URBANISM - Expressive economy - Architecture Today

Urbanism Expressive Economy: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris at Notting Dalernrn

Addressing both the fine grain of Victorian Streets and a chasmal urban motorway, three raw ‘white collar factories’ have begun to create a new place in west London, says Mike Stiff.

Back in 1977 Frestonia presented itself as an independent state with its own stamps, currency and government. Its Foreign Secretary was actor David Rappaport, and the play-wright Heathcote Williams was ambassador to the UK. In truth Frestonia was a squat of around 100 people, closer in spirit to the hippy enclave of Christiania in Copenhagen than the Punk movement, the Clash and the Sound of the Westway.

A few years earlier Peter Simon had returned from India with a suitcase full of knitted coats and started selling them from a stall in Portobello market. By 1973 this was successful enough to finance the first Monsoon shop (http://uk.monsoon.co.uk/) in Knightsbridge, and the empire began to grow.

Is it serendipity that brought a company that was conceived on the hippy trail to a new headquarters on the border of Frestonia? Perhaps not. Peter Simon has a fascination with architecture and in 1989 he bought Munkenbeck & Marshall’s influential new office building off the Portobello Road. From there he moved to Bicknell & Hamilton’s 1968 Paddington maintenance depot on the Westway. He employed Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to rework the listed building into a very successful headquarters for the expanding Monsoon Accessorize empire, which eventually outgrew its home.

In 2005 a parcel of land came up for sale as the developer Chelsfield sold the White City shopping centre development to Westfield. Peter Simon purchased the site, which is separated from the giant mall by the West Cross Route, a peculiar stump of 1970s urban traffic planning that divides Shepherds Bush from Holland Park. This forgotten corner of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is designated a key employment zone, and planning consent had been granted for a business park-style development of small units in landscaped car parking.

Simon appointed AHMM to reassess the scheme and negotiations were entered into with the planning authority. It was clear that the monster scale of the Westfield project had altered the nature of development along this stretch of urban motorway. Ian Ritchie’s original design for the shopping centre had been dumped and a strange, green retail container began to emerge with new slip roads and bridges to accommodate the 4000 cars that would visit daily. After a review the planners recognised that the site could take taller buildings on its western boundary, stepping down to three- to four-storey residential and office buildings to the east.

Apart from some social housing built in the 1980s by Pollard Thomas Edwards, there are five significant buildings in the vicinity of the Monsoon site, now rechristened Notting Dale Village. To the south Louise Blouin employed Borgos Dance to create a gallery and ‘Institute’ out of an old coachbuilding factory. Across the road lies the People’s Hall, a fine Art Nouveau building from 1901 where, incidentally, The Clash recorded Combat Rock. To the north-east fashion photographer Mario Testino painted a mediocre 1930s industrial building black and converted it in to his studio, while record label Chrysalis occupies two buildings including the 10-storey former Phoenix brewery.

The AHMM scheme consolidated the built form on the site’s western boundary, which allowed the height and volume to be maximised. The masterplan began to explore ways to knit the area into a coherent urban place. The existing road pattern was truncated and the new master plan reconnects the streets and landmark buildings to the new complex of buildings planned by AHMM.

Three of those buildings are now finished, and planning has been granted for a hotel and a mixed-use residential and office building that will complete the masterplan. In fairness it is a little early to assess the success of the plan – it is the lower scale mixed-use buildings on the eastern boundary that will stitch the development into the neighbourhood – but the green shoots of success are already beginning to appear.

The new buildings are robust and significant additions to the landscape, providing a much needed edge to the West Cross Route and sheltering some public and semi-public spaces in the centre of the site.

The imaginatively-named Yellow Building was the first and most distinctive building in the masterplan. It is interesting that very often the best office buildings are built for an end user. The idiosyncrasies of a client that will occupy the building liberate it from the strictures of the British Council of Offices and the views of investment agents. AHMM has created a building that is as exciting to be in as the HSBC building in Hong Kong, the Ford Foundation in New York or the Lloyd’s building in the City. Circulation is the organisational tool that animates a full-height central atrium that is bisected at ground floor to create an exhibition space for the Monsoon art collection. The concrete diagrid structure is every bit as exciting as it appeared during the construction phase (as a local resident I watched the magnificent structure emerge and was somewhat disappointed when it was concealed behind the veil of curtain walling and solar shading). There is a cost premium for this structural solution, but this has been cleverly recouped in other areas. Services are exposed, there are no ceilings, the raised floor distributes the tempered ventilation and the atrium returns the air – there is no ductwork. The budget has been carefully spent; there is no frivolity or wastage.

The roofline refers to the gabled industrial spaces of old, and the cladding reminds us of the spandrel panel-clad architecture of the 1960s, which in turn hints at the industrial heritage of the building type. Indeed AHMM partner Simon Allford and David Rosen of Pilcher Hershman, who put the deal together, have been developing the notion of a ‘white collar factory’ for some time. Rosen was one of the first agents to recognise that architecture adds value. He also noticed that the best architects don’t tend to work in conventional offices, but in lightly refurbished industrial spaces. So why not create this type of space from scratch for other office users?

This idea is further explored in the next two buildings, which simplify the interior (they are speculative after all) and further rationalise the core, circulation and office space. The White Building moves the concrete frame outside the cladding, giving a distinctive verticality while providing solar shading to the east and west elevations. The building does not have the personality of its yellow neighbour, but it has been let and fitting out is underway. This will increase the number of people on site to 1500, providing the critical mass needed to kick-start the next phases of development, which include a hotel and residential buildings, and create the place that AHMM set out to make.

The third building is simpler again: this Sto-rendered, naturally ventilated, B1C space will provide affordable starter units and studios. The progression from phase to phase has been marked by a technological retreat from curtain walling to render, and finally to brick in the yet to be built fourth phase. This is interesting for two reasons: first, AHMM understands the idea of appropriateness and scale, and second, the architecture responds to context in plan, mass and material.

As an exercise in place-making this project will undoubtedly succeed: it defines a new London quarter of creative industries, cultural buildings and dwellings. It is a testament to the vision of a client who has faith in his professional team, and to a planning department which encouraged an ambitious piece of urban regeneration on a site that could so easily have been a gated business park.

Simon Allford writes

Notting Dale Village is the result but not the conclusion (there are six buildings and another new street to come) of a process that began nearly ten years ago, when David Rosen introduced us to Monsoon founder Peter Simon. The result was the refurbishment of the Grade II* listed Battleship and Tug that are anchored to the infrastructure of Little Venice, Paddington Goods Yards and the Westway / Harrow Road roundabout.

This shared history is vital to the ideas explored at Notting Dale Village. We wanted to resist the drift to business park and make a ‘place’ with a rich mix of programmes where there were no dead ends, to shift scale, and to explore what the twenty-first century office might be.

Speed was of the essence so while reinventing the masterplan we were also starting the design of the Yellow Building and public restaurant. Our new masterplan was treated by the Royal Borough as an amendment to planning and our new building as a discharge of conditions.

Our strategy involved drawing the buildings up to the West Cross Route to challenge the scale of the Westfield shopping centre. Three large volumes (two office and one office/workshop) reflect a twentieth century tradition of landmark buildings lining West London routes and capturing the public imagination, hence the strong colours and simple names employed.

This was accompanied by desire to enrich the programme and create not just a community of buildings (which adjust in scale and materials to engage with the Victorian grain) but people and uses. To this end the public restaurant is key.

A small office was located in the masterplan to engage with the People’s Hall and Louise T Blouin Institute and then converted at planning to an appropriately sculptural apartment block. Next door a car park was sunk on the basis that it would allow for an hotel (these two buildings constitute Phase 3). And change is still afoot: a new site has been purchased to strengthen the linear ‘public room’ at the development’s core and consent obtained for Phase 4 (two office buildings and a further small apartment building).

A further acquisition, Phase 5, allows for a connection from Freston Road and the possible extension of the hotel consent or further offices/workshops/gallery/retail. This flexibility is testament to the robustness of the masterplan strategy.

Inevitable uncertainty over start dates means that the next phases, as per the first two, will adjust in detailed execution and no doubt subtly in shape and form. That is fine by me: the urban jigsaw can only be enriched by conversations over time, for it takes both use and time to make a proper west London place.