October 2011

Air Street, W1

 Much of Dixon Jones’ work has been touched by history, working on projects such as London’s National Portrait Gallery and Royal Opera House. Beyond this, having qualified in the 1960s, they were familiar with debates about Modernism’s ahistorical tenets3 and its critique of traditional urbanism, involving commentators and colleagues such as Colin Rowe, Alan Colquhoun and Robert Maxwell. Some of Dixon Jones’ output could be regarded as Postmodern, although it might be more correct to say that they were practising at a time when Postmodernism acted as a necessary gadfly, as a challenge to Modernism’s orthodoxies. In their more recent work, which has an almost Minimalist quality they could be seen as Modernism’s Prodigal Son, although their interest in history and pre-Modern urban design and planning has endured.

Quadrant 3 reflects this balance between, on the one hand, Modernism as a constructive response to modern life and technology as well as a formal idiom and, on the other, sensitivity to historic context. ‘Walking around the old building with English Heritage and the Crown Estate, we agreed that the most handsome bits were the corners and that one could afford to take out the bits in-between,’ says Dixon. ‘If the new parts are bracketed by the old, their scale never becomes evident.’ So the new central portions of the facades, where the mechanical perfection of 4.5-metre wide sheets of glass contrasts with motley faience cladding, identify the open plan office zones.

The main floorplates have serviceable 3.8-metre floor-to-floor heights, but the floors in the three retained corner elements, where there are flats, office suites and more open plan space, are at their original levels. Platform lifts will negotiate these resulting steps, flouting the customary spec office developers’ dictate that all floorplates must be level. ‘Anything that livens up the office floorplate is a good thing,’ says Dixon, mischievously. ‘All these non-standard things they resist, but gradually they’ve come to view them as advantages: nice places to have little restaurants or sitting places. If there was nothing to disturb the basic brief, everything would be the same.’

Enlightened, forward-thinking client or not, the Crown Estate remains a commercial organisation. Quadrant 3 was completed four months ahead of schedule and most of its flagship retail space is now let or under offer. The plan to create three self-contained 18-metre span office zones on each floor, all served by the atrium bridges, is simple but highly effective. Quadrant 3 is also environmentally intelligent and has a BREEAM Excellent rating, with power-saving technology and an energy centre that will also serve adjacent developments. Its CHP units include the largest and most efficient fuel cell in Europe, reducing CO2 output by 40 per cent. This was a selling point for anchor tenant Generation Investment Management, co-founded by environmental activist Al Gore.

Although Dixon Jones had no qualms about using the retained corner elements to suppress the apparent scale of the offices, they chose not to extend the typical floor levels into them. ‘We could have had ghosted windows, but I don’t like that,’ says Dixon. Expressing arbitrary relationships between new floor levels and existing windows in an ad hoc manner wasn’t Dixon Jones’ style either. They did, however, take the opportunity to play with visitors’ expectations by creating a surprise sequence from the dark, confined lift lobby in the main office entrance at the retained corner of Air Street and Glasshouse Street, to the radiant atrium at first floor level. Here, full-height glazing, white floors and inclined soffits pump up light levels.

The atrium is a beautiful, serene space, graphically animated by its pivoting fan-like bridges, colliding glass wall and roof grids, and its cyclonic polygonal overhead geometry. Although you can imagine the activities that might take place in this supremely abstract space, you can’t help wondering if, weather permitting, it would be more animated as an atrium proper, with no glass roof, a first-floor courtyard and windows on both sides of the deep floorplates. You might also wonder whether the 4.5-metre wide perimeter windows are sufficiently future-proof, although the corner pavilions would help to meet any increase in demand for more cellular offices. But in all likelihood, the architectural quality and Dixon Jones’ exemplary execution would suffer if there were an external lightwell and a conventional 1.5-metre facade module.

The jacked-up atrium frees up the ground floor for a large internal services yard and retail space that will bring the streetscape to life. With servicing taken care of by this yard, and basement accommodation and facilities that connect to adjacent Quadrants, Dixon Jones has been able to provide a deceptively simple pedestrian scheme for Glasshouse Street. As agreed with the planners, there’s also an arcade that connects it to Sherwood Street. Gated by night and too short to work as a retail arcade, it has a saw-tooth-mirrored ceiling and obscured glass wall installation. Dixon says the small office entrance that this serves is ‘vaguely Loosian’, and obliquely, but with modesty, compares the 4.5-metre wide glass facades bays to Peter Ellis’ Oriel Chambers in Liverpool. It seems likely that inspiration came from the finesse, rather than the actual form of these reference points.

Additional refinement was added by Donald Insall Associates. They specified the right mix of three subtly differing colours for the restoration of the facades’ off-white faience, and Code 7 lead for the re-clad lion head cartouches that peer down from the parapets, originally chosen as a play on J Lyons & Co’s name. Unfortunately, the restored rooftop cowls no longer function as basement vents and their louvres, once pivoting and cast iron, are now fixed and powder-coated. But there has been little skimping in the basement restaurant and bar spaces, which will have direct entrances from street level. ‘We used real gold leaf, done properly,’ says Dixon.

These Art Deco basement areas, with their painstakingly restored Anaglypta, Formica and dark Travertine, are very much a separate entity from the above-ground spaces. But Quadrant 3 is nevertheless remarkable for the way Dixon Jones has integrated its diversity into a coherent whole and challenged the brief with the calm assurance of a finely-tuned 12-cylinder engine.

The old Regent Palace Hotel was entirely clad in faience tiles, and early in the design process, we became interested in using faience for a contemporary elevation. The fact that the original manufacturer, Shaws of Darwen, was still in existence spurred this idea on.

Later, we visited the factory in a remote part of Lancashire, where we were shown faience samples in many colours. The glaze on the clay surface gave a special depth and reflective quality to the colours. We immediately felt challenged to use the material for its colour potential.

Until this time, which was quite well into the contract, we had permission for an off-white that matched the original hotel. A quick review with the planners and English Heritage established that it would be possible to identify the three elevations with three different colours.

The new faience tiles are attached to large precast concrete cladding. Decomo, the precasting subcontractor, developed sophisticated moulds that took into account the imperfections associated with a fired clay material. Jeremy Dixon, director, Dixon Jones


CreditsStart on site September 2008
Completion October 2011
Gross internal floor area 37,398m2
Type of procurement Construction management
Total cost Not disclosed
Client The Crown Estate and Stanhope
Lead architect Dixon Jones
Historic fabric architect Donald Insall Associates
Residential fit-out architect Johnson Naylor
Structural engineer Waterman Structures
M&E and acoustics consultant AECOM
Lighting consultant Barrie Wilde
Fire consultant Exova (formerly Warrington Fire)
Facade consultant Arup Facade
Facade cleaning Reef Associates
Crown estate’s QS Cyril Sweett
Stanhope’s QS Davis Langdon
Development manager Stanhope
Construction manager Sir Robert McAlpine
Cdm coordinator PFB Construction Management
Approved building inspector Butler & Young
Estimated annual C02 emissions 32.77kg/m2
On-site energy generation of low/zero energy 18% of site demand
Estimated annual mains water consumption 4-5m3/occupant
Airtightness at 50pa (bisrae air test) 5.7m3/hr/m2

Estimated heating and hot water load 30kWh/m2/yr