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Reassurance spaces

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Developers of prime property in London are looking to a new generation of marketing suites

‘Quite often marketing buildings can be as basic as a couple of converted site cabins,’ says Arup Associates director Hal Currey. The cliché of the genre is the show home in the popular American TV sitcom Arrested Development, a flimsy stage set filled with plastic Thanksgiving turkeys and cardboard televisions.

But that will no longer do in London, where prime property has become the biggest big business, a gold-plated investment that draws buyers from every part of the globe. Here, Arup Associates has been working with Irish property giant Ballymore to develop a new generation of marketing suites, making the architecture that comes before the architecture – a building that sells another building.

Its first, promoting the immense 1,000-unit Embassy Gardens development next to Kieran Timberlake’s new US Embassy in the go-go regeneration area of Nine Elms, is a fairly substantial three-storey steel-frame building, clad in white glass, set in a small, attractive garden of wildflowers and dune grasses – a dramatic contrast to the grime and din of Nine Elms Way.

Inside, there’s room for three full-scale show apartments, meeting rooms, a viewing deck and a ground-floor exhibition area the size of a modest provincial museum.

These are, in the ornate jargon of the property industry, ‘spaces reflective of the offer’. A couple of years ago I wrote a whole novel hinged on the idea that wooden floors are the design status symbol of our time, and it’s reassuring to see that theory borne out. Entering the high-ceilinged exhibition space, the dominant impression is a great expanse of dark herringbone parquet, ‘standard in all apartments’.

Combined with chunky wing-back armchairs, the mood is boutique hotel or modern members’ club – and Embassy Gardens will have one of those for its residents, as well as fitness centres and a private cinema.

Models show the development as it will appear when completed, a crowd of mid-rise brick-clad buildings, some designed by Arup Associates, others by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

Taking its cue from the US Embassy rising next door, the cladding is intended to evoke New York, rather than London, specifically the gentrified industrial buildings of the Meatpacking District.  The bridges between buildings above ground level, including a cantilevered swimming pool, are more BRIC than brick, hinting at Steven Holl, or MVRDV’s work in the Far East.

The marketing suite is structured around what Currey calls a ‘marketing journey’ – one that moves through the building and ends, in theory, in the writing of a substantial cheque.  The visitor is first ‘removed from any hostility or difficult context, a building site or a busy road … into a calmed environment.’ From that point on, the architecture is tuned to facilitate persuasion. For example, the stairs are wide enough for a salesperson to walk alongside the visitor as they ascend.  The journey passes the show flats, saving Embassy Gardens’ ace for last: the view from the top of the building, the Thames sweeping seductively towards the landmarks of central London. ‘You’re offered the view at the top, a meeting room, a cup of coffee and, hopefully, at that point you sign on the dotted line,’ Currey says.

So it had to be a substantial structure to give the elevation that would both provide those views and insulate the prospect from the infelicities of Nine Elms as it is.

‘One of the first things we did was go up with the client in a cherrypicker to try and see what it would be like to be on level three and four,’ says Currey. ‘Whether we would benefit from views, and how noisy it was, because there was a lot of concern about the proximity of Nine Elms Way. And you do feel set apart from the road. It’s not as noisy and hostile as it is at ground level.’

This insulation applies to the apartments themselves.  The development, when finished, will bristle with balconies, roof gardens and boxed-in ‘winter gardens’. But following (I’m told) long discussions, the show apartments in the marketing suite are kept behind the milky glass cladding. Still, there is more than enough to occupy the eye inside.  The apartments aren’t huge, but ample and cleverly laid out. Woods Bagot dressed them, and there are definitely no painted-on bookshelves or plastic fruit.  The televisions are real, and switched on; the hardback books on the shelves are real; the olive oil, bread and herbs in the kitchen are real, refreshed weekly.  There is stuff in the cupboards.

It’s a sales space, a persuasion space, but also, ‘a reassurance space’

The furniture is mutedly modern, and nearly all designer, including Nendo and Sori Yanagi. There are additional New Yorkie hints, such as a cracked leather baseball mitt, and subway-style tiles in the bathroom. It’s a sales space, a persuasion space, but also, as Currey puts it, ‘a reassurance space’, filled with details aimed at convincing the visitor they are getting a quality product.

Under chief executive Sean Mulryan and former creative director Roger Black, Ballymore has been trying to raise the standard of marketing suites for some years, beginning with the floating glass box it built on a pontoon in London’s Docklands to promote its 2008 Pan Peninsula development – still bobbing away and now called the ‘Design Cube at Ballymore’ (an interesting choice of preposition).

For Currey and Arup Associates, however, working with the sales and marketing teams was ‘alien territory’. They must have succeeded, as Ballymore asked them to build another, this time for a huge development in Docklands: City Island.

The ‘marketing journey’ moves through the building and ends in the writing of a cheque

City Island is not, in fact, an island but a narrow peninsula tucked into a hairpin loop of Bow Creek near its confluence with the Thames. But it might as well be an island for its isolation, walled-in not only by the river but by heavy road and rail infrastructure on either side; an immensely challenging site but also a profoundly exciting place, moated and aloof like a fortress but surrounded by frantic transit. You have to admire the ambition to build a 5ha ‘micro-Manhattan’ here, containing 1,700 apartments – it’s not obvious, it’s not easy, and if it works it could be a really interesting and distinctive urban corpuscle.

Arup Associates’ brief here was, at first, to simply replicate what it had done at Embassy Gardens. But as work progressed, it turned into something very different: four cuboid pavilions, clad in shiny, colourful tiles, around a small ornamental pond.  The ‘marketing journey’, however, is the same: welcoming exhibition of models and maps, complimentary coffee, then the Woods Bagot-appointed show apartments (one in each pavilion), then the viewing deck and the dotted line. Here, though, efforts at simulation have been stepped up.

In the exhibition pavilion is a fully equipped, white-tiled deli-slash-Shoreditch-coffee-joint – a representation of what will be provided for City Islanders once they move in, and another ‘reassurance space’ that they will not be stranded far from the comforts of zone 1. There are giant meringues and City Island-branded olive oil; the City Island logo, again suggestive of Shoreditch coffee house or skate store, is sprinkled in cinnamon on to your cappuccino.  The apartments are similar to those at Embassy Gardens but skewed a little more youthful, which is to say a little less expensive.  There are copies of Monocle and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and Jo Malone fragrance sticks.

Around the time I visited Embassy Gardens and City Island, a storm was raging online about a video made to promote a luxury east London development by Redrow. A moustachioed Square Mile type with a predator’s unblinking gaze is congratulated by a warmth-free voice-over for conquering the chaotic city, rising above it, and this apartment is his reward. In its affectless materialism, the video was compared to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho, a tale of a serial killer quite at home and undetected in 1980s Manhattan high finance.

This was a marketing video, which is to say a fantasy (one rapidly pulled by Redrow); the outrage was that it seemed to offer a truth about the way London is developing. Compared to that quite astonishing video, Ballymore’s marketing suites look genuinely warm and cheerful, but you can feel the sensitivity in the air when the question of foreign investors comes up, and I am carefully reassured that 60 per cent of the buyers at Embassy Gardens were UK-based.

Nevertheless, the tone is obviously very exclusive: the brochures, the branding, the people enjoying themselves in the photos and the promotional films. It is of course all very aspirational – a look Currey nicely summarises as ‘models in the back of taxis and so forth.’ Look at the life you could have here: champagne truffles by the side of the bed, extra virgins in the kitchen.

Property marketing has long been lifestyle marketing, based on the fairly spurious suggestion that with the right apartment (this one), bread-baking, regular gym visits and a more interesting social life will ensue. You can keenly sense Ballymore, Arup Associates, and Woods Bagot trying to get beyond that fakery into something authentic, trying to promise something real.

Which makes the whole experience a little woozier in a way; an episode of what Umberto Eco called ‘hyperreality’ – the postmodern sensation when a simulation and reality overlap to the point that simulation appears real and reality takes on the feel of a simulation. Authenticity itself is revealed as being quite inauthentic; it might be that the Shoreditch coffee houses and Chelsea shopping trips are the simulation, and the simulation built here is what’s really going on.

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