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Stirling Prize 2012: New Court OMA with Allies and Morrison

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‘New Court demonstrates civility in a part of London hugger-mugger with mute, corporate architectural spoor,’ reflects Jay Merrick

Through the rippled glass of the east windows in St Stephen Walbrook church, New Court appears to be a trick of the light, a wavering oblong the colour of Portland stone. But seen from alongside the Starbucks jammed against the southern flank of Wren’s exquisite church, the rising segments of the Rothschild headquarters reveal a precision of form and a surface worthy of Arne Jacobsen. Veiled in milky double glazing interleaved with fine aluminium mesh, Mammon’s greatest enigma takes the shape of a numinous Postmodern palazzo.

Some of OMA’s remarks about the 21,000m² building have muddied its actual character. New Court is quite evidently not a ‘pure prismatic volume that offered the effortless amalgamation of two classic office typologies, the cube and the slab’. Nor is it true, except in an overwrought conceptual sense, that ‘the church and New Court now form a twinned urban ensemble’.

The significant point about New Court is simpler: the building introduces an architecture of ambitious formal, material and spatial clarity to St Swithin’s Lane; an architecture whose response in plan and elevation to the site and the street is both sharply different to what exists around it, yet also so chastely considerate, in an urban sense, that it is a genuine surprise.

Wren’s church and churchyard are clearly visible from St Swithin’s Lane for the first time for more than two centuries, in a vision framed by New Court’s raised piazza and its undercroft, which connects the square base of the core building with the Rothschild archive annexe.

The architecture’s skilful formal assembly is disturbed only by a highly visible, full-height, crudely gold-patterned translucent drape designed to screen off the reception seating area. This item did not, apparently, come from B&Q’s deluxe shower curtain range, but was created by Petra Blaisse. This is the most dim-witted design atrocity that I’ve encountered in years and it’s astonishing that OMA/Allies and Morrison agreed to it. It really does look like a Deluxe Essex Psycho Voyeur Shag Pad Accessory.

New Court’s superstructure is anchored by a 30m² cube, with three projecting annexes. Only four off-centre structural pillars pass up through the 10 floors of the core block, and the open east-west corridor that runs across them also contributes to remarkably bright interiors, with fine views over the City. The cube is topped by a Sky Pavilion on pillars, where three double-height meeting and dining spaces look down on the cube’s roof garden. Some of the pavilion’s internal detailing falls short of the high quality elsewhere but this, perhaps surprisingly, was a budget issue.

New Court’s functionality is well orchestrated, as are the distinct shifts of ambience and spatial character from the office floors to the executive meeting and dining floors. The only irritating blip concerns the tragicomic decision to fit dotted disco downlighters in the slots on the undersides of the central staircase handrails. The chain-mailed interiors of the lifts may also suggest bling, but they are a direct homage to the lifts designed by Mies van der Rohe for the Seagram Building.

As a whole, New Court’s architecture and site treatment demonstrate exemplary civility in a part of London hugger-mugger with mute, corporate architectural spoor. Despite its incidental shortcomings of detail, this is the most adroitly conceived medium-sized building in the City since Lloyds Register, designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2002.

Four years after that, Rem Koolhaas spoke about the ‘eerie abstraction of the [architecturally] generic that haunts us’. New Court is not eerie, nor is it a banal architectural abstraction. In a decade’s time, its design may well be seen to have overcome the inertia of the generic in a new and influential way. In the meantime, it has set an interesting precedent.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent


AJ Buildings Library

See images, drawings and details of New Court OMA with Allies and Morrison

Q +  A: Ellen van Loon, partner, OMA

What was your initial design concept?

Our initial concept for the building was based on two ideas. Firstly, to restore the historical pattern of lanes and thereby reinstate the view from St Swithin’s Lane through to Wren’s church. Secondly, to rationalise a complex Byzantine site into platonic elements, creating an efficient office block, constrained below the plane of the surrounding context, which is punctured by a single element, partly inspired by the Palazzo Uffizi, one of the few buildings allowed to penetrate the Florentine skyline, and built by another well-known banking family, the Medici.

Did the final scheme alter much from this concept?

The primary conceptual ideas remained in the final scheme. The most significant change was that Rothschild negotiated with their neighbour for the use of a rear courtyard. This significantly liberated the entry, allowing for greater pedestrian flow along and from St Swithin’s Lane.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project and why?

The greatest challenge at New Court was the site itself. Located in the densely built Bank Conservation Area, New Court is abutted on three sides, backs on to the churchyard of the St Stephen Walbrook church, and has street access from the 3.5 metre wide medieval St. Swithin’s Lane. This presented challenges in planning, attempting to bring light into the middle of a deep floor plate with near neighbours, and construction logistics. To quote one contractor, the construction posed a challenge equivalent to ‘painting your hallway through the letterbox’.

Rem Koolhaas famously said that ‘Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue… Its subtext is “fuck context”.’ Yet OMA has produced a supremely contextual ‘big’ City building. How do you square this contradiction?

We lifted the building so the ground becomes a manifesto about the richness of London’s history. It would be impossible to build on this site, with such significant neighbours, without being contextual. If we had turned our backs on them, this would still be contextual.

How was the experience of working with two other architects in the design and delivery of New Court?

Allies and Morrison was our selected partner. From design development, we worked as one team. We did not want to work with a practice that would simply execute our design, but chose a practice with which to collaborate. The relationship has been so successful that we are continuing together on other projects. There was a different approach with the fit-out architect, Pringle Brandon, as we did not have office fit-out experience prior to the project. We feel that we learned a great deal during the process and hope they believe the same.

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