Turning yellow at AHMM's new Monsoon headquarters
Its bright cladding gives Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s Yellow Building a distinctive exterior, but as a working environment the interior of this headquarters for clothing retailer Monsoon is a missed opportunity
Heading west from the extravagant villas of Landsdowne Road and Holland Park, this leafy swathe of west London luxury is left behind surprisingly quickly as Notting Hill descends into “Notting Dale.” In the 19th century a notorious slum boasting its own lagoons of pig waste, it can be described today more usefully with reference to the works of Ballard than of Dickens. Cut off by the elevated Westway to the north and the sunken West Cross route to the west this corner of flat land is home to a sprawl of light industrial sheds, small terraced housing and bricky council estates. The vast blank wall of Westfield shopping centre is visible across the traffic ditch, but until a pedestrian link is constructed the retail paradise can only be reached with a lengthy detour south to Shepherd’s Bush roundabout or, of course, by car.
In the seventies the area was known for the attempted independent state of Frestonia, a haven for freaks, hippies and punks squatting in old workshops and houses along Freston Road. More recently the property pages have been excited about the area as an outpost of Shoreditch style live/working in west London. The main catalyst of this is the new business park dubbed “Notting Hill Village”. This mixed-use development lines the busy motorway with large new office and studio buildings and has its own new private road linking two existing side streets off Freston Road. Later phases will integrate the development into the lower buildings to the east with residential apartments, a hotel and workshops.
Part of the reason for the excitement is the hotshot reputation of the team behind the complex. The ubiquitous Allford Hall Monaghan Morris is the architect, known for its portfolio of sleek colour-coded buildings that have raised the standard for large commercial projects. Its Stirling Prize-nominated Westminster Academy certainly shines next to the generally execrable outcome that is the average PFI school building.
Over the last decade the firm has been an important practitioner in the re-use of existing buildings in London, especially as workspace for the creative industries. In a previous collaboration with property consultant Pilcher Hershman, AHMM’s 2004 conversion of a set of 19th century warehouses into the Tea Building in east London’s Shoreditch became the template for flexible industrial space let by creative businesses in the capital.
To put this rather niche market into context, a few hundred metres to the south of the Tea Building in the City a very different type of office space dominates: the speculative office building with deep, serviced floor-plates favoured by Anglo-Saxon financial services firms. Codified by the British Council of Offices, this normally takes the form of a Category A classification rentable shell and core space ready for fit out. Given the current contraction in the commercial property market the strategy of stripping-down the typical office building to be more like a warehouse to provide cheaper space seems prescient. The architect’s information pack on the Yellow Building rather ambitiously claims that it represents just such a new paradigm, the “white collar factory”. In its peripheral site it promises to be an interesting experiment, a detergent to mix the oil and water of the creative and corporate working worlds.
The creative business in question is Monsoon Accessorize, a high street clothing brand with its origins in a Portobello Road clothing stall run by founder and director Peter Simon. AHMM first worked with Simon on the conversion and rehabilitation of a derelict British Rail depot into the Monsoon headquarters, completed in 2001. Built against the Westway, this wonderful example of streamlined brutalism from 1968 by Bicknell & Hamilton was dubbed “the battleship”. Originally offices for a British Rail maintenance depot, the sculptural block was sympathetically converted to characterful spaces for the clothing retailer.
Outgrowing this building and with a growing art collection, Monsoon decided to re-locate further west to a purpose-built headquarters that could also have a buffer of short-term leased space for the company to expand and contract. Taking over an unambitious planning permission for a low-rise business park, AHMM focused on setting about making the new iconic headquarters from scratch. Formally this was achieved by a combination of three elements, the concrete diagrid structure that wraps the seven-storey building and its inner atrium, the yellow striped curtain walling and the factory-like sawtooth roof that bears a happy resemblance to a defunct Monsoon logo.
Arriving at the Yellow Building from the southern end it becomes clear I have approached it from the wrong angle; due to the vertical solar louvres the beautiful yellow colour baked on to the spandrel panels is mostly obscured. A bulky aluminium-clad service block takes up almost the whole of the southern facade and entering the building from its open south-east corner I am informed it is the wrong entrance. Walking up Nicholas Road, so new it does not appear on any map, I am confronted with a glazed shell awaiting its restaurant tenant. This tall pavilion is topped by a slice of concrete emmental that shoots into the north-east Monsoon entrance before landing behind the reception desk.
A bunch of crusty G20 protesters are smashing in the glazing of a bank on the giant back-projected screen in the lobby. Heartened to see the spirit of Frestonia in action I sign for my security badge and pass through the security turnstiles. Groups of angular lounge chairs on the glossy floor are distributed around the atrium and the large art installations of the collection. Carsten Höller’s Mirror Carousel and Soo-Ja Kim’s Bottari Truck laden with colourful bundles of cloth occupy the eastern arm of the double height cruciform space that functions as the heart of the organisation. The carefully curated collection is characterised by contemporary art from South America, Africa and Asia to acknowledge the ethnic inspiration of Monsoon and its reliance on textile workers in distant countries.
Periodically the work is moved from the atrium to stage fashion shows that can be surveyed from above. Glass balustrades lean over from surrounding mezzanines and steel truss bridges connect north and south corners. Currently in use as office space, the first floor is the intended space for the installation of mock shop fit-outs. Under the mezzanines the ground floor corners enclose various service and training rooms and a staff café on the north-east corner. Above this, the main axis of the atrium is north-south, a tall vertical slot runs the entire height of the building with a further five levels of 18m-deep open-plan floorplates arranged on either side. Not quite generous enough to be convincing as a central atrium, it is lit from above by large circular roof lights interspersed with circular ventilation extract grilles. Steel bridges span the slot with truss section stairs making open connections between the levels.
The reason for my initial confusion on arriving becomes clear: moving up the cascading set of stairs to the rather mean “break out spaces” on the bridges, some floors have been sealed off from the rest of the building. Monsoon occupies approximately 7,500sq m on the lower and upper floors sandwiching the remaining 4,500sq m of rented space. This is accessed from the drab south elevation through a separate entrance. It is a tale of two angles, one for the bright sparks of Monsoon and one for the floor-filling shlubs who take up the slack. Imprisoned behind fretted glass these fee-paying goldfish cannot partake of the life of the building.
Structurally, environmentally and economically the building does make a good case for a stripped down office with minimal linings and suspended ceilings, especially in these business park environments. Cores are pushed to the outside, mainly into a bank on the south facade to block direct sun and provide shear walls.
A smaller singular core sits on the northern end of the axis. The finish of the exposed concrete diagonal struts and soffits is good, and the use of post-tensioned floor slabs minimises floor depth. The diagonal structure as vertical support and lateral bracing is economical and, by a simple adjustment of the shuttering, tapers towards the top.
At roof level a yellow-painted steel frame branches off the concrete frame to support a large folded factory roof of inclined trusses. Although sealed from its surroundings due to the pollution, the building has a low energy alternative to natural ventilation using the height of the atrium for a displacement ventilation system supplied through the floor. It also uses the thermal mass of the exposed structure to stabilise the temperature.
Despite sounding like a great idea on paper and with a set of alluring publicity shots that show off the bright yellow stripped facade, the reality is disappointing as a working environment, and for a moment even Simon Allford looks unconvinced after our rapid tour of the Monsoon Headquarters. It seems an opportunity has been missed, the speculative function does compromise the function of the building as a bespoke headquarters. In the most successful roof top space with its outdoor porches and open views, designers work in tall and light spaces but they desperately need walls to organise and display their piles of patterns and fabrics. Lacking the qualities of a generous warehouse space that can be easily configured to smaller work spaces or for larger communal activities or events, the flexibility is more to do with property management than use. Attempts at creating a working utopia are often a failure, one honourable example is the communal swimming pool at Foster’s Willis Faber building in Ipswich now covered over and used as extra office space. It is a shame that a dynamic organisation does not feel confident enough in its future to invest in such facilities for its staff.
The creation of the business park as an “urban village” is overly optimistic, even when the public restaurant is open will the young staff at Monsoon hang out there rather than head to Portobello Road? As an attempt to give a commercial development a kind of counter-cultural credibility by way of marketing and branding, it is surely misplaced. Compared with the Yellow Building, AHMM’s phase two “White” and “Grey” office buildings are just that, stripped down not just of their quality but of their life-giving colour.
Architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Clients Nottingdale/Monsoon Accessorize, Contractor Laing O’Rourke, Structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor, Project manager and cost consultant Jackson Coles, Service engineer Norman Disney & Young