Christine Murray hears how Helical and AHMM transformed an unloved and badly managed British Telecom office complex on Old Street Roundabout into a place
“We felt that we could work with the existing architecture. The huge challenge was bringing life into the rear of the estate,” says Tom Anderson, senior investment executive of developer Helical.
We are standing high above Old Street Roundabout in London’s Shoreditch in one of two former British Telecom buildings that have been extended and refurbished to become The Bower.
This classic 1960s Modernist campus has seen its former rear carpark transformed into a mews-like street. Across the complex, there are five restaurants, two coffee bars, a hotel, a gym and new public spaces.
The nature of the businesses based here – Farfetch and WeWork, among others – reinforces the decision to combine business with leisure to create a place, rather than office space.
The Old Street neighbourhood has the most expensive creative and tech office market per square foot in the world. Less recognised perhaps is that this is still one of the most deprived areas in the country.
Behind the Bower is a housing estate with a public space that looks in need of care. The tech industry has created jobs and attracted talent from around the world to this neighbourhood. Less clear is how much this boom has been effectively channelled to benefit the local community.
In an interview for The Developer Podcast, Anderson says: “This was a fantastic opportunity to buy an unloved and badly managed property,” of their decision to purchase the land.
“[It was] just about as uninviting as possible”
Philip Turner, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
“We saw, because of the cost of living, that the younger population was living east. And there was a big PR push towards investment in this area with tech and creative industries being based here.”
But the original complex was, says Philip Turner, associate director at architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, “just about as uninviting as possible”.
“[It was] a pretty miserable building with a lake of car parking at the back,” Turner adds. And it fronts onto one of the busiest and polluted junctions in London, which has a history of serious accidents involving cyclists.
But demolition, Turner says, would have been “a complete waste of time, energy, money and carbon”. Instead, the architects worked with the existing buildings and created a public space out of its loading bay and parking lots.
For Helical, refurbishment was appealing as a cheaper and, in theory, faster way to revive the buildings.
The warehouse was an easy conversion, with its generous floor-to-ceiling height and character. The 1960s tower, however, had a row of columns down the middle of the floorplate, typical of cubicle-style offices.
All of the office buildings that front the roundabout have tucked their public space away from the noise and pollution
To give the tower better light and increase floor space, the architects added a side extension, 17 storeys high, to the whole building, creating a double-height space on every floor of the office block.
This extra space can be used, with the addition of a staircase, to connect multiple floors – as Farfetch has done across its three floors of offices at the top of the tower. The added floor space increases the value of the building and makes it feel contemporary.
Turner points out that all of the office buildings that front the roundabout, including the recent Derwent’s White Collar Factory across the road (also by AHMM) have tucked their public space away from the noise and pollution of the street. It is one of the things that adds to the inhospitable feel of this roundabout. The Bower is no exception.
But considerable change is afoot with a major redevelopment by Transport for London, now under construction, to make a peninsula out of the traffic island. The other sides of the roundabout will get busier, while outside The Bower there will be a new public space and tube entrance pavilion.
From this public space, you will be able to see through the cut-through made in The Bower tower building ground floor, which creates a grand passage to their backstreet and a cut-through away from the noise to the surrounding neighbourhood.
Considerable change is afoot with the traffic island set to become a peninsula following a major redevelopment by Transport for London, now under construction
But with this approach, the architects faced another challenge – a significant level change. The decision was to insert a deck, a staircase and a 24-hour open-access public lift. It is not ideal, Turner admits, but the best solution to bring people down to the level of the surrounding streets.
At the back of the site, the newly created mews of The Bower meets an east London street complete with Victorian pub, visible at the end of the lane. It is at this point that The Bower is most successful, where an alien 1960s complex joins the mishmash of Shoreditch, gains an appealing back door, and feels like London again.
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