Construction work has begun on the first phase of DSDHA’s controversial plans to refurbish and remodel the Smithsons’ Brutalist, Grade II*-listed Economist Plaza in London’s West End
When they were first unveiled earlier this year, the proposals to alter the building’s three towers and famous public space off St James Street sparked a row, after being questioned by a number of leading architects and academics.
The plans include minor extensions to the 1964 towers’ rooflines, space for new shops, the removal of an entrance canopy, new circular skylights in the plaza surface allowing light into a subterranean gallery, widened steps into Bury Street and the introduction of a spiral staircase serving Ryder Street.
Speaking in February, Caruso St John Architects partner Peter St John said the plaza did ‘not need to be altered to accommodate coffee shops and art galleries [and] less importantly, the changes are badly conceived’.
However, Historic England and The Twentieth Century Society backed the plans for the former home of the Economist magazine, and they were finally given full planning permission in the summer.
The DSDHA scheme for developer Tishman Speyer will also remove some of the ‘unsympathetic alterations’ made by Skidmore Owings & Merrill during the 1990s.
The start on site comes as a separate debate rages over another of Alison and Peter Smithson’s buildings: Robin Hood Gardens in east London, and the V&A’s decision to buy and display a three-storey piece of the estate.
Earlier this month the museum announced its intention to take possession of a chunk of the lauded 1972 ’streets in the sky’ housing, saying it was an ‘important piece of Brutalism, worth preserving for future generations’.
However the move provoked a mixed reaction, with critics saying that the V&A should have intervened earlier and backed a 2008 campaign to list the estate.
Economist Plaza revamp: the architect’s view
We have rethought the ‘urban choreography’ of the complex to encourage amenity and accessibility. In line with the Smithsons’ vision for the Plaza as ‘an enjoyable public space’ and ‘a rendezvous and tourist spot’, the aim is for the plaza to embody this generosity. It is designed to be a place to meet, with new landscaping and additional seating, yet embodying quietude, raised above the traffic and fumes of St James’s Street, as well as a welcome short-cut through St James’s back streets.
Once the home to Paolozzi’s acclaimed works and then the gallery space for The Architecture Foundation, the Economist Plaza has a long and established tradition as a prominent stage for London’s creative and artistic scene. This legacy has the potential to be rekindled, making room for new patterns of life and work within St James’s art district, in line with what the Smithsons had originally envisioned.
Our detailed interventions have been guided by a rigorous methodology, devised in conversation with distinguished scholars and experts and informed by extensive historical research and in-depth forensic investigations of the site and surrounding building’s fabric. Overall we have been guided by the Smithsons’ writings on the ever-changing nature of the city and how to approach change.
’Better, then, that a wanted new use is found and that change of use is clearly signalled. A signal also announces that what is left is a scenographic shell, and that what is inside is now something different. […] if what is inside - the use - remains substantially the same, but circumstances require it to be signalled differently, the new signal should be in some way an extension of the old.’ Peter Smithson, The Charged Void: Urbanism
The Economist Plaza has been widely photographed since its completion. Cataloguing its key views, collecting and comparing the images that the Smithsons had commissioned has allowed us to analyse the angles from which the buildings have been consistently photographed over time.
In so doing we identified and studied the changes that took place, many of which have had a negative impact on the character and setting of the Listed complex. Here, a spatial hierarchy within the ensemble was legible, distinguishing the most iconic areas and views – part of the building’s ‘collective memory’ – from the less recorded ones, to which one might conject that the Smithsons did not accord the same degree of significance.
Building on this research, the detailed design aims to keep the Plaza’s original character, while sensitively intervening in strategic, and less successful, areas of the complex – for example at the carpark entrance level which was not presented in any of the Smithsons’ publications. In this way we have been able to preserve the original design whilst updating the whole complex to meet the demands of contemporary 21st-century office and public space, adapting this brutalist icon to London’s changing urban realm.
Dsdha economist plaza
Address St James’s Street, London
Gross internal area 11,715m²
Client Tishman Speyer
Structural engineer Campbell Reith
Services/sustainability engineer Sweco
Comments about the proposals from Febraury 2017:
John Tuomey, director O’Donnell + Tuomey
The Economist cluster is the most important building by Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s an articulate example of their restless search for an ’architecture without rhetoric’. The plaza is a welcome place of calm between busy streets, a place of ’ordinariness and light’, a place to pause and pay attention to the silent conversation between different scales of architecture. Its stone yardscape is not in need of further activation. Piccadilly Circus is nearby, if activation is what you’re looking for, and every piece of architecture isn’t going to be improved by another coffee shop. Here is a quiet place. The city needs its quiet places. Some things are worth preserving, and this is a special case for careful maintenance, less change, not more.
Patrick Lynch of Lynch Architects
In general, the proposals by Tischman Spier and DSDHA for The Economist Building and Plaza seem sensible, sensitive to the original architect’s intentions and properly critical of subsequent changes – and where appropriate – weaknesses in the original design. Removing the entrance canopy to the office tower and the single story extension on Bury Street, installed by SOM in the 1990s, is appropriate, as is fixing the eccentric, primitive air-con system. Reorganising the interior of the former bank building also seems correct and intelligent; the new shops will undoubtedly animate the rather barren plaza.
Our competition entry last year also included a number of these proposals, as well as an idea to introduce a new staircase connecting Ryder Street to the plaza. The Ryder Street façade has always suffered from being the entrance to the underground car park, and the plaza has suffered as a consequence from being 1/2 a storey up – in effect the result of having a basement for cars beneath it. Despite The Smithson’s evocative later rhetoric, it wasn’t ever really like an Italian public space; but more like an American type of semi-public space, hence the term “plaza”, perhaps?
The Economist Building was the first air-conditioned office in London, and in general it suffers the architect’s uncritical devouring of American corporate modernism, including a misplaced early enthusiasm for cars. Their later work adjusts this approach, and I see no reason not to bring this project up-to-date with their more mature late-modernist design philosophy detailed in publications like Italian Thoughts.
While it is obviously seen as controversial by some, DSDHA’s proposal to extend the plaza and to remove the car park and its entrance has a series of urbanistic and architectural benefits I believe. The introduction of a basement art gallery space will provide a boon to the people who live in and use this part of St James. The change in emphasis from cars to bike storage is encouraging. A more active street frontage will undoubtedly improve the character of Ryder Street.
The new staircase seems to me to be relatively discreet, and at first impression it seems to be quite skilfully handled; in presenting itself as a new insertion, it combines best heritage practise with a degree of appropriate modesty and respect for the the existing project.
To my eye, the left hand wall of the stair should be Portland Stone, not ‘white’, as this would suggest ‘ground’ better. The glazed panels to the right of the stair are more problematic through, as this appears as it it is an entrance, which it isn’t. Perhaps settings the glazing back would help emphasise the horizon of the bridge/balustrade above? It might also benefit from being more solid, or at least a thicker frame.
These observations are not meant as reasons not to do it, but rather questions to the designers that of course require more thought, things that would be conditioned by Westminster City Council if planning consent were to be granted. At this stage, I have no problem with the architect’s and their client’s strategy, which seems sound enough.
It makes sense to try to get some daylight down into the new basement art gallery space. I’m not so keen on flush, circular pavement lights, but you can understand the logic in relating these new elements to each other. The staircase looks dominate on the plan, but the CGI suggests convincingly that in fact it will be quite a subtle addition, at least to my mind. I might be wrong, but I’d say that it’d be clear in the future that another good architect has been involved in reworking the original building - and we would all be grateful if this were the fate of our projects.
Economist plaza crop
It’s important to creatively criticise listed buildings and in particular to get beyond modish devotion to them as examples of this or that ‘style’, if they are to remain useful parts of our cities. The addition of extra floors was always going to be inevitable in this context, and current planning policy in Westminster is not to terminate buildings with plant rooms – so I don’t think anybody was ever not going to try to rationalise the plant room and create more office space in this location. Doing so would pay for the essential repairs to the rest of the scheme.
My fear is that the range of possible veil-like cladding materials offered for the top floors, as a way to try to preserve the impression of a solid top, while allowing views out, may result in what the much-lamented townscape and heritage consultant Francis Golding might typically have called “a Bugger’s Muddle”: aka a heritage fudge. It’s a tricky problem; one we’re not entirely happy not to have, but also a wonderful challenge for a creative architect. We wish our colleagues luck.
Roof line sketches
Catherine Croft of the Twentieth Century Society
Any alteration to any work by the Smithsons always generates a huge amount of interest, perhaps because they built so little, and so many architects were influenced by their charismatic teaching and writing. With Robin Hood Gardens tragically facing imminent demolition, emotions are running especially high.
Although listed grade II*since1988, The Economist Building (a group of three buildings clustered on a raised piazza) has been significantly altered in the past. In 1990, a scheme by SOM infilled some of the colonnades around the piazza, reconfigured the interiors and altered some of the steps up to the piazza.
’The current scheme unpicks some of the 1990 alterations, but does not reinstate the original Smithson’s design’
The current scheme by DSDHA, unpicks some of the 1990 alterations, but does not reinstate the original Smithson’s design. In part this is because the use of the space has changed. Where once the piazza was a quiet zone of contemplation, it is now busy with office workers having coffees and sandwiches. The original basement car park, with its unsightly roller shutter door is also redundant.
Whilst it is normally conservationists who are accused of wanting to preserve historic buildings in aspic, in this case C20 Society is supporting modest alterations, proposed by DSDHA after extensive study of the original design intentions and the evolution of the project through numerous site visits and pre-application consultations. Some Smithson’s fans would prefer to see the Economist meticulously restored to its original form, but this has never been the intention of the current proposals, and nor is it a reasonable strategy. Unless buildings are going to be preserved as monuments or museums, they do need to respond to changing circumstance. It would be fantastic to have a study centre for C20 architecture, and the Economist Building would be a perfect location, but sadly there is currently no the funding to achieve this.