Richard Waite looks at what led an award-winning building by Amin Taha to become an internet sensation – for all the wrong reasons
The recent media storm surrounding the supposedly imminent threat of demolition to Amin Taha’s 15 Clerkenwell Close scheme has been incredible.
The Evening Standard, The Times, The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Southend Standard, even Spain’s Elle Décor have written with relish about how bulldozers will soon be knocking down the six-storey block.
There has been a rubbing of hands over the fate of this award-winning, mould-breaking central London building which houses, among other things, Taha’s family home and studio for his practice Groupwork.
Taha, the architect perpetrator of this apparently unacceptable monstrosity, was even recently ‘papped’ as he went out to get a sandwich.
Contrary to the doom-riddled headlines, though, the end is not yet nigh for the £4.65 million building with its loadbearing limestone exoskeleton.
Taha does have a significant issue here, but it is one that has been rumbling for some time – the AJ first reported on it in July 2017 – and it is not an easy situation to digest and unpick, especially for a national newspaper with limited space.
This is the basic premise: Amin Taha thinks he has permission for the 2,000m2 structure as built; Islington Council does not.
The story began six years ago when the architect submitted plans for a loadbearing brick design after receiving negative feedback from the council’s conservation team to his original proposal. The initial plans had been for a ‘column-free’ building with a steel plate superstructure, however the conservation officer is understood to have preferred stone.
As a result a number of different loadbearing options, with differing materials, had been put forward. Finally a brick-clad option, effectively a compromise, was approved in 2013.
When the site’s prospective buyer dropped out soon after, Taha’s practice took on the development itself.
He submitted reworked plans ’for a more intriguing [stone] direction’, and later received the go-ahead, under delegated powers, for a scheme with a limestone exoskeleton.
Consented elevations of clerkenwell close
The architect insists that all the pre-commencement conditions for materials, design and finishes – namely ‘natural quarry finished, drilled split and saw cut’ limestone – were signed off ahead of construction in 2015 by the same case officers under delegated powers. Even the location of the quarry (northern France) was included.
When work started one neighbour immediately complained but with all the documents seemingly present it went no further and there were no further interruptions.
However, for whatever reasons, when the scaffolding began to come down in mid-2016 and the limestone façade emerged into daylight, only the original loadbearing brick submission was visible on the council’s website, with none of the stone drawings uploaded.
The drawings had apparently gone missing.
Some of the neighbours were shocked by what they saw. Councillor Martin Klute, then the vice chair of planning of Islington’s planning committee and now the chair, was particularly taken aback. Unaware of the changes under delegated powers, Klute took to the press to complain.
An architectural technologist at AHMM by day, Klute slammed the ‘bizarre’ limestone cladding, claiming the building demonstrated ‘contempt for the planning process’, was in ‘breach of planning policy’ and that Taha had never ‘produced copies of approved drawings for the design he has built’.
In that respect Taha has always maintained he both possessed and had submitted a full set of drawings for the scheme, a position backed up by his then local councillor at Islington Council, Raphael Andrews, who saw ‘all copies of drawings and planning documentation and consequently supports my position’.
Taha says he also tried to explain this to Klute.
Yet his protests fell on deaf ears and he failed to deter Islington Council from an unshakeable quest to get the building pulled down. Since 2016 the local authority has issued repeated enforcement notices.
The first was delivered in June of that year when a neighbour complained to Klute that the building appeared to be in ‘concrete’ not brick as per the initial 2013 submission.
An enforcement officer and conservation officer were sent to visit the site where, Taha claims, he was told they had been instructed by the councillor to build a case for its demolition. That notice was later withdrawn.
In June 2017, a second notice was issued calling for the building to be flattened and replaced in brick.
There were also concerns raised about the height (though the building is actually shorter than the brick submission).
In response Taha’s solicitors sent the council’s enforcement department a letter which asked to see the report backing this notice and demanding to know which council committee had met to sanction the notice.
Though the questions went seemingly unanswered, the notice was immediately binned. Taha’s demands for an apology were also ignored.
In February 2018, a new notice was issued. This document concedes that the design approval did cover the use of limestone (though the fossil finishes on some part of the elevations differed to that rubberstamped on 7 August 2015) and the height as built.
However, the council says it remains particularly unhappy about the fossils in the carved rock, which make the finishes look rough, ‘haphazard and deleterious to the conservation area’ and the Grade I-listed St James Church.
The local authority still has six other main objections – all of which Taha is robustly defending.
- The office door has moved to the side: Taha says this is to lose three risers to the stairs down to the basement.
- The internal arrangements have changed: the architect claims this is to eliminate a dog leg corridor
- The roof was a private terrace: Taha insists this is not the case.
- An earlier drawing showed a neighbouring building at the wrong height: Taha says that was drafted pre-survey and that a post-survey drawing showed it at the correct height.
- Not all the ground-floor office space has yet been built: the architect says it is not all needed yet.
- The columns protrude from the neighbouring 1970s brick office building and are outside the building line: Taha maintains that the columns sit well within the old lightwell retaining wall and therefore well inside the site boundary.
The disagreements seem trivial, especially given the proposed sanction of demolition. Other battles over less architecturally thoughtful schemes would surely seem more pressing for the local authority and there are rumours of dissent inside the council over its course of action.
But the official line is unequivocally resolute. A spokesperson said: ‘After an investigation, the council has come to the view that the building at 15 Clerkenwell Close does not reflect the building that was granted planning permission and conservation area consent in 2013.
‘In the council’s view, the existing building does not benefit from planning permission, and the council issued an enforcement notice on 26 February 2018, to take effect on 9 April 2018.’
Perhaps Islington’s ire has been driven by groups such as the Friends of Clerkenwell Green, which is objecting to the façade (and has been canvassing locals for support) and the Clerkenwell Green Preservation Society, whose founder Anne Pembroke told The Times the block ‘sticks out like a sore thumb’.
Yet support among the architectural profession has been strong.
The building is of extraordinary quality. It is both sensitive and bold
AHMM’s Simon Allford, Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones (see letter), Charles Holland, Hana Loftus and Chris Wilkinson have all offered their support. Taha is understood to have more than 700 backers now, having canvassed those attending London’s recent Open House weekend.
He has also entrusted PR agency Portland Communications to gather together any other voices who are supporting his fight.
Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects said: ‘The building has the appearance of being made, in the truest sense of the word. Internally and externally it relates positively to the street, considering light, material and composition in a way that many modern buildings in conservation areas struggle to achieve.
‘[In my opinion], the building is of extraordinary quality. It is both sensitive and bold.’
Taha has appealed against the notice, and the case (which will be costly for all involved) will go before a planning inspector next March.
The reason the project has re-hit the headlines is partly because Taha has gone out to public consultation on a planning application which he expects to submit for the scheme, as built, in the next two weeks. A backup plan in some way, though whether the council will look on it favourably is debatable.
These new and laboriously put together belt-and braces drawings will even pick out where all the fossils are.
Such desperate efforts seem onerous and unnecessary, but the architect feels he must cover all eventualities given the twists and turns so far.
Despite the unexpected media spotlight cast on Taha, he has somehow managed to remain upbeat and objective.
Even so, he describes the whole affair as ‘petty’. It would be hard to find many architects who would disagree with him.
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Amin Taha – 29.09.18
A cynical and unhelpful lesson would be to chose no materials whose form and finishes cannot be precisely predicted beforehand. Nothing able to surprise or delight through the unexpected but innate beauty of that material.
A more helpful lesson is to perhaps ensure you carry the same planning team (case officer had left the borough, no new case officer was assigned post pre-commencement condition sign off as one wouldn’t expect one to be) and interested neighbours from beginning to end and through sourcing, receiving and installing your materials.
We are working with the council to hopefully sort through, clarify and settle any other matters.
Engineer’s view – from AJ Specification 06.12.17
Stone isn’t an unusual material to find on a construction site by any means. In fact, people respond to it well as a natural and innocuous material that embodies geological time and human history. Of late, it has been the unfortunate victim of a major flaw in the modern construction industry, which has relegated it to a solely decorative material, rather than one with its own inherent structural properties.
This first occurred to us when we began to collaborate with The Stonemasonry Company, 10 years ago. They found that their repertoire in stone staircases was becoming limited by only being able to build traditional cantilever stairs affixed to load-bearing walls. Freestanding stone structures were out of the question for them at the time, and so they asked us to collaborate on something much more complex, beginning what has become a long partnership in stone innovation.With The Stonemasonry Company we began looking into post-tensioned and reinforced stone as a concept and together built progressively more adventurous structures, culminating in the Formby Stair, a freestanding staircase which sweeps 320 degrees from one floor to the next. The philosophy behind these designs is to use a material as both the skin and the bone of a structure, creating something both rational and elegant. Through this collaboration the team has built up a range of techniques allowing us to analyse structures and test the limits of the material and, rather than stopping at stone staircases, we began applying these techniques to structures of a much larger scale.
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On 15 Clerkenwell Close, a five-storey office block in Islington, we were able to use some of the techniques we’d developed designing stairs. Consisting of reinforced concrete flat slabs and a stability core, the slabs are supported around the perimeter by what looks like a traditional concrete and steel frame clad in stone, but is in fact a much more rational system of solid stone load-bearing columns and lintels. A closer inspection of the eye-catching structure reveals ammonoids, drilled wedge holes and saw grooves, providing the clues to the true structural form.
In stark contrast to the huge number of false brick buildings being built today this method of construction is innovative, elegant and offers many efficiencies. At Clerkenwell Close the construction of the façade was faster and more economical than traditional building techniques.
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For a traditional concrete or steel frame clad in non-loadbearing stone or heavy carbon-intensive brick skins, the wastage rate and stone cutting costs would be much higher and the overall time on site increased. The structure would be constructed first, and the stone painstakingly hung from it. By instead making stone a primary structural element, the building is composed of fewer components meaning less trades on site and a faster construction programme.
The key to working in this way is to build good relationships with contractors and architects. Our relationship with both The Stonemasonry Company and Groupwork + Amin Taha has led to a number of successful projects using stone as a construction material, but this has involved each discipline stepping into the other’s domain, and building an understanding of how the structure and material can become the architecture of a space.
Steve Webb, director, Webb Yates Engineers