Benson Forsyth’s Nottingham Pod demonstrates a sense of the city
Benson & Forsyth has produced a hotel and retail development in central Nottingham shaped in response to its city setting, reports Ellis Woodman
I don’t know which branding consultant came up with the name for Benson & Forsyth’s new building in Nottingham, but frankly they need their eyes testing. This £13 million development, comprising three storeys of retail, topped by a four-storey hotel, has been lumbered with the name The Pod.
That tired billing conjures an Alsopian image of volumetric autonomy and contextual disregard, of an architecture reduced to the status of product design. And yet the building is something quite other. Benson & Forsyth has always attached greater value to the urban responsiveness of its work than to its formal unity, and the practice’s new building is perhaps the most calculatedly fragmented it has realised to date.
Climbing steeply away from the railway station and passing the construction site of Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary Art Centre along the way, Fletcher Gate is one of the main approaches to the city centre.
Benson & Forsyth’s building stands at the top, where it also presents a significant elevation to the much narrower Bottle Lane. Nottingham’s main civic and retail buildings lie a five-minute walk to the west, ranged around the Old Market Square, which was remodelled last year by Gustafson Porter. However, the streets off Fletcher Gate, which once supported the city’s lace market, have been heavily gentrified in recent years, and a number of high-end fashion shops have followed. It is thought that the building’s new retail units will be let to tenants from that sector.
The laudable principle of having the building support a mix of uses was advocated by the planners, but is not one that most developers would pursue if left to their own devices. As well as presenting the considerable difficulty of lacing circulation and services through separate tenures, the intimate relationship of the hotel and shops restricts the freedom with which the site can be redeveloped in future. The brief also presents a significant architectural challenge. Neither use represents a particularly promising ingredient from which to make an architecture of urban consequence. Minimally articulated glazing is all but a prerequisite for speculative retail development, while the repetitive nature of hotel plans tends to generate elevations of a grimly repetitive grain. Put one on top of the other and there follows the problem of how to tease a formal sense out of an inescapably top-heavy composition.
The architect has dramatised the disjunction through changes of material and geometry
Benson & Forsyth’s response to these problems has developed from the firm’s decision to embrace the disjunction between the building’s two parts, dramatising their difference with changes of material and geometry. On the retail storeys, the frontage is fully glazed and closely follows the medieval site boundary. Above, the facades revert to windows set within white rendered walls, and the plan is strictly orthogonal.
The shift is clearly stated on the principal frontage. At low level, the two-storey glass curtain wall approximates the height of the adjacent 19th century buildings, and flexes along its length in response to the street line. The reflections on the glass lend this small adjustment considerable visual weight, so that the facade begins to assume something of the scale of its significantly less expansive neighbours. That connection is further enforced by the detailing of the glazing. The vertical framing members are accentuated by pressed aluminium fins. Read tangentially down the length of Fletcher Gate, these offer a palpable echo of the closely spaced openings of the neighbouring facades. In fact, the block immediately next door to the new structure has been incorporated into the development. It provides the hotel with its entrance on the ground floor, management suites on the first, and bedrooms on the second. All sash windows have been replaced with fixed glazing and opening vents, which further serve to mediate the new and old fabrics.
A new core at the back of this building rises to the four storeys of bedrooms above. These adopt an L-shaped configuration which defines a large south-facing roof terrace occupied by trees. In turn, the outward-facing elevations of the L address secondary terraces, thereby reconciling the upper geometry to the footprint below. The one on Fletcher Gate incorporates a family of freely disposed, quasi-figurative skylights. Their principal role, one suspects, is to populate a space that won’t be much used rather than to offer light to the storeys below.
The hotel room windows are modestly scaled but tied together by intermediary panels in aluminium, powdercoated to the same battleship grey as the window frames. The resulting strips read graphically against the white render, enabling the building to register from a distance. Indeed, through its height and elevated position, the building enjoys a significant presence on the skyline and conversely, a splendid panorama of the city. The main roof terrace looks out to Nottingham’s art gallery, sat imperiously on the top of Castle Rock half a mile to the south-east. The view is also populated by church spires and the dome of the Council House. Once the planting around the edge of the terrace has matured, these public monuments should be all that is visible. The roof terrace of Benson & Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland places visitors in a similar relationship to the city, but the conceit is clearly Corbusian in origin. The governor’s palace at Chandigarh (1950) and the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles (1945) offer the most obvious points of comparison, but the image of the Eiffel tower poking above the walls of the diminutive Beistegui apartment roof garden (1930) is perhaps the wellspring of the idea.
On Bottle Lane, the distinction between the building’s upper and lower parts is less clear cut. At the junction with Fletcher Gate, the language of the upper block is carried down to street level, creating a flamboyantly articulated corner condition.
The bouillabaisse of formal ideas on offer will prove a little rich for some tastes
This feature makes extravagant use of one of the building’s recurring motifs — a rendered panel projected forward of the elevation and perforated freely. On the upper storeys, these mask-like elements alleviate the tedium of the regimented windows. On the junction with Bottle Lane, we find two of them, one above the other. They form a dynamic composition with a third element, the hotel’s bar and restaurant which cantilevers out above the Fletcher Gate terrace, presenting an elevation of a similar scale to the two “masks”. At street level, the junction is also the site of one of the entrances to the retail units, which is celebrated by a recessed porch. The true building line folds back to form a double-height re-entrant corner, but at first floor level the glazed frontage on Fletcher Gate and the rendered panel on Bottle Lane cantilever towards each other, offering the space a sense of enclosure.
As we head down Bottle Lane, we find the elevation reverts to full-height glazing, but here the grid-like arrangement of the Fletcher Gate facade has been exchanged for a treatment of a finer scale and more horizontal emphasis. The glazing is supported off channel sections spaced at intervals of two metres, and by vertical members randomly distributed along their length. Again, these are articulated by aluminium fins which condense into a tightly packed field as one walks down the narrow street. As on the front elevation, these are largely painted grey, but a number are in red, orange, yellow, blue and white. The same colours make incidental appearances at high level, instituting a subtle connection between the two visual languages.
The strata-like composition of the Bottle Lane facade also serves to dramatise the street’s steep gradient. At its lowest point, we find the entrance to what is effectively the basement level of the retail space. Benson & Forsyth had hoped that a single Habitat-like tenant would take on all three of the retail levels, but it looks increasingly certain that the space will be divided into separate units. The hotel has already been let to Ibis, which has fitted it out without Benson & Forsyth’s involvement. The generic and poorly detailed foyer makes all too clear what a wasted opportunity this was.
Following its work on the Museum of Scotland and the National Gallery of Ireland, the architect has here had to adapt its imagination to more frugal circumstances. It is a constraint that suits it rather well. The relentless torrent of formal elaboration that characterises its public buildings is here replaced by a more measured balance of the general and the circumstantial conditions.
Doubtless, the bouillabaisse of formal ideas on offer will still prove a little rich for some tastes, but the sense that the building has been shaped in response to the world around it is palpable and engaging. Indeed, in the context of current commercial development in this country, it is pretty extraordinary.
Client Bildurn Properties, Architect Benson & Forsyth, Structural engineer BWB, Contractor Laing O’Rourke, Cost consultant Gleeds
Pictures by Hélène Binet