This Project is taken from our CHANGE (printed edition)
Standing proudly in central London since the 1930s, the building formerly known as Commonwealth House is a textbook example of the often unforeseeable challenges posed by refurbishing and re-imagining historic structures.
The sharp, geometric shape of the building— invoking New York’s prized Flatiron in both look and street positioning— was first designed by architect and planner Henry Philip Cart de Lafontaine. A highly respected practitioner of the interwar era, his original vision for No.1 New Oxford Street was innovative and brave. But while much of that was finished, it fell on London-based practice Orms to fully bring this into reality, some eight decades on, securing RIBA’s London Award and the Best New Workplace Award in the process.
Wear and tear and rapidly changing office requirements had rendered the site no longer fit for purpose, and in need of an update. Initial necessities included work on flooring, which had begun to come free, and a fresh reception area suited to what tenants would look for in a 21st Century commercial space. Invited to pitch by lettings specialist Blue Book, after starting to assess the brief, Orms soon unearthed major deficiencies within the fabric of the address.
“We very quickly saw that more floors were about to come free, which then triggered the idea to look at the feasibility of lightly refurbishing or redeveloping,” explains John McRae, Director of Orms. “So we undertook a feasibility study to look at all options of how to redevelop the site. The building is designated as a positive contributor to the conservation area.”
While positive contributor status does not afford the same protection as being listed, it does mean that demolition and wholesale redevelopment is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to gain permission for. As such it was clear from the beginning of the project that this would be a case of complementing and celebrating de La Fontaine’s concept, rather than creating something completely new on the same site.
Problems arose when it became clear that, despite the obvious craftsmanship and design prowess that had gone into the original build, there were serious structural issues hiding beneath the surface, creating obstacles to the proposals set out by Orms after they won the contract.
“We had a number of the original drawings from back in the 1930s, so had quite a lot of information about how it was built, the structural loads of the building,” McRae continues. “We also had photographs of it being constructed in the 30s. So we thought we had a good understanding of the building. But as always it’s only when you start unpicking what’s there that you get a clear picture of reality.
“The concrete was no way meeting the loads it was supposedly designed for. So there was reinforcement missing, or it hadn’t been well compacted. That was only found by taking samples and core drilling through the original structure and having that analysed.
“What that meant is we had to stiffen the original structure more than we were anticipating. The other thing we found was certain down-stands and beams were not actually in the locations we expected them to be. So we ended up having to redesign the toilets and cores whilst it was under construction, which is always a challenge.”
La Fontaine’s original plans had also included bespoke green tiles on the exterior of the building, which had never come to fruition. It’s not clear on the exact reason why, although McRae says it could be a mixture of problems. The Advisory Committee was, at that time, run by Giles Gilbert Scott, who described the specialist materials as ‘innovative’, but was notoriously disinterested in bold colour palettes.
Meanwhile, the process of glazing either terracotta or faience would have been incredibly challenging given the technologies available at that time. It’s likely a combination of both issues eventually led to the decision to abandon this striking aesthetic touch.
“We discussed it with the planners, and they said it could work if we could replicate the pattern— there were a number of hexagon patterns throughout all the bays. That and the subsequent shapes below are the original pattern. So we were able to put in place the original idea,” explains McRae.
“We looked at using faience for those green glazed tiles. But we actually moved away from that in favour of a product called Pyrolave, which is made from volcanic stone and extracted from a lake in southern France. It’s extracted in block form, then cut into thin slabs and laser-cut into tiles. Then they glaze this by hand, with two or three artisans working on them, and then it’s fired in a kiln.”
The result is No. 1 New Oxford Street, and something truly unique within an urban environment dominated by statement buildings. Floors have been expanded, with a new ninth level topping the address, major undertakings that offer an additional 10,000 square feet of space without contravening limitations imposed by the positive contributor status.
There are tangible references to both art deco— strong geometry inside and out, the use of soft cove lighting internally— and art moderne’s bold horizontal lines. And nods to the past don’t end there, either. Finally realising La Fontaine’s dreams by using specialist materials elevates this well beyond a standard redesign. It has given a new lease of life to an icon by paying homage to its original creator. A refurbishment based on respect, rather than simply writing off what once was.