The intentions of the Economist Building’s original architects warrant more respect than DSDHA’s remodelling allows, says Ellis Woodman
One of the longest-fought conservation battles of recent years will draw to a dispiriting conclusion next month when demolition work commences on Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens estate. Its destruction will leave London with just one building designed by the pre-eminent British architects of the post-war era but it is, at least, the project universally recognised as their best.
So the news that a planning application has been submitted for the remodelling of the 1964 Economist Building is unlikely to be welcomed widely.
Commissioned by The Economist magazine for a site fronting onto one of the most prestigious streets in Westminster, this project remains a textbook model of how to integrate a substantial new programme into a historic setting. It comprises three towers, of varying heights and uses, but which share a façade treatment characterised by large areas of glass framed between mullions and spandrels of Roach Bed Portland stone. The intimate, elevated yard caught between these volumes is a place of magical stillness and material homogeneity, set apart from the bustle of St James.
A controversial remodelling undertaken by Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) in the 1990s saw the lobby of the principal office tower expanded and a secondary external stair reoriented. But to a great extent the experience of being here has changed little in 52 years.
However, at the beginning of last year, US property company Tishman Speyer bought the building from the Economist Group for £130 million, and soon after appointed DSDHA to draw up plans for its refurbishment. The American firm has an impressive track-record of managing mid-20th century buildings of architectural significance – its other blue-chip assets include New York’s Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Centre – and the choice of a practice of DSDHA’s talents suggests an understanding of the cultural value of its new acquisition.
And yet the list of changes proposed in the current submission extends well beyond that of a mere conservation and technical upgrade project.
Among the most significant are the introduction of a dramatic spiral stair and circular skylights within the surface of the plaza, serving a new gallery created below. Meanwhile, the lobby of the residential tower is to be expanded to accommodate a coffee shop, with trees in planters introduced alongside. And the stair that SOM installed on Duke Street is to be replaced with another, even larger one in further contradiction of the Smithsons’ conception of this as the yard’s secondary entrance.
For the Smithsons, the yard was a quiet territory … closer in conception to an Oxbridge quad than to a European public square
Indeed, underpinning all this, one senses a fundamental misreading of the original design. For the Smithsons, the yard was a quiet territory, which served as a threshold between the city and the towers. It was closer in conception to an Oxbridge quad than to a European public square. The current proposal seems predicated on a belief that the yard’s relative emptiness represents a failing.
The project is therefore directed towards luring in passers-by and giving them new reasons to stay. In place of the two hierarchically determined entrances to the yard that the Smithsons designed, we are therefore offered three routes in, all of a comparable expansiveness.
And what the visitor finds when they get there will be less of the stern, mineral space – or ‘charged void’ as the Smithsons described it – and something a good deal visually and programmatically busier. Peter Smithson once bemoaned the English incapacity for imagining public space without the presence of trees, and the current proposal confirms that suspicion.
DSDHA’s project has a compelling logic, but it is one that operates in direct opposition to the Smithsons’ intentions. In dealing with a building that is both Grade II*-listed and commercially viable, those intentions deserve more respect than they have been given.