Can Blobs and Pods have morals?

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words Kieran Long

If we are now in a situation where anarchy rules in form-making - if you can design it, you can make it - surely choosing to make a pod must signify something qualitatively different to acres of glass and soaring atriums?

Will Alsop has made a great play of distinguishing his work from that of the hi-tech old men of British architecture; the 56-year-old allying himself with "the young", according to the most recent volume of his monograph. He is also against the austere world of David Chipperfield, who he considers to be "behind the best of the Europeans". So, what is Alsop's reaction when he goes corporate? Well, atriums and blobs, it seems.

One of Alsop's great strengths is his high-profile recognition as someone offering an alternative hegemony to the likes of Rogers and Foster. However, Victoria House, with its terribly polite pods, is perhaps proof that blobs are now merely part of the architect's design armoury; rent-a-quote architect's most marketable quotation. It's different to the way Foster would do it, but it doesn't feel much like it, and it certainly is no surprise to find that government bodies (Sport England and the Competitions Commission will take space here) will be among the tenants.

Victoria House is a stunning building. It was built in the 1930s by CW Long for the Liverpool & Victoria Friendly Society, the insurance company responsible for commissioning the Liver Building in Liverpool, and it forms the complete east side of Bloomsbury Square, near the British Museum in Central London. It is one of the few buildings in the city that can be seen from all four elevations, and which forms an entire block on its own. Long was a student of Daniel Burnham, designer of Selfridges on Oxford Street, and the building is a curious mix of substantial neo-classical façades and art deco details. The interior retains many stupendous art deco features, such as the crystalline ballroom in the basement, which has been retained and will be turned into a restaurant.

Alsop Architects' first involvement with the building was in 1998, when it was one of the competing prospective venues for the Greater London Assembly. The original project was also largely a commercial building, with the top four floors retained as commercial space, and the rest of the building hollowed out to accommodate gigantic pods.

The brief that Alsop set for itself on the GLA project was almost impossible - to create an open and transparent public building out of a monolithic and heavily listed commercial building. Alsop tried pretty successfully to bring natural light and fresh air into the heart of this huge building, and blur the boundaries between the public space of the square and the public space of the building. However, the design, which included a glazed arcade on the Bloomsbury Square façade with a huge pod on stilts underneath it, was slated by then EH chief Jocelyn Stevens, and looked doomed. However, when German developer Garbe bought the building, they retained Alsop, who had previously worked for the firm on buildings in Hamburg, Germany. The programme then changed radically. First, the building was to be a largely commercial retail space for Garbe's Stilwerk home furnishings store, and then the brief was changed again to make the project consist entirely of commercial office space, with retail at street level.

The GLA pods remain in the final project, somewhat like withered internal organs, without the heartbeat of the bombastic, faceted pods of the original GLA scheme. With its smaller scope, all the floorspace existing in the building had to be retained. The design removed the walls from two existing glazed brick lightwells, and replaced them with glass walls, cantilevering the middle floors outwards to create more lettable area and thus creating the distinctive concave hourglass section. This extra space means that the floor area is now 20,000sq m, with new lifts installed in the lightwells.

The projected uses of pods also raises one's suspicions. What are they for? At Victoria House they were conceived as meeting rooms that might operate independently of the tenants on the various office floors. In reality they are likely to be that most indistinct of uses - "break-out space" - or even used as the receptions to the individual floors. As spaces they feel a little mean, merely dry-lined inside and with few windows. They are cute when you look up at them from the ground floor, but not much fun when you are stood in one. The pods were made by a boatbuilder in Southampton, and brought to site in prefabricated sections. It is a favourite anecdote of those involved with the project that the pieces still had port and starboard written on them when they arrived. Perhaps if they retained something of the strangeness of a boat hung in a lightwell, they would be compelling objects. The legs have a pleasing zoomorphic quality, but the matt render finish means the pods feel like a clever piece of interior design in the end.

A low-key addition to the roof is made of ETFE pillows, as used on the Eden Project, kept up by a steel structure, and by an air cushion created by fans in the atriums. Motorised louvres regulate the air flow. These atrium roofs also contain the plant rooms, creating a coherent extra storey.

Will Alsop's burgeoning reputation as the bad boy of British architecture is belied by the ever-increasing workload that the practice is undertaking. Most high-profile of these are the many and various regeneration masterplans on the drawing board - from Barnsley to Walsall, Alsop-style planning is due to hit the UK some time this decade. These slow-burning projects mean that a project like Victoria House is very much bread and butter for the practice. And it is perhaps because of this that there are many unsatisfying moments in the scheme. The ground floor has neatly been made to comply with disability-access regulations, apart from the "floating" etched glass floor that overlays the original floor in the main entrance hall. This is a meaninglessly corporate material response to an expressive and ornate historical structure that supports the nagging suspicion that no one on the design team was that interested in the merits of the existing building. Due respect has been paid to it, but the new interventions have little or nothing to do with the history of the structure.

There is no question that Alsop will lose little sleep over what people think of Victoria House. But it is interesting that in the end, the irreverent king of blobs comes out looking just as polite as those many architects he claims to abhor. These pods are certainly not immoral, but they are as neutral as Greg Lynn's acronym "binary large object". Alsop's claims that his work can liberate "frigid England" seem overblown on this evidence.

architect Alsop Architects
developer Garbe UK
structural engineer Anthony Hunt Associates
services engineer Max Fordham LLP
planning supervisor Hanscomb
cost consultants Hother Associates

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