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Interview: Karen Cook’s special recipe for 22 Bishopsgate

Karen cook anthony coleman
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As the City of London’s tallest building nears completion, PLP founding partner Karen Cook tells Adam Branson how the scheme has evolved over nearly two decades

It is an office project that dates back to the early 2000s, has had multiple owners and had to be completely redesigned in the wake of the global financial crisis. But for the majority of 22 Bishopsgate’s gestation, one woman has provided more continuity than anyone else: Karen Cook, now a founding partner at PLP. 

A graduate of Rice University and Harvard University Graduate School – Eric Parry was one of her teachers at the latter – Cook has spent the vast majority of her career working in Europe. In 1990, she moved to London to work for KPF when it opened its London office and has never looked back. 

Stuart Lipton had a vision that was much more about social and not just the workspace. It was office space but with a social agend 

‘I had studied in summer school in Vicenza,’ she says, ‘and England wasn’t necessarily on my list of places to come to. But it should have been because I am an English speaker and I think the quality of architecture coming out of London is consistently high.’

A recession swiftly followed, and Cook ended up cutting her teeth on a series of commercial developments in Germany and Prague, places she talks of with great affection. That, she says with her lingering, gentle American accent, taught her a great deal about the health and wellbeing benefits that thoughtful design can bring to an office environment. 

‘There was the whole recognition of mental health in the workplace,’ she says. ‘They recognised that people spend the whole day at work and the building needs to make you feel as well as you feel at home. You need to feel relaxed.’

Cook’s experience on the continent continues to inform her thinking, not least in terms of the approach being taken to both the office and amenity spaces at PLP’s 22 Bishopsgate, a truly gargantuan 278m-high tower, which is now close to completion. So how has Cook applied her ideas to the design of what will be the City of London’s tallest building?

Cook started work on the project back in 2003 while a partner at KPF. At that time, London was tying itself in knots over its attitude to tall buildings. Foster’s Gherkin was under construction – it would open in April 2004 – but the original ambition for the tower’s height had been scaled back at the behest of the City of London’s chief planning officer Peter Rees, who had decided that it should be the same height as Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest Tower).

22 bishopsgate a coleman 5227

22 bishopsgate a coleman 5227

Source: Anthony Coleman

Rees took a similar stance when business tycoon Gerald Ronson brought forward plans for the Heron Tower and initially indicated that he would apply the same restriction to what was known first as the Bishopsgate Tower then as the Pinnacle – or the Helter Skelter to most (pictured bottom) – and now 22 Bishopsgate. 

Cook believed such a restriction would have been a ‘terrible situation’. As a result, she worked with colleagues at KPF, City of London planners and architecture historian Robert Tavernor to come up with a radical plan for the future form of the square mile. 

‘We came up with the idea that it should be a cluster and ultimately when all the buildings were built it would read as one landscape form,’ says Cook. ‘The purpose of that is to keep the skyline gap between the cluster and St Paul’s. The Pinnacle was designed to be the centre of the cluster; the apex of the cluster.’

Planning permission for the 288m-tall Pinnacle was duly granted in 2006 and demolition works began in 2007 after the site had been sold to a consortium made up of Arab Investments, Saudi Arabian fund Sedco and Kuwaiti fund Wafra. Then came the global financial crisis. The project continued in fits and starts, but construction of the Pinnacle was halted for what turned out to be the last time in March 2012.

In February 2015, however, it was announced that AXA IM-Real Assets, alongside developer Lipton Rogers and other investors, had acquired the site. By that point, Cook had been working for three years with Lipton Rogers . She had also, along with other former KPF partners, set up PLP. The design for the renamed and radically different 22 Bishopsgate was unveiled at a public exhibition in June 2015 and criticised by some for its sheer mass – a staggering 120,000m2 of office space. The changes, she says, were a sign of the times.

22 Bishopsgate includes medical facilities because either people take a whole day off work for an appointment or they don’t look after themselves 

The Pinnacle’s spiralling design had been highly ambitious, which also meant that it was expensive. Cook is open about the fact that money was an issue, but says that changes in the occupier market were equally important. 

‘The cost was one reason,’ she says. ‘But it was also designed for one person per 12-14m² and after the financial crisis, all the North American and UK tenants wanted to occupy at one per 8m².

‘So that means more stairs, more lifts, more toilets, more air handling and the core just couldn’t cope. Also, the façade was quite sophisticated, but it was designed to the old energy regulations. But the real problem was the core and how that would grow with the higher occupation density, so we started looking at the rectangular options.’

It was also apparent that tenants were demanding more social space and amenities. Lipton Rogers partner Stuart Lipton ‘had a workplace vision that he had brought from his trajectory,’ says Cook. ‘It was much more about social and not just the workspace. It was office space but with a social agenda.’

As a result, Cook travelled to Australia with workplace consultant Despina Katsikakis, who had advised Lipton on previous projects, to visit cutting-edge office environments. 

‘We went to meet all the top banks and find out why they were performing so well,’ says Cook. ‘A lot of it had to do with the amenities programmes and agile or activity-based working. It was about a variety of places to sit depending on the activity you are doing. That was quite an eye-opener for me.’

Bishopsgate4947 anthony coleman

Bishopsgate4947 anthony coleman

Source: Anthony Coleman

A great deal of thought has gone into the amenity spaces at the £500 million 22 Bishopsgate, which will accommodate 12,000 workers. Facilities will include a basement area for cyclists, including parking, showers and drying area for wet gear, a food market, climbing wall and a free public viewing platform, as well as a gym, spa and medical and dental facilities. Cook says that the latter are particularly important when it comes to health and wellbeing. ‘Either people take a whole day off work for an appointment or they don’t look after themselves, so it’s about making that easier,’ she says.

Given that 22 Bishopsgate will, by necessity, be let to multiple occupiers, the club at the top of the building is also a crucial amenity. ‘The idea of the amenities is that those smaller companies can compete with large companies, which normally can’t offer that level of amenity,’ she says. ‘So, the club means that a small company can host a conference or a private dining experience.’

However, the lessons from the early stages of Cook’s career aren’t limited to wellbeing. The value of bespoke craftsmanship was also something she learned from her experience in Prague. ‘For me, what was such a joy was understanding how skilful the craftsmen in Prague were – they still are,’ she says fondly. ‘It meant that all these people could add to the design. Everything was bespoke and it was the first time I had encountered it.’

At 22 Bishopsgate, that bespoke thinking is being applied to multiple elements. For instance, an advanced logistics system aims to minimise the number of vehicles arriving each day and the pollution they cause; and workers will be able to control their own lighting and heating from their desks. The design also includes two canopies to deal with both the downdraft and updraft that are inevitable with tall buildings. With the lower canopy, Cook has commissioned a Wales-based glass artist to come up with a design. 

‘He is drawing his artwork into a computer and then it will be printed directly on to the glass in Germany,’ she says. ‘His work is abstract and very colourful and he’s also doing the work that lines a passageway through the building. The motifs for him are the guilds of the ancient city, which still exist. We are trying to bring the craft and the art into the base.’ 

Jasonhawkes city skyline

Jasonhawkes city skyline

Source: Jason Hawkes

On this point – among others – Cook pays homage to Lipton for taking a bold decision. ‘For Stuart, the difficulty was knowing and controlling what it was going to look like and relying on the artist to deliver on time,’ she says. ‘It was a leap for him. He’s a big proponent of art – he brought public art into the City at Broadgate – but he was just uncomfortable relying on it for the architecture.’

A similar strategy is being deployed in the lobby, where the leather furnishings are being handmade by Bill Amberg Studio while ‘sculptural furniture’ has been designed by a young French artist. ‘I very much wanted to bring the joy of that craft and art and make it unlike other corporate lobbies,’ says Cook. Artworks are also planned for the lifts, while the stairwells are deliberately well lit and colourful to encourage use. 

22 Bishopsgate may be a giant of a project – and one that doesn’t sit well with calls for architecture to reject glass and steel behemoths on environmental grounds, despite its undoubted technological wizardry. But it is also clear that both Cook and her client have an eye for detail, whether that means introducing bespoke elements or focusing on occupiers’ health and wellbeing. The Pinnacle may be dead, but 22 Bishopsgate is looking likely to emerge fully formed. 

Helter skelter

Helter skelter

KPF’s Pinnacle - aka the Helter Skleter. Cook worked on the abandoned skyscraper project before the site was sold and the scheme repalced by the current 22 Bishopsgate plans.


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