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Friday25 July 2014

One New Change, London, by Jean Nouvel

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While the form of Jean Nouvel’s One New Change is designed to respect views of St Paul’s Cathedral, the mixed-use scheme has an exotic geometry that contrasts with its ’polite’ neighbours

Building next to St Paul’s is always going to be tricky. As the epicentre of London’s vain attempt to impose some kind of rationale on the beautiful mess of its development, the cathedral – particularly its dome – has become the arbitrary datum from which everything must be judged. Not only is it the fulcrum of a lopsided starburst of viewing corridors, which radiate out to the suburbs from its sacred centre, but it sets the height beneath which all its neighbours must kowtow to preserve its premier position on the skyline. It is the symbolic kernel around which the whole city is deferentially choreographed. Add to this the quagmire of objections and constraints to building in such a sensitive location, and it is a miracle that a project so brazenly modern as Jean Nouvel’s glistening mixed-use mountain ever made it to fruition.

But the constrained context is precisely why Nouvel’s scheme succeeded in wooing the powers that be.

The creation myth goes that the striking Frenchman turned up to the first planning meeting, smothered in his trademark black suit and broad-brimmed black hat like some exotic witch doctor, only to present the assembled worthies with an Airfix model of a Stealth bomber. Just as the form of the plane was modelled to avoid detection, so too would his building be deftly carved and folded to limbo beneath the matrix of viewing corridors and height limits to comply with – nay, celebrate – the restrictions of the site.

This performance must have tickled Peter Rees no end. The chief planner of the City proudly told BD in August that “there’s only one tool of development control that really works – and which I possess – and that is a low threshold for boredom”. Toy props and thrilling plane metaphors are clearly good ways of holding even the shortest of attention spans.

And so, true to word, the building’s envelope is a direct representation of the invisible forces that mould the site. The vast city block is conceived as a single mass, out of which the sightlines stretching from Greenwich Park and Blackheath Point have been carved, and the cathedral’s height restrictions subtracted. For the sake of long-term consistency, the height limits still operate on a system developed in the 1930s by Godfrey Allen, then surveyor to St Paul’s, who converted the sightlines into a grid of maximum building spot-heights. Going beyond simple spot-heights, the City’s supplementary planning guidance now talks of how this height grid actually represents “a complex three-dimensional surface of inclined planes and occasional ’cliffs’ where significantly different sightlines coincide”.

This was music to Nouvel’s ears: a free licence to actualise this imaginary terrain of inclined planes and jaunty facets – a wilful form made acceptable for being directly “generated” by the rules. Just as the paintings of Hugh Ferriss predicted how New York’s setback policies would lead to the soaring, stepped skyline of Thirties Manhattan, so too would Nouvel’s angular form be a physical hymn to London’s own attempt at a spatial code.

The polished panels, mirrored columns, and recessed red lighting give the impression of a gaudy strip club

But while Ferriss illustrated a four-stage process, from maximum envelope, through facade modulation, to refinement of the elevation, Nouvel has chosen to express the resultant volume in all its lumpen glory – and dressed the form in the triangulated, faceted skin of a low-resolution computer model, just in case you didn’t get the joke.

So how does an exercise in height limits and viewing corridors translate into a building?

The eight-storey hulk sits as an ungainly, uncompromising mass to the direct east of St Paul’s, its northern elevation presenting a blank cliff face to Cheapside, progressively modulated as it wraps around the western face, where a dramatic crevasse cuts deep into the block in a lumbering nod to its neighbour. The southern elevation steps back in response to a further 1930s setback rule along Watling Street, a successful move as it simply makes less of the building visible from street level, and opens up views of the hallowed dome. A steep avalanche of glazing tumbles down from the false summit to form an awning above another gaping entrance chasm, across which Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay battle for attention as the gourmet gatekeepers of this retail fortress. The eastern elevation is a more sober affair, canted out over Bread Street, looming above the less glamorous world of the service entrance and a dry-cleaner’s. From the right angle, the building’s shape-shifting form is stirring; from others, its clunking facets look like a SketchUp model gone wrong.

The first two levels of retail are capped with a frieze of ventilation grilles, above which four floors of offices rise to the mountainous roofline, where nestles a stepped public terrace, providing new views of St Paul’s and the City. In a strange concession to heritage, a large circular mosaic by Boris Anrep, salvaged from the lobby of the 1960 office building that was previously on the site, is displayed on the roof, along with a series of stone, carved lions lined up in a surreal window display, staring out from behind the fritted mist.

In keeping with the Stealth bomber metaphor, the building’s 6,500 panels of seamless Gartner glazing have been partially treated with a ceramic mat finish, a graduated frit which pulsates across the facade from brown to grey, blushing a deep rouge above the Cheapside entrance, as if embarrassed by its awkward bulk.

Nouvel claims the colours were sampled from the materials of the pre-existing building on the site – the Portland stone, concrete and brick of the neo-Georgian office block – although these were clearly then filtered through his own liberal imagination. Walking around the outside, it seems the whole thing has been sprayed in a kind of retro bronzing, reminiscent of the tinted windows of 1970s office blocks.

The colour palette extends within, ramping up several notches on the RAL chart, to the polished glass-reinforced gypsum ceilings of the four arcades that cut through the plan from its cardinal points. Stretched into faceted sinews, and splitting open along their length to create a visual connection to the first floor, these dynamic ceilings are folded into futuristic go-faster stripes of deep crimson and silvery grey, sucking you towards the central nexus of shopping.

The arcades intersect at the heart of the building, where two mirror-fritted glass lifts rise the full height of the atrium, connecting the basement, ground- and first-floor of shops and restaurants, rising past the offices to the roof terrace. The atrium’s heady riot of polished panels, mirrored columns, faceted glass and recessed red lighting gives the overall impression of a gaudy strip club – no doubt all part of making the City clientele feel at home.

Despite the building’s voluminous envelope, the interior spaces feel somewhat pokey, and were groaning uncomfortably with the 12,000 visitors received in the first two hours of opening. For today’s retail addicts, used to the soaring atriums of Westfield or the majestic arcades of Dumplington’s Trafford Centre, it seems One New Change might fail to provide the same cathedral-like sense of importance to the ritual of shopping. After touring the 20,000sq m of retail space, a group of underwhelmed teenage girls remarked “Is that it?”

Nouvel’s gleaming brown hulk makes no bones about its own brash manners

Strategically, this landmark project plays a key role in the City’s attempt to revive Cheapside as a retail hub to rival the West End, returning the area to its original use – “cheap” meaning market. While Westfield performs an east-west pincer movement of “destination” shopping hubs – with its White City and Stratford megamalls attempting to sap the lifeblood from Oxford Street – Land Securities has focused on using retail in central locations as an anchor for high-end office developments. And it seems very likely to succeed. Cheapside has a further 12 building schemes on the cards that will add more than 150 new retail units, helping to transform the City at weekends from sleepy ghost town to Rees’s vision of a thriving 24-hour hub.

Some see this as a threat, and it is easy to be nostalgic for the old City, with its quaint street names and narrow winding alleys, home to independent purveyors of goods to the discerning gentleman. But in truth, the change has already happened. One block east of Nouvel’s glassy pile, the crooked shop fronts of Bow Lane sport exactly the same high-street brands – from Eat to Pret, Jigsaw to Jones – as any other part of London, only clothed in a ye olde Disneyfied skin.

To the north of St Paul’s sits an interesting lesson for the traditionalist lobby, in a development that provides a direct comparison with One New Change and reveals the strangely promiscuous tastes of City planners. Richard Rogers was working on a plan for Paternoster Square in the late 1980s until Prince Charles intervened, implying the design was more offensive than the rubble left by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz.

He waged a successful campaign to have Rogers replaced, and the resulting outcome, completed in 2003, now stands for all to see: a William Whitfield-planned square surrounded by a kitsch assemblage of loosely classical blocks, chunky office buildings in a strained variety of ill-fitting fancy dress costumes.

Prince Charles also attempted to have Nouvel removed in 2005, but Land Securities held its ground. Who knows what he would have preferred to “allow St Paul’s to shine bright”, but the likely outcome would have been severely more compromised than what we see today. For, in all its fissured bulk, One New Change has a powerfully singular tectonic ambition, in sharp contrast to the usual City hotchpotch of mannered neoclassical, pseudo-modern, and hi-tech gothic. While each of its neighbours tries desperately hard to be “polite”, riffing on an imagined sense of decorum, Nouvel’s gleaming brown hulk makes no bones about its own brash manners, and is a refreshing departure from its neo-Georgian predecessor – which Pevsner described as reactionary “almost beyond comprehension”.

The exotic geometry of this strange new arrival will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but it has opened up new routes across what was once an impenetrable mass and has an invigorating confidence lacking in much of the rest of City. For this, it must be applauded.

Project team

Concept architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Delivery architect Sidell Gibson Architects, Client Land Securities, Structural engineer Arup, Services engineer Hoare Lea, Cost Consultant Davis Langdon, Lighting Consultant Speirs & Major, Construction manager Bovis Lend Lease

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