Friday18 August 2017

The Loom, London by Duggan Morris

  • Email
  • Comments (1)
  • Save

Duggan Morris has respun a former east London wool warehouse as a 21st-century office through an elegant balance of intervention and restoration. Ike Ijeh reports

Today the East End of London is synonymous with many evolving architectural typologies but one of the most familiar and fashionable is the converted industrial warehouse. In the 19th century, east London was the only district in south-east England able to match the industrial powerhouses of the great northern cities and this legacy has left its high roads, backstreets and wharves littered with hundreds of the brick warehouses that were once its towering tenements of trade.

The post-industrial story of these buildings follows a familiar pattern of decline and rebirth. Initially collapsing into dereliction when industry declined in the 1950s and 60s much of this fabric experienced a renaissance from the 1980s onwards that saw multiple conversions into offices and flats. This in turn gave birth to the astonishing cycle of gentrification and economic and cultural renewal that has left many of these warehouses at the pinnacle of trendy desirability among the creative industries that have colonised the East End.

How can the building’s original industrial character be maintained while delivering a new architectural identity all of its own?

As warehouse conversions have become so ubiquitous, the task from an architectural perspective becomes a very specific one. How can the highly coveted brand of the building’s original industrial character be maintained while delivering an efficient and viable redevelopment solution, as well as a distinctive new architectural identity all of its own?

This is the challenge enthusiastically met by one of Duggan Morris Architects’ most recent schemes. The Loom provides 100,000m2 of new offices in a converted Victorian warehouse in Whitechapel, just east of the City. The warehouse was built in 1889 as a wool storage warehouse, hence the name. It had a smaller twin building across the road which still exists today but is outside the current development.


Source: Jack Hobhouse

The scheme converts former loading bay access into a new main entrance

In 1954 declining industry and the economic ravages of two world wars signalled the closure of the wool house and its redeployment as a paper and later wine storage facility. Unlike many similar buildings in the area, the building was not allowed to fall into dilapidation but was converted into an office in the 1980s. However, architecturally the conversion was largely unsympathetic, with a kitsch, ocean-liner-like entrance lobby inserted into the ground floor.

The ongoing redevelopment of neighbouring Aldgate and a changing workspace culture eventually pressed for changes and in 2013 Duggan Morris was appointed to devise a masterplan for the building’s wholesale redevelopment.

Duggan Morris technical director David Storring defines four main objectives for the project: “We wanted to turn the building orientation around and create a new entrance. We wanted to create a new internal street connection. We wanted to provide new commercial super-units that would make the project economically viable by attracting large anchor tenants. And we wanted to give the building a new architectural identity.”


Source: Jack Hobhouse

New lintel and gate detailing references loom weaves


The first and final points are evident on the exterior. The building’s architecture is typical of the warehouses in the area. Five storeys of plain, unadorned brickwork are rhythmically punched with a combination of shallow arched casement windows and narrow bays of gantry platforms, through which retained high-level bracket cranes once hoisted shipments directly into the building.

It is a pure and incredibly effective architectural palette and the stoic muscularity of these utilitarian brick blocks, nostalgically appended with their elegant, leaning gantry cranes, offers a masterclass in the power of scale and simplicity. It has also contributed much to the enduring charisma of both old and new London.

Wisely, the new scheme leaves the exterior virtually untouched. There are a handful of new independent entrances for commercial units but the main new features are the entrances, one on either side of the rectilinear block.

The main entrance is formed from reconfigured former loading bay access. This new entrance faces onto the adjacent under-construction Goodmans Yard development in Aldgate and thereby represents the reversed orientation Storring referred to, cleverly anticipating the street activity that will be generated here once Goodmans Yard is complete.


Source: Jack Hobhouse

The entrance lobby forms part of a new internal connection referred to as the street

It also offers evidence of Storring’s “new architectural identity”. The entrance is formed by a new horizontal ground floor opening that leads to a recessed alcove in which stairs lead up to a screen of glass and steel doors. This deep recess mimics the punched reveals that are such a significant hallmark of the facades and provides a welcome opportunity for public realm to flow into the building, momentarily relieving the hard pavement-edge footprint that is a marked feature of local grain. This is good street-level engagement.

The gates offer a chic textural counterfoil to the brickwork

The alcove is screened by svelte woven metal gates and it is these that form the principal external architectural intervention. The effect pays homage to the looms that would once have woven the wool stored in the building and which are a recurring conceptual driver for the new architecture both inside and out. The lintel detail above the opening is also inspired by this loom concept, with its distinctive dogtooth course figuratively clamping onto the gates below like a masonry zip.

The gates themselves are formed from the same raw sheet metal that lines the internal face of the alcove and from which the subsequent screen and doors are made. With the subtle patination of shading evident on its various laser-cut strands, as well as the gradual widening of perforations as the gates rise higher to enable ventilation from extracts discreetly concealed behind, the gates offer a chic textural counterfoil to the brickwork, but one that rightly retains the same robust industrial aesthetic. They are a finely judged and gently assertive intervention that remains entirely sympathetic to the building’s heritage and character, a convincingly executed tightrope manoeuvre.


Inside, the entrance leads to a linear lobby which extends to a smaller entrance at the other end. This is the “internal street connection” element of the concept. Accordingly, it is animated by a cafe at one end, accommodated by the lobby widening in the manner of a town square at the end of a boulevard. The oiled metal panels extend from the alcove to line the internal walls, offering a monochrome contrast to the white painted surfaces elsewhere. And in the centre an atrium extends the full height of the building towards an upgraded rooflight at its summit, with every level encircled by balconies on which the loom detail of the gates is replicated.

The “street” is undoubtedly an improvement on its postmodern forbear and the continuation of the metalwork provides a visual and techtonic consistency with the entrance outside. But with its white walls and minimalist detailing the space feels perhaps a little too sharp and sterilised for the rich, granular warmth of the brickwork outside – rather like an alien visitation from another building. It is telling that the most inviting part of the street is the cafe end where original brickwork and steel columns are on display.


Source: Jack Hobhouse

Refurbished workspaces retain historic features such as exposed brickwork and steel columns

The final project objective concerns the delivery of the commercial super-units, and the internal layout delivers three of these. The 1980s redevelopment created a cellular-unit arrangement, but by cleverly combining these across the building, the new plan offers a more flexible and open arrangement and a mix of letting conditions. This transformation was in part helped by the original building plan. In a 19th-century solution to fire compartmentalisation, the building plan was split into three sections by 1m-thick internal “risk walls” that spanned the building’s full height. At various places these offered a natural boundary for the larger super units. Fortunately, despite being a grade II-listed building, many of the previous internal partitions were a consequence of the 1980s refurbishment and could therefore be removed without contravening heritage status.

The redeveloped building is characterised by a subtlety and restraint that leaves room for the fine original architecture to breathe.

The units themselves are simply appointed with exposed original brickwork and retained steel columns. Generous floor-to-ceiling heights have been retained at the reasonable expense of the central spine corridors where suspended ceilings conceal additional plant. One of the chief benefits of the warehouse typology is its large windows and these offer a generous supply of natural light to the new units.

Storring is reluctant to summarise the project as a “light-touch conversion” and when studying the extent of internal wall demolition and layout reconfiguration it is easy to see why. But there is no doubt that with the possible exception of the “street”, the redeveloped building is characterised by a subtlety and restraint that leaves room for the fine original architecture to breathe.

This must in no way be viewed as an abdication of responsibility, because to preserve original character is an architectural decision too, and a justifiably humble one. But it does render the areas where a more invasive architectural approach has been taken more interesting – which is why the new entrance is arguably the most effective expression of the design intent. And if we take this to be the case, then the new development has successfully walked the difficult line between conservation and imagination that is the perennial goal when refurbishing our architectural heritage.



Readers' comments (1)

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

sign in register
  • Email
  • Comments (1)
  • Save
Sign in

Email Newsletters

Sign out to login as another user

Desktop Site | Mobile Site