[BUILDING STUDY] Most iconic architecture is downright rude – but One New Change is (almost) polite, says Rory Olcayto.
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In London, icons and starchitects are fashionable once again. British Land is reviving Rafael Viñoly’s ‘Walkie-Talkie’ tower; Land Securities is moving ahead with Richard Rogers’ ‘Cheesegrater’ skyscraper, and Sellar Properties’ Shard, designed by Renzo Piano, is rapidly taking shape on site. The latest ‘world-class icon’ to complete is One New Change, Jean Nouvel’s office and retail complex located alongside St Paul’s Cathedral. Nouvel – and developer Land Securities – calls it the ‘Stealth Bomber’, after the radar-proof combat plane that inspired its faceted form.
One New Change, with three floors of retail and four of offices, is huge. It occupies an entire city block: the Cheapside elevation is more than 100m long and, like the rest of the building, smeared with a smudgy brown frit. Buildings of this scale have a major impact on the surrounding townscape. When you build as big as this, I would argue the architecture should have gravitas and be memorable, if not necessarily iconic. But is this the case at One New Change? And is it genuinely iconic in nature?
While developers, starchitects – and often the public – see value in iconic design, the profession generally struggles to take it seriously, slamming it as anti-intellectual or the material evidence of financial greed. In Iconic Building: the Power of Enigma, one of the few books that tries to understand this emerging mode of expression, Charles Jencks suggests they’re ‘surreal sculptures’ that ‘appeal to a diverse audience’ and can be read, or nicknamed, in a number of ways, so are often well received, by developers at least.
Not all so-called iconic buildings, however, are as easy to nickname as, say, Foster’s ‘Armadillo’ concert hall in Glasgow. So developers, as with One New Change, now provide a readymade one. These often stretch a point. Despite its faceted form, One New Change looks nothing like a Stealth Bomber (but then it has opened up new views of St Paul’s as effectively as the Blitzkrieg did).
Iconic is a loosely defined term and increasingly erroneously applied, and for all sorts of reasons other than form or appearance. Most obviously, if a starchitect is on board, the project will be dubbed iconic. A building can be labelled iconic because it has a desirable address. Or it might be that a blue-chip or celebrity ‘anchor’ has signed a tenancy agreement with the owner. Iconic can even be applied to projects that simply cost a lot to build. One New Change – next to St Paul’s Cathedral, home to restaurants by both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, and a price tag in excess of half-a-billion pounds – is one of those kind of iconic buildings.
It was seven years ago when Jean Nouvel was selected ahead of Rafael Moneo, HOK and Rafael Viñoly by Land Securities for the project. The jury included Richard Rogers, Graham Morrison and Ron Sidell and soon after Sidell’s firm, Sidell Gibson, was appointed as executive architect. In 2005, following a broadly positive CABE review, planning permission was granted.
Nouvel’s building replaces Victor Heal’s 1960 Bank of England complex, a massive steel frame dressed in brickwork and stone and rising to 11 storeys. Its elevations were a mix of columns, arches and heraldic sculptural motifs. A recessed facade on Cheapside to the north formed a small shopping parade while on Bread Street at the east end, there were two sunken courtyards with lawns and fountains. A fourth elevation lined Watling Street to the south. The highlight was a gently curving arc on New Change facing west towards St Paul’s. It had the requisite gravitas, but when it was demolished in 2006 there were few protesting voices.
The replacement programme was straightforward: 25,000m2 of retail equating to 60 shops, and 35,000m2 of office space, for 3,000 workers. As always there were caveats, with two in particular essential to the new design: the maintenance of viewing corridors to St Paul’s and the retention of the site’s public spaces.
Where the first wave of iconic buildings largely ignored context – the O2 dome for example – and in many cases became the context for later development to respond to, the new wave, typified by One New Change, take existing conditions as its starting point. So One New Change establishes routes through the site, making the building porous, and – in a bid to avoid the white elephant status that plagued many first-wave icons – it has a mixed programme of shops and offices that reflects market needs.
Huge passageways on each street are carved through the building, creating a cruciform arcade and making new pedestrian connections across the once fortified site. While three of the four arcade routes are internal, the route from New Change actually splits the edifice apart, so two glass-lined steel-frame cliffs face each other, and open up a spectacular view of St Paul’s from deep within the plan. First generation iconic architecture is often downright rude: One New Change, at least, tries to be polite.
One New Change comes across as ambiguous and insubstantial
An elevator sits where the two blocks coalesce back into the overall bulk and rises to a public roof terrace. This is a first, and to be commended – more of the city should be accessible in this manner – but the actual space is cluttered with balustrades and pointless ‘heritage’, such as a mosaic retained from the previous building and rescued statues from its facades. It’s not a free gift either: the controlled-access terrace replaces the sunken – unmonitored – gardens on Bread Street.
Office workers use a neatly appointed lobby on the Watling Street facade, and take slick-looking escalators up to a second-floor lobby. From there another set take workers directly into the shopping zone. Convenient for sure, but the idea of one building, paying your wages then tempting you to spend them, deserves its own essay.
When touring One New Change with Sanya Tomic, partner at Sidell Gibson, the executive architect’s technical prowess is clear. Snapping together 4,300 uniquely shaped glass panels, each with a minutely detailed frit, requires real expertise. Throughout, given the nature of materials used – limestones, shiny metals, mirrors and fritted glass – the impression is that of an enamelled luxury product.
Tomic speaks of Nouvel’s inspirational style – ‘he never compromised, and was usually right’ – and in parts the building lives up to its blockbuster billing. Walking along Watling Street, towards St Paul’s, the elevation appears to shift its weight, as if slowly moving eastwards as well. Angular canopies unfold from the facade and the roofline descends towards the cathedral. There is tension here that befits a building of this scale. Then, as we turn the corner, things get macho. Where the building ruptures to create an open arcade, the folded steel structural facade is revealed under lightly fritted glass panels in muscular, hi-tech fashion. The overall composition, however, is incoherent, – asymmetrical, reflective, inward-looking – and difficult to apprehend.
This new form of town planning is a kind of X Factor urbanism
The elevation on Cheapside is a letdown; an entirely flat, business park facade, un-faceted and with a right-angled roofline that stretches for over 100m. Midway along, an entrance and terrace provide relief, but a canopy – no more than a pinned-on skirt – which Nouvel added for ‘visual interest’ and to modulate scale, does neither. The sad thing is, the previous building’s elevations were probably its only strong point. CABE, which fussed over the corner detail at New Change and Cheapside, insisting on a feature window, somehow overlooked this: surely this was the elevation that required the most work?
In some ways Nouvel has been here before. His Galeries Lafayette on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, now 14 years’ old, occupies a similarly sized urban block and uses voids and mirrored surfaces to entrance and delight its shoppers. But where that building feels dense and compact, and is firmly part of the gridiron townscape in terms of rhythm and height, One New Change comes across as ambiguous and insubstantial; an icon you can’t describe with windows that want to be walls and whose spectacular moments are views of other buildings.
But it’s wrong to judge One New Change as purely iconic design. Instead, it posits something more complex that goes beyond architecture to become a new form of town planning – a kind of X Factor urbanism – mixing branding and iconic architecture with public realm design and the green agenda (did I mention One New Change has geothermal pumps?), celebrity culture and glossy production values. Get used to it: a low-budget version is probably already planned for your town.
Building Regulations approval May 2006
Planning approval July 2006
Demolition February 2007
Start on site August 2007
Completion October 2010
Centre opening 28. October 2010
Procurement method Construction management
Total cost £300 million (aprox)
Gross internal floor area 83,732m2
Cost per m2 £3,580 (approx)
Client Land Securities
Concept architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel
Delivery architect Sidell Gibson Architects
Structural engineer Arup
Services engineer Hoare Lea
Cost consultant Davis Langdon
Lighting consultant Speirs & Major
Construction manager Bovis Lend Lease
CDM co-ordinator Schal
Acoustic consultant Hann Tucker
Facade access consultant Reef Associates
BREEAM: Office - Excellent
Parking 206 cycles and 40 motorcycles
CORE SIDELL GIBSON ARCHITECTS TEAM
Team leader, project architect Sanya Tomic
Cladding Technologist Andrew Snalune
Resident site architect David Hampton
3D co-ordinators Lorenzo Poli and David Adams
Facade access + maintenance and cladding N-am Rosenkovitch
Office tenant’s liaison and office fit out Shahram Ameryoun
Office related area, toilet fit-out May Jingqi Qin
Roof including the public terrace and plant room Armin Rose
Arcade Shopfronts, stone flooring, office reception Veronica Um
Lifts and escalators, arcade ceilings and balustrade sRobin Hewitt
Basement area and retail liaison Richard Barry and Liz Ng
BIW document controller Marija Todorovic
One New Change, London, by Ateliers Jean Nouvel/ Sidell Gibson Architects