February 1, 2010
An Act of Defiance
Amanda Levete Architects makes a big impact in a tight setting.
When Clarendon Properties approached Amanda Levete Architects about transforming an existing commercial space off of London’s shopping mecca, Oxford Street, the firm turned down the project. The brief was simple enough: the developers wanted to unify and extend two adjacent buildings in order to create the kind of office that might appeal to a high-end media company. The problem was the alley location. Ho-Yin Ng, of ALA, says it was hard for his team to get inspired by what “appeared to be an uninviting dead end.” But the client’s ambition to create something exceptional won them over. “They were open to new ideas and had the confidence to go beyond the typical square office building,” says Ng, the project architect.
Linking the existing buildings proved especially challenging, as they were of different eras and scales. The three-story brick building on Hills Place was constructed in 1984, and its 1920s neighbor on Oxford Street is six stories. ALA built up the squat brick structure until it was level with the Oxford Street building, and covered it with a shimmering facade that defies the narrow setting with glazed openings angled skyward to let in copious daylight. “We wanted to create a billowing, distorted surface that would capture the glances of passersby on Oxford Street,” Ng says. Lucio Fontana, an Italian-Argentine artist, inspired the treatment. “We looked at how Fontana would slash the canvas to create a deformed, three-dimensional surface from something that was initially flat,” Ng says. But it took state-of-the-art boat-building technology to realize the protruding design.
Ng and his team researched materials such as stucco, rubber, and polyurethane. “Only aluminum met our requirements in terms of maintenance and longevity,” he says. In need of a way to shape the metal, they came across a technique for making watertight boat hulls with pre-tensioned planks. ALA enlisted the Austrian shipbuilder Pinical and the facade specialists Frener & Reifer to help create extruded aluminum bands that could be connected on-site using a tongue-and-groove system. The final touch was a silver high-performance paint—usually used on super yachts—that provided a kaleidoscope of optical effects even on the dullest London day.
The facade, the first of its kind in the U.K., does more than capture the passing glance—it commands attention. “The fracturing nature of the individual aluminum planks gives it a much richer appearance,” Ng says, “especially when a red London bus passes and is reflected onto the facade.” In addition to garnering three awards, the project has been a business win for Clarendon. “There has been a lot of interest in renting the building even before it has been marketed,” Ng says. “It is a real gem,” adds Tony Leonard, the co-owner of Clarendon Properties, “a project that we are very proud to have developed.”