ground about it.
Two other buildings, 88 Wood Street in 1999 and Lloyd’s Register in 2001 – both smaller than One Hyde Park – are masterpieces, axonometrics that have been delicately and playfully exploded. They transcend any idea of indeterminacy; the frozen, crystalline virtuosity of Stirk’s composition and detailing of the Register, in particular, is nonpareil. In any case, each of the practice’s five buildings mentioned has helped to set the scene for big and provocative architectural interventions in London; but only the Lloyd’s Building and Lloyd’s Register achieved critically engrossing relationships of scale and form with their surroundings.
One Hyde Park is an expression of almost cryogenic permanence. It is obvious that Stirk has been severely challenged by the accommodation and security requirements; the biggest apartment, for example, is 2,500m2, four times larger than the free suites for those who spend at least £1 million a night at the Paiza Mansions casino in Macau. Stirk has laboured to produce a plan and form that would allow as many visible external refinements as possible; an oligarch hardly wants to look up from the McLaren, ADIB Bank and Rolex showrooms under the pavilions and experience architectural ennui.
The architecture imparts three sets of effects on the passer-by. From the Hyde Park side, the four-blade arrangement seems pleasantly ordered. The slightly concave arc of the pavilions is barely discernible; the Carriage Drive and the park simply dominate the scene and the building seems no more portentous or visually disturbing than the rear elevations of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the huge Parkside mansion block east of it.
The craft quality of the materials and finishes is superb. From close up on the Knightsbridge side, Stirk’s typically fastidious concern with structural and surface details generates a relatively spare grid only slightly relieved by the external bronze privacy screens and the finely wrought way different materials come together. Seen from the entrance to Knightsbridge Station the building does not radiate a particularly overwhelming aura of bigness; and, from here, the shifts from the suavely surfaced accommodation blades to the glazed lift-shafts between them seem relatively uncontroversial.
The canopy structure over Edinburgh Gate, which marks the western edge of the site and connects Knightsbridge with the Carriage Drive, is exquisitely composed, and is completely satisfying. Much more so than the practice’s disingenuous claim that Hyde Park can be seen through the glazed lift-shafts. And the dutiful attempt to line up three of the Mandarin Oriental’s cornice lines with a trio of One Hyde Park’s expressed floorplate edges is defeated: the pavilions’ angled side elevations and balcony cassettes cover the horizontal lines of the expressed structure.
But far more interesting is the effect of distance and perspective on One Hyde Park. Looking from 200 metres away, east along Knightsbridge and south along Sloane Street, the building’s composition conveys a powerful hit of bigness and contextual interruption. From Sloane Street, we also grasp the estrangement between the glazed lift-shaft and the expressed structure of the first blade of accommodation. From this middle distance, the logical decision to insert the lift-shafts as lightly as possible has made the pavilion structure look almost crudely stolid, which it isn’t from close range. This surprising effect is confirmed by the heavy-shouldered, hugger-mugger appearance of the leading edges of the pavilions when seen from further east along Knightsbridge.
There is, thus, a touch of Dr Jekyll to One Hyde Park. But the building should not be trivialised as a monster, for it is a new kind of object-architecture in London. We have seen substantial domestic buildings of this degree of defended privacy in São Paulo, and One Hyde Park is the ultimate expression of the type. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is currently designing a comparable ensemble of raised and stepped pavilions in Beirut for the Grand Hotel, where, of course, the perception of contexts, perspectives and exclusion zones is quite different.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic at the Independent
Start on site July 2006
Completion January 2011
Gross internal floor area 65,000m
Total cost £500 million
Client Project Grande (Guernsey)
Architect Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Structural engineer Ove Arup & Partners
Cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald
Main contractor Laing O’Rourke
Services engineer Cundall
Project manager GVA Second London Wall Project Management
Landscape architect Gillespies
Interior architect BFLS
Development managers Candy & Candy
Fire consultant Exova Warrington Fire