Copyright Building, London, by Piercy & Company BD Article 31st May 2018 by Ike Ijeh

Piercy & Company continues to explore the idea of the London office as a civic building, with active streetfronts, richly detailed interiors and nods to Fitzrovia’s artisanal past

Source: Jack Hobhouse
The double-height reception and waffle-slab soffit create the sense of a covered public square

Three years ago Piercy & Company made a big splash in the architectural world with its Turnmill scheme in London’s Clerkenwell. Built for developer Derwent London on the former site of an eponymous nightclub, the elegant six-storey corner office block helped to redefine the scope and standards of contemporary office design. The textural solidity of its warm Danish brickwork coupled with a nuanced contextual sensitivity that deftly reinterpreted the local historic warehouse aesthetic within an assured contemporary idiom won a host of plaudits, from a Civic Trust Award to mid-list recognition from the RIBA Stirling Prize.

Three years later the same client and architect team are back with a follow-up office block, this time located three miles west of Clerkenwell in Fitzrovia. The Copyright Building is set to fully complete in just a few weeks and has already helped Piercy & Company win the office category at this year’s BD Architect of the Year Awards. But how much further does it extend the office typology first investigated at Turnmill and does it meet the core design ambition that seeks to express “the office as a civic building”?

Context
The Copyright Building is located on Berners Street just north of Oxford Street. It lies at the southern tip of Fitzrovia, one of the few parts of London where the capital’s street layout briefly resembles a rational urban grid. Mercifully, Fitzrovia has emerged largely unscathed from its preposterous Noho rebranding bid a few years ago, but one of the episode’s principal legacies has been a marked increase in office development in the neighbourhood. Just north of the Copyright Building lies the area’s biggest mixed-use scheme, the Fitzroy Place redevelopment of the former Middlesex Hospital by Sheppard Robson and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands.

 

While Berners Street itself is now largely lined with offices and two landmark hotels, in centuries past it was synonymous with various artisan trades including fabric printing, cabinetry and instrument making. Even the name Copyright Building is derived from the British Music House that it replaces, where music copyrighting was first established in the 1930s. This craftsmanship heritage formed a key precedent for the design of the new block.

Source: Jack Hobhouse
The travertine-clad Berners Street facade

The Copyright Building replaces three early to mid-20th century buildings on the same site. The aforementioned British Music House was in a handsome neo-Georgian pile from 1936 and it sat beside a pair of unassuming but largely uninspiring modernist 1950s office blocks, one of which was designed by Richard Seifert with an uncharacteristically flamboyant rooftop canopy.
All three blocks did what until relatively recently most urban office blocks did – they presented a largely blank and inactive frontage to the street. This is a signature corporate condition that the new building actively seeks to reverse.

 

 

Source: Jack Hobhouse
The stone detailing is of an exceptional quality
Facade
The scheme presents a six-storey travertine-clad facade to the street topped by a two-storey glass and aluminium double attic set at a skewered angle to the main block below. A full-height curtain wall recess forms the entrance which is placed just slightly off the centre of the facade. A grid of punched windows is set into the facade on either side of the entrance with each window lined with timber and set beside a wide infill panel of sliced timber fins.

Stuart Piercy talks of being heavily influenced by the work of Louis Kahn on this elevation, citing the “deep recesses and generous timber lined bays” of Kahn’s seminal Exeter Library as direct inspirations for what the architecture tries to do here. Piercy also speaks of deploying these features to “leave behind the repetition of the typical office facade grid”.

With its natural sedimentary veining, the travertine was also selected in order to “express the history of pattern making” that is part of Berners Street’s creative heritage.

The use of travertine undoubtedly makes for a highly polished and refined facade and it offers a vibrant and exotic contribution to a London streetscape normally shrouded in greys and browns. The stone’s detailing is also of exceptional quality, with carefully mitred corners underling Piercy’s commitment to making the building appear as if it was “carved out of one single, monolithic piece of stone”.

Source: Jack Hobhouse
The double-height reception combines a pallete of exposed concrete, travertine and timber

While the window recesses could be slightly deeper and are certainly shallower than the reveals in Kahn’s stated precedents, they do make for a pleasingly three-dimensional facade and are a welcome rebuttal of the anaemic flatness that is such a common office block feature.

Such refinements ensure this is no “typical” office grid. Yet it is a grid all the same. It is one also crowned by a double attic storey that looks as if it has been confiscated from a completely different building. This of course is a deliberate architectural act and one designed to reflect “Fitzrovia’s mixed townscape” and celebrate the fact that this is essentially “one structure on top of another through different materials, a folding envelope and a significant set-back”. In fairness, the latter condition effectively makes it invisible from street level.

 

But one still wishes the attic had something to say to the block below in order to create a more unified composition. Without doing so it runs the risk of resembling the flotilla of anomalous toupees lazily flung onto the tops of offices and residential blocks across London in order to hoodwink gullible planners into thinking the building is shorter than it actually is.

Also, the monolithic Kahn-esque solidity the architecture seeks to evoke is weakened by the attic’s ratio of glass to stone being weighted so heavily in favour of glass. This is a typical dilemma of all modern urban office blocks that – rightly – seek to avoid the typical glass corporate box of previous decades. How do you balance the very practical needs of internal natural daylight in office blocks while also delivering a townscape-prioritised facade that is something more than a glass box with tokenistic masonry dressings?

Another London office building conceived on a far bigger scale, Foster’s Bloomberg in the City, does battle with this question, yet for all the tonnage of bronze and limestone it is encased within, never quite escapes the suspicion of being a glass building masquerading in quarried fancy dress. The Copyright Building represents a more convincing attempt but still offers a less assured envelope than Turnmill.

Ultimately it is a question of proportion. Turnmill’s vertical elevational proportions, while probably applied to a similar glass/masonry ratio as Copyright, evoke the solidity and firmness that Copryright’s horizontal rhythms never quite match.

Where Copyright exceeds Turnmill is in the animation of its ground floor. Piercy speaks of the offices effectively being “raised up to first-floor level in order to free the ground floor for A1 planning uses”. Accordingly there are shops, a basement gym, a gallery and a cafe with double-aspect spaces allowing liberating views right through to the other side of the building. The entrance and office foyer beyond it mark the only points where the offices intrude onto the public realm.

This arrangement goes to the heart of Piercy’s ambition to make this a civic rather than an office building, and while such mixture of uses is more common on commercial buildings than it would have been a decade ago, the Copyright undeniably makes a positive contribution to the public life of its surroundings. In so doing, both client and architect are to be commended for setting a bar of vibrancy and accessibility that all office buildings in urban areas should aspire to.

Source: Jack Hobhouse
The rear facade respects the more domestic character of a London mews

Interior
The office lobby itself is the building’s masterstroke. A double-height room of serenely elegant proportions is faced with timber and exposed concrete surfaces and engraved on each side with deeply recessed timber shafts. These have leather seats incorporated at their base and clerestory windows high above. A spectacular waffle slab ceiling crowns the space, its ribs expertly aligned to clerestory mullions. Travertine also discreetly snakes inside part of the internal wall and conspires with the ceiling to give this room the sense of a covered public square, a subtle internalised expression of the civic presence of the exterior.
Additionally, the careful pairing of materials here – leather against timber, concrete against stone – speaks of Berners Street’s craftsmanship heritage. All in all, with its rich materiality, fine coffered ceiling and strong vertical proportions this space pulls off the improbable feat of feeling more like an intimate room than a corporate foyer. Upon venturing inside, you almost feel as if you are are breaching the boundary of a noble Greek cella or contemporary country house rather than a central London office block.

While the office floors themselves are the anonymous, malleable spaces that corporate tenants commonly demand, the architecture does a good job of reminding the visitor of the overall themes and narrative of the building as established on the foyer and facade. Consequently, exposed concrete columns puncture the spaces and the windows are separated by plush timber panels which also form their inner reveals. Even the detailing in the toilets reveals the same precise, geometric separation between materials – in this case timber and plasterwork – that is the graceful theme of the building’s interiors.

Source: Jack Hobhouse
Study models show the different approaches of the front and rear facades

Rear facade
And yet this building has one more surprise, and for it we must return outside. Its rear facade backs onto Berners Mews and here the materiality completely shifts. Gone is the plush West End travertine and instead we have luscious pale brickwork, a joyful reappearance of the Danish bond so memorably applied at Turnmill.
And the massing has changed too. A series of setbacks sees the eight-storey block shift dramatically down to a three storey facade with recessed fourth-storey attic, on top of which a broad roof terrace ensures that the four upper storeys are virtually invisible from street level.

All this has been done to ensure that the building respects the smaller scale and domestic character of a typical London mews and it works incredibly well. In fact, with the smaller windows and the heavy, punched recessed cut into the brickwork, this facade is arguably more evocative of Kahn than Berners Street. Combining monumentality and intimacy is no mean feat but this composition achieves it with enviable conviction.
This shift in emphasis evident on the Berners Mews facade also achieves something else very important that office buildings rarely do. It reveals the building to be an urban chameleon that allows its architectural response to be determined by its surroundings rather than the other way round. The active frontage and internalised lobby-square may all speak of a building that seeks to reinvent the standard office typology within a more civic context. But in urban terms, it is the humility and porosity of this rear elevation and its willingness to engage in the rich fabric of London back streets that identifies the Copyright Building as a truly civic office block.

BD Article 31st May 2018 by Ike Ijeh