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Thursday31 July 2014

Moved up to club class

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When planning consultant DP9 wanted to transform a tired building in London’s Pall Mall it turned to architect de Metz Forbes Knight for something a little different

On London’s Pall Mall, home of the Athenaeum, Reform and RAC clubs, the only concession to the modern age is the group of besuited renegade smokers standing on the pavement. But it is also where we find the new headquarters of planning consultant DP9, whose influential developer clients are building, among others, KPF’s Helter Skelter, Richard Rogers’ Cheese Grater and Terry Farrell’s Lots Road development. So it’s a firm that doesn’t shy away from inserting the new in the old, a philosophy it’s now announcing to the world with a new office and reception by de Metz Forbes Knight.

When DP9 outgrew its small offices in St James’s, the partners decided to move into a space they could convert and configure for their own purposes. The prestige of having 100 Pall Mall as its address was a major draw, but the space available was dowdy, unmodernised and boasted a badly conceived concrete mezzanine. Built to accommodate a dealing floor, it ran straight across the windows of the southern facade, and left the space feeling claustrophobically dark. As a result, when the bankers moved out, it stood not let for nine years.

The partners of DP9 originally intended to have the whole refurb carried out as a contractor-led design and build, but came to the conclusion that the property’s fundamental problems were going to require a more imaginative approach. Despite rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with the cream of the UK’s architectural establishment, they turned to young London firm de Metz Forbes Knight which DP9 had previously worked with on the offices of Nicola Horlick’s Bramdean hedge fund to review the contractor’s submitted design.

The contractor had tucked the reception into the single-aspect west wing and did little to deal with the intrinsic problems of the mezzanine. The practice settled on a plan that placed the reception area on the building’s corner in the east wing with a dual aspect and entrance on Pall Mall. “We created a smart public face at the front of the building, while allowing the day-to-day office spaces to remain back of house,” says partner Paul Forbes. This solution resonated with a consultancy keen to provide a striking reception and meeting room area for its high-profile developer clients and their architects.

The prestige of having 100 Pall Mall as the address was a major draw, but the space available was dowdy and unmodernised

 

And it’s an approach that worked. Once through the door, visitors are greeted by a light, airy, double-height reception space. Floors are huge slabs of raw Italian travertine, laid in the order in which it was quarried, to let the grain run evenly across its whiteness. The floor leads to a reception desk of seamless white Staron, an acrylic surface from Samsung. To the right, wall panels of grey Armourcoat resin delineate the two levels of meeting rooms, separated from the reception by full-height glazed partitions.

Behind you is artist Sophie Smallhorn’s abstract “fuzzy felt” artwork on square felt panels. It was originally based on a pixellated image of the Gherkin, another DP9 project, but the artist has abstracted it beyond all recognition. Bare light bulbs in the modernist tradition hang in a grid from single wires.

The concrete beams have been sprayed in prickly white vermiculite, an original touch that emphasises the floor-to-ceiling clearance. Of an £880,000 contract sum, it’s clear that a significant proportion was spent here.

The stairs set behind this art wall lead to the upper level meeting rooms. The strip lights sharp and minimally detailed have been set neatly flush with a standard suspended ceiling. The chairs are classic Eames, and the flooring is laid with sparkling white resin-bound marble chips. The rooms are linked by a generous connecting corridor, similarly laid, running to the office areas at the rear.

There are essentially two offices: a highly controlled space as DP9’s public face, and a loose-fit free-for-all
in the private areas

 

Beyond the public face, in the office areas, the architect’s influence is felt more in the general structural space planning than in the details. Locating the reception space to the east elevation allowed it to cut away the whole mezzanine slab from the south elevation. This reveals the windows fully and creates a double-height space across the whole width, flooding it in south light. Cutting the mezzanine back on the north side also revealed the previously obscured courtyard rooflight.

Eating, washroom and recreational areas, which were in general controlled by the contractor, are more basically specified, with a particularly intriguing choice of patterned carpets, whose mildly dizzying effects are most felt where they abut one other. The £400-a-pop Holophane pendant light fittings the architect specified rapidly bit the dust during value engineering, but the contractor-specified diffusers nevertheless remain an acceptable alternative.

The working spaces at DP9 are an interesting comment on trends in office spatial planning. There’s no clinical Chadwick-like hot desking going on here. Looking down from what’s left of the mezzanine, messy desks are surrounded by cardboard storage boxes bursting with reports. It’s a world away from the highly ordered space planning of the towers DP9 is being consulted on. The partners’ offices, beneath the mezzanine but adjacent to the main office, are set behind floor-to-ceiling glazing, a physical expression of hierarchy that panders to traditional divisions.

The architect’s collaboration with the contractor has produced a space strangely charged by its own contrasts. There are essentially two offices here: a highly controlled architectural space as DP9’s public face, and a loose-fit free-for-all in the private areas DP9 is clearly happy inhabiting both worlds.

For more office studies go to Project Gallery at bdonline.co.uk/bdmagazine

Suppliers’ details

Felt walls: Johanna Daimer gMBH; Furniture: sofa by Zanotta, table by Desalto

Ceiling: Vermiculite sprayed onto coffered concrete

Meeting room floors: resin-bound marble by Surtech

Wall: Armourcoat; reception desk: Staron by Samsung; lighting: Wever & Ducré from WD Lighting; flooring: Navona travertine slab from Diespeker

‘We didn’t want funky’ Julian de Metz, partner, dMFK

We chose open-pore travertine for the reception area flooring, as it’s typical of 1930s stripped classical buildings — it’s even in the RIBA. We love it. It has a lot of variation and depth, but it also masks dirt and staining.

Resin panels
We wanted to contrast this with contemporary materials. On the back wall we liked the idea of concrete, but there were problems with loadings, as the space is above a basement. In the end we decided on an Armourcast resin panel system built on a frame.
The other wall is made of felt panels. It’s a soft material that contrasts with the hardness in the space and provides acoustic absorption.

Sprayed ceilings
We wanted the concrete ceiling coffers exposed, but some of the concrete had come away, and repairing it led to colour differences. That made us go for vermiculite. It’s a mineral spray that covered the repairs, and provided more acoustic attenuation.


With the Samsung Staron reception desk, we wanted a seamless look, which precluded a panel system. It’s a cast, weldable, seamless material that gave us what we wanted.
DP9 is delighted. The design concept was about communicating its professionalism, so it’s deliberately not “funky”. This was never going to look like an advertising agency.

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